In November last year, two supporters got in touch with the fundraising department of Cats Protection. They were gamers, they explained, and they wanted to fundraise for the charity through a sponsored Twitch stream. There was just one problem.
"Does anyone know what a Twitch stream is?" the person who took the call asked the rest of the office.
As it happened, Donna Forster, the charity’s digital fundraising officer, did know something about Twitch, the online platform where people can watch their favourite gamers complete a game accompanied by a live commentary, and sometimes pay for the privilege.
"My husband has been into Twitch for about four years, so I’ve listened to him ramble on about it, and I’ve been aware that they do huge fundraising streams over in the US," she says. "But it hadn’t ever really clicked that it was something we could do."
When Forster began to think about it, she realised there was an unexpected connection between her charity’s cause area and the online gaming community.
"I realised that many of the gamers whose videos I’d watched had cats," she says. "And when the cat wanders on to the screen, the fans who are watching go wild.
"So I know it can make money, I know they love cats and we’ve got supporters who are actively asking for it. Why wouldn’t we look at giving it a try?"
Cat Protection’s "gaming for good" scheme, Pawsome Players, was launched in May. This year, it hopes to bring in about £16,000 from game play, but Forster’s ambition for next year is to develop it into a six-figure revenue stream.
The charity is one of many looking to break into the gaming market, which could offer a way to work collaboratively with a whole new category of
supporter, including tech-savvy millennial and Generation Z donors, who have proved increasingly hard to reach in recent years. It’s a lucrative space to harness: the global gaming industry was worth $137.9bn (£108.4bn) in 2018,
according to the gaming analytics company Newzoo. In the UK alone, an estimated 37.3 million people are gamers, and the UK games industry generated £3.5bn in 2018.
Savvy charities have already tapped into the enormous potential of gaming. A typical "livestream" allows the viewer to see the gamer’s face and the game in real-time. During a fundraising stream, the streamer completes a challenge – such as playing for a set amount of time or doing a "speedrun", where they try to complete a game as fast as possible – all the while promoting the charity to their followers and urging them to donate.
Livestreams on Twitch and YouTube have become the most common way for charities to harness the fundraising power of gaming, with Twitch estimating that more than $100m (£79m) has been raised through the platform since it was launched in 2011.
It’s something the gamers themselves have embraced. In the US, which is home to 178.7 million gamers, charitable fundraising has become an integral part of the gaming community. A livestreamed fundraiser run by GuardianCon, an annual gaming convention in Florida, raised $3.7m (£2.9m) for the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital before the convention even started.
In the UK, uptake has been a little slower, although there have been some standout campaigns by streamers with significant followings. Tom Cassell, better known as Syndicate, raised more than £164,000 for the Motor Neurone Disease Association from his 2.7 million Twitch followers in 2015. And Harry Brewis, known online as Hbomberguy, raised more than £275,000 for the transgender charity Mermaids last year by taking part in a 57-hour marathon stream of his attempt to complete the game Donkey Kong 64.
Leon Green, co-founder of the strategy consultancy Yaku Labs, says there has been a tendency in the UK to wonder whether gaming for good is a passing fad.
"It’s something that pops up every year or so and gets people talking, but it hasn’t 100 per cent taken off yet," he says. But recently, he adds, the idea has come back to the fore – and this time it’s different. "The change in technology has meant the ability to deliver on it is more streamlined and less haphazard than in the past," says Green, pointing to platforms such as Tiltify, the Twitch-specific payment mechanism.
The rise of the gaming influencer – popular streamers such as Syndicate and Hbomberguy, who have more than nine million and 440,000 channel subscribers respectively – has had an impact. "In the past, setting up big fundraising events required dealing with companies," says Green. "Now it’s gamers and influencers, who are more accessible, don’t have the same lead times and might have lived experience in your charity’s area.
"Streaming of gaming and the whole culture around it is here to stay. It’s not going away – in fact, it’s getting bigger and bigger."
As a gamer himself, Green says that part of the culture revolves around giving and gamers are keen to donate.
Forster agrees, saying that charities aren’t even really asking donors to change their behaviour, particularly those who might donate through watching a well-known streamer.
"They’re used to tipping their favourite streamers through Tilitify, sending them money as a way of showing support, but here it goes to a charity instead," she says. "They also get instant recognition and gratification – they give to a stream and the streamer immediately thanks them by name."
Natasha Stone, head of emerging markets at JustGiving, says the involvement of many charities in gaming for good has been donor-driven.
"I found a lot of charities had organic gaming support and were coming to me asking what guidance we had," she says. "It was hard for them to give advice and stewardship on something they didn’t really understand."
This prompted the online fundraising platform to launch its Gaming Hub in February, which provides information for charities about how to support gamers, as well as resources and technical guidance for the gamers themselves on setting up streams. The response has been huge, with more than 300 inquiries from charities in the hub’s first two weeks.
One of the attractions of streaming for charities, Stone says, is that it is relatively cheap: gamers will use their own equipment, just as if they were doing a physical activity such as a bike ride, so the only big costs are marketing.
One of the earliest adopters in the British market was Macmillan Cancer Support, which launched its Game Heroes scheme in 2015, challenging supporters to play for 24 hours, alone or in groups. Kirsty Hobbs, senior marketing manager at Macmillan, says the charity saw a gap in the sector after the success of such events in the US, adding that it has provided "a fantastic opportunity to engage with an entirely new group of people".
There are health and wellbeing considerations involved. Safety concerns have been raised about the effects of sitting in front of a console for such an extended period of time, and Macmillan suggests doing the challenge as part of a team or breaking it up into smaller chunks if necessary. It also offers players advice about taking regular breaks and staying hydrated during the challenge. So far, Game Heroes has bought in more than £1.5m for the charity.
Other charities are tailoring challenges to align with their overall messages. The housing charity Shelter got in on the act last November with the launch of its scheme Level Up, which encourages participants to game for at least 135
minutes – that is, one minute for each family that becomes homeless every day in the UK.
Like many charities, Shelter was initially approached by gamers, says Marja Möller, digital fundraising advertising manager at the charity. She says it’s been an exciting way to connect with new audiences.
"Gamers love it and it’s been really collaborative," she says. "For example, at first our tools were available only through Twitch, but a gamer came to us saying they preferred to use YouTube, so we started to develop that."
Charities can also involve their corporate partners in their gaming
programmes, says JustGiving’s Stone, offering them a competitive office gaming day playing football games instead of running a 10k race, for example.
The games studios themselves can also make for supportive corporate partners, offering livestreams of their latest games in aid of charity, or donating their games as "Humble Bundles", a scheme in which multiple games are sold together at a discount, with a portion of the money going to charity.
For some, gaming for good extends beyond the concept of raising money. The aid charity War Child (see right) has undeniably led the field on partnering with game companies, having worked with developers since 2006. In 2016, it employed a dedicated gaming partnerships manager, and has created fundraising and awareness campaigns where players in combat games can exchange their guns for a more peaceful alternative, such as a snowball.
Alzheimer’s Research UK, meanwhile, has used gaming to advance its cause. In 2016 the charity launched Sea Hero Quest, a mobile phone game
developed in partnership with the tech company Deutsche Telecoms in which players navigate a boat around water mazes. The navigational data users generated was then studied to identify early warning signs of dementia.
"People with dementia have navigational problems from early on in the
disease process," says Tim Parry, ARUK’s director of communications and partnerships. "If we’ve got a really detailed picture of what ‘normal’ looks like across the population, we can see how people with that level of dementia perform against it."
The initial expectation was that about 100,000 people would play the game and share their data. In the end, the charity got four million sets of user data.
The key, Parry says, was that the game was fun. "You can’t make a game that people feel sorry for, that they do out of duty," he says. "You’ve got to create something that people want to play and will give 10 minutes or an hour of their time for."
As a gamer himself, Parry warns that charities looking to get involved in gaming partnerships, game development or streamer fundraising "can’t just blunder in and say ‘we’re a good cause and you should help us’. You’ve got to have a bit of an understanding of how the gaming community works."
The experts Third Sector spoke to for this article offered the same piece of
advice for charities that are seriously looking to break into gaming for good: don’t try to fake it.
It might be that you already have the expertise you need internally, as Cats Protection found, when it asked for volunteers to help develop Pawsome Players and discovered a wealth of knowledge across the charity. "Make the most of the resources under your nose," Forster says. "Lots of people game, but they won’t tell you about it."
But don’t give up: Shelter, Macmillan and JustGiving all say they worked collaboratively with developers and gamers to create their offerings.
"Immerse yourself in the gaming community," Möller says. "We spent time getting to know it, attending the meet-ups and conferences. The space for
gaming is getting bigger, so don’t be afraid to try something new."