It is difficult not to feel sympathy for Sir Bob Geldof. Since he relaunched the Band Aid charity single to help fight the Ebola virus in West Africa, the rocker-philanthropist has faced a barrage of criticism about both his approach to fundraising and his portrayal of the region, despite shifting more than 312,000 copies of the track in its first week, making it the fastest-selling in the UK this year.
Doing more harm than good?
Detractors claim that, coming 30 years after the original Band Aid track, the approach of gathering assorted pop stars for a charity single is outdated and patronising. Fuse ODG, an English musician of Ghanaian descent, explained in The Guardian that he had declined an offer to sing on the track because the song reinforces a negative, downtrodden stereotype of Africa. Adele and Lily Allen similarly refused to perform on the single, while Blur frontman Damon Albarn dismissed it as a superficial measure that could potentially do more harm than good. Sandra Miniutti, vice-president of marketing at charity watchdog Charity Navigator, told Bloomberg Businessweek it was “troublesome” that Band Aid 30 does not make it clear who will receive the money raised.
Geldof described criticisms of Band Aid 30 as “bollocks” in a recent Sky News interview, and in some ways the figures support his single-mindedness. The track reached number one in more than 60 countries last month, while pre-orders alone raised £1m within minutes of it making its debut on ITV’s The X Factor.
Research released earlier this year by the Universities of Manchester and Sussex also found that while celebrity endorsements often fail to boost engagement with charities, the same does not apply to fundraising events such as Band Aid or Comic Relief, which score highly on public awareness. Geldof claims he revived Band Aid in response to the United Nations’ statement in September that $1bn (£640m) is needed to stop Ebola spreading, of which it had raised only $100,000 a month later.
Charity marketing today
So what does the Band Aid 30 debate say about charity marketing today? Is it possible to raise large amounts of money quickly while also boosting people’s deeper understanding of a particular cause?
Richard Hatzfeld, communications director at charity End7, which seeks to combat the global spread of seven tropical diseases, believes his charity has hit upon a more effective formula for overcoming this dilemma. It launched its biggest ever marketing push last year when it created an online video featuring celebrities such as Hollywood actress Emily Blunt and Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra. Entitled ‘How to shock a celebrity’, the video shows their reactions as they watch footage of the diseases, before the same footage is shown to the viewer.
“The whole definition of what a celebrity is has changed for the youth generation, so working with YouTubers and bloggers seems much more authentic. We get much higher returns that way”
Liam Hackett, Ditch the Label
The video has so far received 600,000 views and raised more than $400,000 (£255,000) for the charity, though Hatzfeld claims the approach is different to initiatives such as Band Aid because of the focus on longer-term engagement. In addition to the main social networks, End7 uses specialist online platforms such as Upworthy to encourage people to share its content and debate the issues around it. The charity also focuses on creating follow-up videos that show in detail how the money raised is used on the ground. The celebrity campaign led to a significant increase in End7’s Facebook following, from around 10,000 fans beforehand to 70,000 afterwards.
“We have a robust set of recurring donors as a result, and we maintain our communications and build our community that way by showing them the proof of their donation and the work we’re doing,” explains Hatzfeld. “You can’t just have a one-off like Band Aid and expect that to fix all the problems.”
Geldof’s plea last week for people who had already downloaded the Band Aid 30 track to “delete [and] download again” revealed the need to raise money instantly, rather than build engagement with a wider base of people over a longer period. In an interview with Radio 1, he noted that because single downloads on iTunes cost only 99p, a significantly higher number of people would have to buy the single this year than they did in 1984, when a single cost £3.50, if it was to approach the same fundraising total of £8m.
Geldof said: “We need to sell 300% more than we did [in 1984] to even begin to make up the cash figure.”
Using online stars
Social media commenters were quick to scoff at Geldof’s lack of technical understanding, given that people who delete and then re-download the same track on iTunes are not charged twice. But it would be wrong to claim that Band Aid 30 is completely stuck in the past. The advent of social media has lent the song a key viral element that did not exist 30 years ago, with each of the track’s performers able to amplify its reach via their own huge followings. Geldof even drafted in YouTube stars Zoella, Alfie Deyes and Joe Sugg to sing on the latest version and thereby extend its reach across their young audiences.
Anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label is similarly in favour of using influential online stars, though it does so as an alternative to traditional celebrities. Last month, it launched a social media fundraising campaign with the help of various online influencers including YouTube vloggers Kaelyn & Lucy and Vine star Daz Black.
Ditch the Label founder Liam Hackett says that this approach is more cost effective for a relatively small charity such as his, but also more appealing to its target audience of young ‘digital natives’.
“The whole definition of what a celebrity is has changed for the youth generation, so working with YouTubers and bloggers seems much more authentic,” he says. “We get much higher returns that way.”