4 great development advocacy campaigns

Water is Life’s online campaign that went viral features people in Haiti reading tweets tagged #firstworldproblems. The campaign raised awareness and funds to help solve a real developing world problem — the lack of access to clean, safe drinking water. Photo from: Lindsey Hutter / Water is Life

Many nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits are doing great work across a range of development sectors, but the impact and scale of their development initiatives is often dependent on the amount of support they can mobilize — both financial and otherwise.

Advocacy campaigns are critical to effectively mobilizing this support. Aside from raising awareness or helping build a brand and relationship with stakeholders, these campaigns can attract donations, garner enough signatures to back a petition or draw crowds to an important event. A well-planned and well-positioned campaign has the capacity to trigger wide-scale behavioral changes and even affect and influence government policy.

But what goes into an effective advocacy campaign? While some funds are of course necessary, good campaigns need not be expensive and are more about the hard work, creative thinking and energy you put into them. A strong advocacy campaign has well-researched and clear objectives and a detailed strategy and plan for reaching them. Organizing one requires a creative and multidisciplinary team and selection of the right channels. While traditional print and television remain popular, digital technology and social media have given rise to an alternative communication channel that is cheaper, more dynamic and even more powerful.

Despite budget constraints, many nonprofits have employed successful campaigns, through both traditional and digital media. Oftentimes, it’s all about the idea and the smart use of technology to communicate an important message in new ways. There are many examples of great advocacy campaigns out there, but here are a few the Devex team thought were particularly interesting and effective over the years.

Earth Hour (2007-present)
By: World Wide Fund for Nature & Earth Hour

Earth Hour has been called “the world’s largest grass-roots movement for the environment.” Video by: Earth Hour

What started as a local lights-off climate change awareness event in Sydney, Australia has evolved into a full-fledged movement aimed at mobilizing support for climate action and environmental issues across the globe. The WWF-backed annual event — going on its 10th year in 2016 — is still centered on the simple act of people uniting and turning off their lights for one hour, a symbol of their commitment to the planet. But the campaign has also gone way “beyond the hour,” having helped influence policy and change environmental legislation in six countries.

The high-profile campaign has been called “the world’s largest grass-roots movement for the environment,” with more than 172 countries participating in the 2015 event. The ongoing success of Earth Hour holds many valuable lessons for those interested in campaign scalability and sustainability.

Hashtag Killer (2012)
By: Water is Life & DDB New York

Water is Life turns an old hashtag on its head. Video by: Lindsey Hutter / Water is Life

In the age of digital media, “going viral” refers to something that becomes popularized or circulates rapidly on the Internet. This is what happened to Water is Life’s online campaign, which hijacked the popular #firstworldproblems hashtag used ironically on social media to complain or whine about trivial frustrations experienced by the privileged. The campaign raised awareness and funds to help solve a real developing world problem — the lack of access to clean, safe drinking water.

The campaign was centered on a video that showed Haitians, many of them orphaned, standing against the backdrop of their poverty-stricken country reading some actual #firstworldproblems tweets. The juxtaposition of a young man standing in front of his small, run-down house saying, “I hate it when my house is so big, I need two wireless routers,” is poignant and effective in turning the old hashtag on its head. By riding on an already trending hashtag and topic on social media, the organization was able to engage with a much wider audience at a very low cost.

Sweetie (2013)
By: Terre des Hommes & Lemz

Terre des Hommes and advertising agency Lemz turned a creative endeavor into a solution. Video by: Lemz / Terre des Hommes

Sometimes a creative undertaking can provide an effective, out-of-the-box solution to a complex problem. This is what happened when Lemz, an Amsterdam-based advertising agency, partnered with child protection organization Terre des Hommes to tackle the global child trafficking and sexual exploitation problem in a new way. They used an interactive 3D animated character – a 10-year-old Filipino girl named Sweetie — to bait webcam sex tourists and catch them in the act.

The sting operation allowed them to trace the identities of 1,000 online predators from 71 countries. A global PR campaign was then launched to share the findings and hand over the information to Interpol. Aside from bringing the world’s attention to the prevalent but largely invisible webcam sex tourism problem, the campaign that eventually won 12 Golden Lions and the Grand Prix for Good at the Cannes Lions International Festival for Creativity helped push governments to act. It eventually led to legislative changes, investigations in the Philippines and arrests of pedophiles across Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom.

The Autocomplete Truth (2013)
By: U.N. Women & Memac Ogilvy

A simple, accidental idea got the whole world talking about an issue people thought was long over. Video by: U.N. Women

By suggesting the terms that are most commonly searched for, the Google autocomplete function provides honest insight into a society’s prevalent attitudes and beliefs. After Dubai-based advertising agency Memac Ogilvy stumbled upon a disturbing and shocking set of suggestions while doing research on gender equality, an award-winning U.N. Women campaign aimed at exposing gender bias was born.

The series of ads was based on genuine Google search bar suggestions, proving that despite living in the digital age and despite decades of progress, gender equality remains a very relevant issue. The campaign’s objectives were to serve as a wake-up call and spark a debate — both of which it achieved when it went viral all around the world — inspiring copycat ads and prompting people to check and share their own Google autocomplete results, using the hashtag #womenshould.

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About the author

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    Liana Barcia

    Liana is a Manila-based reporter at Devex focusing on education, development finance and public-private partnerships and contributing a wide range of content featured in the Development Insider, Money Matters and Doing Good newsletters. She draws from her experience in business reporting and advertising to generate coverage that is engaging, insightful and relevant to the Devex community.

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