'The blind shall see - and you can watch': does digital storytelling raise more money for charities?

The early results from a broadcast of a cataract operation by SightSavers have been positive

Winesi March sees his grandson for the first time
Winesi March sees his grandson for the first time

One afternoon last October, the sight-loss charity Sightsavers sent out a text. "In one hour, Winesi March, who has been blind for two years, will see again. Set an alarm on your phone for 13.20 and don't miss the moment he sees his little grandson for the first time."

Many of the people who received this turned to their computer screens or mobile phones an hour later to watch March, a 69-year-old in Malawi who had been blind for two years, having his bandages removed after a sight-restoring operation.

The live stream the charity had intended to broadcast did not go ahead because of a power cut in Malawi, but footage was later published online. Many had already tuned in the day before to watch the operation in which March's cataracts were removed and his sight restored. It was broadcast live on Google+ and on the charity's website, and has been watched by 78,000 people.

The ambitious endeavour, undertaken to launch Sightsavers' largest-ever appeal, A Million Miracles, is one of the latest examples of the increasing trend for charities to use digital storytelling techniques to engage with their supporters.

While Comic Relief and Children in Need have been showing donors the impact of their donations through video since the 1980s, technological advances mean that other charities can now broadcast videos that showcase their work in real time. Sightsavers is thought to be the only one to have done this successfully so far; WaterAid aimed to broadcast live video of a well being drilled in Malawi as part of its Big Dig appeal in 2012, but ended up sharing it after the event as the costs of live streaming were too high.

Another feature of this approach is that the storytelling device is often in the hands of the field workers or beneficiaries, so the story is not being carefully curated by the charity. The Big Dig is again a case in point: two WaterAid field officers used the photo-sharing app Instagram to blog live with their smartphones from the remote communities of Kaniche and Bokola.

A new charity, the Misfit Foundation, which was formed in February, is developing an app that it plans to sell to charities and gift to those who can't afford it so they can replicate this approach with their own programme work.

In another attempt to disintermediate the fundraising process, some charities are putting donors in direct contact with beneficiaries on social media. Tobin Aldrich, chief executive of the Misfit Foundation, says it intends to use Twitter and Facebook to do this once its new website, Directgiving.org, has been launched in October.

Some of Christian Aid's church-going supporters have been able to discuss their bible studies with beneficiaries on Skype since 2013.

So what effect does increasing contact between the donor and the beneficiary have on donations? Marcus Missen, director of communications and fundraising at WaterAid, says that cash supporters who responded through the Big Dig appeal's blog page converted to regular giving at almost double the charity's average conversion rate and at a value almost 60 per cent higher than usual.

At the same time, the average gift of the charity's most engaged high-value supporters almost doubled. A survey by the charity found that 37 per cent of supporters rated "the fact that I could see my gift in action" as "very important" in persuading them to donate.

The results from the broadcast of the Sightsavers cataract operation have also been positive: the charity is already halfway to its target of raising £30m over its three-year Million Miracles appeal, even though it launched it less than a year ago.

Innovative techniques to engage donors will no doubt prove successful as long as they remain a novelty and capture the media's attention, but it is less certain whether the momentum will endure if they become standard practice.

Tim Longfoot, managing director of the advertising agency Open Fundraising and a trustee of the Misfit Foundation, says: "The press wrote about A Million Miracles because it was a world first and was really exciting," he says. "That's not going to happen again.

"But I suspect Sightsavers raised the bar with that appeal and that level of connection is going to become something a lot of donors want and expect, even when it's not on the media agenda."

Fundraising in this way can make it harder to communicate overhead costs to donors because it could encourage them to view the work they are supporting as self-contained projects.

The Misfit Foundation aims to overcome this, Aldrich says, by detailing clearly on its website the proportion of each donation that will go on overheads rather than directly to their programme work. Precisely how that proportion is spent – whether on maintenance of the website or staff salaries – will also be disclosed.

WaterAid and Sightsavers say they did not communicate or structure their interactive appeals differently from usual.

The digital storytelling trend shows few signs of abating. Yet Kieron Kirkland, director of the Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology, warns charities against seeing it as the answer to all their fundraising problems. "This is a better way to communicate because it follows what consumers expect to see right now – the replacement of corporate messaging with more personal and authentic stories," he says.

"If this gets people's attention right now, that's really good. There's no magic bullet. It will not necessarily increase or decrease donors' motivation to give – but it will increase their engagement."

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