Interview: Lianne Howard-Dace

The community fundraiser at Depaul UK talks about how the charity's iHobo app drew criticism but became a great success

Lianne Howard-Dace
Lianne Howard-Dace

The idea for one of the most successful charity apps came when a member of staff at the communications agency Publicis was stumbling out of a bar in Soho, London.

He noticed that passers-by were glued to their smart phones but failed to notice people a few metres away from them sleeping in doorways.

The sight gave him the idea for iHobo, an app that the agency created for Depaul UK as part of its pro bono work for the youth homelessness charity.

"They can ignore someone in need in front of them, but they can’t ignore their mobile phone – that was the insight that led to the project being developed," says Lianne Howard-Dace, community fundraiser at Depaul UK. She will talk about the app at the convention today.

Since it was launched in May 2010, iHobo has been downloaded 750,000 times and was the UK’s number one app five days after its launch. The free app brought the charity 5,360 new donors who gave £12,600 through the game’s text-to-donate facility and email addresses for 8,500 app users.

Depaul’s website traffic rose 59 per cent as a result of iHobo. The app also helped to generate about £100,000 in  corporate sponsorship by raising the charity’s profile. Media coverage was worth an estimated £2.4m.

One of the secrets of iHobo’s success was controversy. The game involves looking after a virtual young homeless man over three days. He can alert players at any time if he needs help and they can give him money, food, companionship or a sleeping bag. The right decisions can improve his situation but the wrong ones might lead to a drug overdose or death. Critics of the app objected to the idea of a homeless man being a virtual pet.

However, the hullabaloo generated vital publicity, which increased the number of downloads and raised the profile of the charity and its cause. The charity felt the provocation was justified: the hard-hitting situations in the game are based on the experiences of the young people they work with and a focus group of young service users gave their backing to it
before it was launched. "It is shocking, but the lives some of these young people lead are shocking," she says.

Her talk will cover the lessons Depaul learned from developing iHobo. With hindsight, she says, the charity would try to capture more user data and build a stronger relationship with users. It did not release an update to capture email addresses until April 2011 and phoned only those people who had texted a donation at the start of this year, by which time some had changed their phone numbers.

But she cautions charities against building apps for the sake of it. "An app needs to offer people some kind of experience or make their lives easier," she says. "There’s no point building an app that just gives people information. Why wouldn’t they just visit your website instead?"

Apps can either help a charity’s cause – she cites the British Heart Foundation’s healthy recipes app – or generate money, especially if they become popular. "Imagine if a bird charity had created Angry Birds – it would be sitting pretty," she says.

Depaul would like to create a version of iHobo for smartphones using the Android operating system, but needs a developer to do this. It is also working on new digital fundraising ideas with Publicis but does not want to reveal the details until they are more developed. After the success of iHobo, those new projects have big shoes to fill. 


2010  Community fundraiser, Depaul UK

2008  Events and community fundraiser, St Wilfrid’s Hospice, Chichester

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