WORKSHOP: Case study - MSF UK campaigns to free aid worker

Annie Kelly

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Background: Arjan Erkel, the head of mission in Chechnya for the medical aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres UK, was kidnapped in the neighbouring Russian republic of Daghestan on 12 August 2002.

In the seven months since his kidnapping, the Russian government has failed to provide any information about why he was abducted or by whom.

The charity hoped to increase the pressure on the authorities by galvanising public support for its campaign to free Erkel.

Aims: MSF UK wanted to launch an immediate, cost-effective campaign that could reach a large number of supporters very quickly. It decided to launch a global petition to Russia's President Putin and the president of Daghestan in February. The internet was also used to try and raise the public profile of the campaign.

Even though it had been slowly building an online database, it was the first time that the organisation had used email to communicate with its previous and existing donors.

James Kliffen, head of fundraising at MSF UK, co-ordinated the UK campaign.

"An online petition seemed the perfect medium to express the depth of support by many ordinary people for Erkel's release," he said. "Though we have a team dedicated to seeking his release, it was important for Erkel's family and MSF as a whole to step up public pressure."

How it worked: The petition was launched at a press conference in Moscow on 12 February, using the medical aid agency's international web site, www.msf.org, as its main focal point.

Justgiving Mail was appointed to create a customised email campaign, which included the petition and information on Erkel's abduction.

The email was fashioned as a letter from the charity explaining the importance of public pressure to try to secure the Russian authorities' support in gathering more information on his whereabouts.

The charity emailed around 4,000 addresses in the UK and the email was also sent out to all registered users on its international site and 19 national sites across the globe. The email also asked recipients to pass the petition on to friends and families.

Results: More than 1,560 signatures were collected from the national campaign.

Within seven weeks, the international online petition had secured more than 268,616 signatures, which accounted for 79 per cent of the total number of those who signed the petition.

The organisation is confident that the Russian authorities will now take action to secure Erkel's release. It also intends to use email marketing in future campaigns following the success of the campaign. "We believe that email can amplify hugely the impact of our existing communications by allowing stories to reach supporters straight from the field almost in real time," said Kliffen. "The impact of a genuine first-hand account of the work that donors are paying for is huge."

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