After nine months during which life has been thrown drastically off course by a force far beyond their control, many people are feeling a sense of powerlessness.
Combined with the squeeze on household budgets created by the pandemic, and the usual struggle to cut through the cacophony of adverts over the festive season, there is a significant difficulty for charity Christmas appeals, which are ultimately about persuading people to help change the world.
The international development charity Traidcraft Exchange aims to tackle all of these challenges in one fell swoop – through its Injustice Advent Calendar.
The charity has partnered 15 other charities, and each day from 1 December until Christmas Eve, people who have signed up to the calendar will receive an email from one of the partner organisations offering them the opportunity to undertake a piece of activism each day.
These will include anything from writing to an MP or signing a petition to reading articles intended to help the user engage with an issue, and will be set by charities including the Children’s Society, Fashion Revolution, Anti-Slavery International and Tearfund.
The only rules for each day’s activism task are that it should take no more than five minutes, and should be free to undertake.
“Every day needs to feel like a really positive experience and like you’re getting something from the advent calendar,” says Jon McNaughton, senior digital communications officer at Traidcraft Exchange.
“I wanted it to feel like we’re giving you an opportunity that’s not going to cost you a lot but means you can start the day feeling you’ve made a little point of difference.”
A donation ask, even tucked away on the ‘Thank you’ page, would quickly diminish the excitement for users, leaving them feeling as though they’re being taken for granted, he says, and if the activity took too long, it would become another administrative task.
“We wanted it to stand out among the Christmas commercialism vibes," says McNaughton.
"You can spend up to £50 on an advent calendar where you get beard oil or perfume or gin, whereas we’re saying supporters are valuable before they’ve given us a penny.”
And practically speaking, he points out, it’s much easier to get people to sign up if you can say from the outset you’re not going to ask for money.
The advent calendar was piloted last year, attracting about 1,800 participants. McNaughton hopes that this year’s calendar will have a particular resonance, and will reach at least 5,000 people, becoming a household name in years to come.
“The way the calendar works is that it actually throws some pretty dark issues your way,” he says.
“There are things like the death penalty and making sure lone children arriving in the UK are looked after.
“But then we invite you to make it slightly better – we’re hoping if life feels extra difficult this year, the ability to make positive change, even in just a small way, will give people some agency and a chance to feel they’re contributing.”
The project also hopes to build on the energy many people have put into completing at-home fundraising challenges, from Captain Sir Tom Moore’s record-breaking fundraiser to people completing the London Marathon independently or coming up with challenges to replace the marathon as part of the 2.6 Challenge.
The idea was born about six years ago, when Traidcraft piloted a fundraising version of the advent calendar.
“It just really didn’t work for us,” says McNaughton. “The idea was that you’d give a bit depending on what you’ve done – so, for example, it would ask you to count every lightbulb in the house and give 2p for each one – and it just fell a bit flat.”
But last year, when the charity was searching for a way to increase engagement during December, it hit upon the idea of the Injustice Advent Calendar.
“We’ve always had this issue at Traidcraft Exchange where November is always our biggest month in terms of donations, web traffic and social media, and then a week into December things just dropped off a cliff and people stopped paying attention to us – it was like a month in the summer,” McNaughton says.
“I think part of it is that Christmas appeals begin at the end of October or beginning of November and we run out of things to say almost by that point – and if you don’t have a massive list of supporters, you get to a point where they’ve heard it all before.”
Last year’s pilot proved that the ‘activism advent calendar’ idea had sticking power, McNaughton says, because, while some people dipped in and out throughout December, 25 per cent of recipients opened every email and the final email had the third highest engagement for the month.
The collaborative element of the calendar has been key to its success, he says, adding to the weight of the message by allowing household names to get behind it, and enabling participants to engage with a wider variety of activities and causes.
McNaughton says he understands why organisations might be hesitant to forgo the fundraising ask this year.
“It does feel like it’s really going to hurt,” he says.
“But when you do make that decision to give something away, it pays you back in terms of the enthusiasm you receive in return and in helping you to stand out.
“There’s no downside to trying to do a bit extra for people. There will be other times to ask for money.”