Could comic fundraising campaigns be the antidote to donor fatigue?

An event by Comic Relief, an organization that has successfully used comedy in its fundraising appeals. Photo by: Kai Chan Vong / CC BY

How many times has a global development fundraising appeal made you laugh out loud, or even smile? Comedy or uplifting stories are rarely used by nongovernmental organizations to promote their work, mainly because poverty and the other issues they seek to alleviate simply aren’t funny. In an era where public support for international aid is declining, isn’t it time NGOs tried new tactics?

But changing the way organizations publicly present development is not a new agenda.

Since 2013, for example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Narrative Project has been working with some of the world’s largest NGOs to change the way the sector talks about itself. It’s research revealed the public is tired of charities’ constant focus on suffering, which makes people feel beneficiaries are helpless “others.” It also revealed individuals don’t believe poverty can be alleviated, because appeals rarely report positive impact.

Yet many international NGOs continue to use traditional fundraising approaches that perpetuate such messages.

One organization campaigning for change is the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund. SAIH, which supports education and advocacy projects in southern Africa and Latin America, hit international headlines in 2012 after releasing a spoof fundraising appeal asking Africans to donate radiators to freezing children in Norway.

The Radi-Aid video quickly went viral and has amassed almost 3 million views on YouTube. It parodied the 1984 Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and implied if the only images of Norway broadcast around the world showed people struggling in harsh winters, others might well believe it was a country in need of support.

Awarding the best and the worst

The success of the comic music video prompted SAIH to launch annual awards for the best and worst global development appeals. This, SAIH President Jørn Wichne Pedersen explained, is part of its attempt to end negative and unhelpful portrayals of people in the “global south.”

“Fundraising should not be based on exploiting stereotypes, and if there are poor people in the video, they should be portrayed in a respectful manner,” he added. “We’d like fundraising videos to be creative to wake up people. I would love to see, for example, videos portray the changes people are doing, and what needs to be done more of, to show the true development that’s happening.”

Pedersen said comedy is a useful tool because it prompts people to share messages, particularly on social media. In addition, he noted that positive messaging motivates people to take action.

“When you have laughed you’re more likely to believe in a new perspective — the walls you have built around yourself are lowered and you start reflecting,” he suggested.

Last year, the awards nominated Oxfam for a Golden Radiator Award for an appeal video that showed the positive impact its rice growing programs have in Liberia. The woman featured on the film smiles through much of the clip and is portrayed as a capable individual.

Voters, who could choose the winner through an online poll, gave the top award to Save the Children U.K.’s “Most Shocking Second a Day” video. Although this one was not lighthearted, Pedersen said it worked because it closed the gap between people’s experiences in Syria and a Western audience.

However, the jury was highly critical of the videos nominated for Rusty Radiator Awards — those considered perpetuating negative stereotypes. It said Concern Worldwide’s Hunger Stops Here video promoted “every stereotype about malnutrition, and tries to encourage giving and donation out of guilt.” It was left “speechless” by Save the Children USA’s “The Most Important ‘Sexy’ Model Video Ever” and described Feed a Child SA’s advert as “completely ‘White Saviour.’”

Pedersen said the awards are growing every year. SAIH also hopes to keep raising awareness on improving development appeals by producing communications guidelines. This autumn it plans to host international civil society organizations at a conference to agree good aid communications protocol.

Go further: Buttress humor with a serious message

Some development NGOs have used comedy or alternative fundraising appeals successfully for several years. Comic Relief is among the best known, having raised more than a billion pounds since 1988. It is known for its Red Nose Day appeal, which includes a televised night of comedy and entertainment. This is punctuated with short films portraying need in developing countries.

Comic Relief CEO Kevin Cahill said the formula has worked for his organization, but warns that getting the balance “between being entertaining and telling the important stories of the people benefiting from donations ... is a huge challenge.”

Cahill said in recent years the charity has made a more conscious effort to focus on progress, positive change and transformation in developing countries. This year the appeal day in March featured a project in a clinic in eastern Uganda, where local people, community leaders and district authorities had worked together.

“That project really showcased the skill, knowledge and commitment of local people to make a difference,” he said. “This was a really important step for us at Comic Relief, in giving those affected a voice and a profile.”

But advertising agency Different Kettle Creative Director Dave Sturdy believes Comic Relief needs to go further.

“The way it presents [its beneficiaries’] stories is very hard and goes against what a lot of organizations are trying to do,” said Sturdy, whose clients include Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Oxfam. “I find it uncomfortable. It plays on guilt because ultimately you want people to support, and horror is a good way to get them to give, but it’s not doing much in the long term to help them have a broader understanding.”

Sturdy’s advice for NGOs is to use approaches that humanize beneficiaries. He says shocking images can push people’s emotions and make them donate, but such tactics do not turn people into long-term givers. He advises charities use softer communications to people who are already supporters.

“If you don’t, people will dread every time they get a mailing and not open it because it will depress them,” he said.

The best way to use comedy, Sturdy suggested, is to follow it with a serious message.

“You have to have a good reason for why you’ve done it,” he said, citing a leaflet his company produced for Amnesty, which was distributed at a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender march in the U.K.

“It was a big leaflet with a long truncheon on the front — the immediate thing was a bit of a nob gag,” he explains. “But underneath was a slogan: Gay is not a stick to be beaten with. We were having our humor but at the same time underlying a message, which made it quite powerful.”

He also said charities can use comedy to address difficult subjects in a direct way. Ten years ago he worked on an Amnesty legacy fundraising campaign where instead of trying to speak delicately about supporters leaving donations in their wills, comedian Michael Palin said: ‘‘One day I’ll be dead as a parrot but my beliefs will live on.” By referencing his famous Monty Python sketch, the actor diffused any potential offence.

Amnesty also has a long history of working with comedians. For more than 15 years it has held shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland — one of the largest arts and comedy events in the world. Andy Hackman, its head of community organizing, events, human rights education and artist relations, said the approach helps the organization reach a broad audience and is the perfect frame for stories about freedom of speech.

The charity works with artists by handing them information about individuals who are suffering human rights abuses, and allows them to create material based on their stories. For example, for many seasons the subject was Burmese comedian Zarganar, who spent 11 years in prison after mocking the Burmese government’s response to a cyclone.

“The Edinburgh festival wouldn’t be allowed in lots of places around the world,” Hackman said. “It’s a way of introducing notions of human rights and turning them from concepts a bit of reality for people.”

Amnesty trusts the comedians not to offend or denigrate other’s free speech, but also does not censor what they produce.

“Our job when we’re briefing people is to make sure they understand that context,” he explained.

Far less common in development is using comedy within program delivery. One of the few NGOs to do this is Clowns Without Borders, which travels to crisis areas around the world to perform comic shows.

“We partner with relief organizations and local community groups to address the psychosocial needs of a community in crisis,” board member Anne Olivia Eldred explained. “We interact with communities in a variety of ways, with performances and parades, workshops and classes.”

Eldred said the organization depicts its beneficiaries authentically as experiencing joy as a result of what the charity delivers, as well as “the context those big smiles are happening in. … We work with brilliant, strong, resilient people in really bad situations, and try and portray them as brilliant strong resilient people in really bad situations that we can help with,” she explained. “Development organizations could benefit from showing more complete pictures of their beneficiaries.”

What are your thoughts on using comedy or uplifting stories in fundraising appeals? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Gabriella Jóźwiak

    Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.