June 14, 2017; New York Times
Charity is not a zero-sum game. We cheer the success of other nonprofits doing good work. Who does not admire, if not try to copy, the marketing brilliance of Charity: Water? Charles Duhigg, a best-selling author and a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and senior editor at the New York Times, shares his delight with this celebrated nonprofit in “Why Don’t You Donate for Syrian Refugees? Blame Bad Marketing.” Nicholas Kristof was first in praising Charity: Water’s success with marketing in his (2006) New York Times op-ed, “Clean, Sexy Water.”
And therein is the problem with Duhigg’s thesis. Clean water can be “sexy.” The unfathomable misery of the ongoing, impossibly complex, and dangerous crisis of some six million internally displaced Syrians and 4.8 million Syrian refugees requiring humanitarian assistance cannot be compared even remotely to the process of installing pristine water wells in accommodating locations with happy beneficiaries posing for high-end production videos. No one is going to ask a child separated from her parents (are they still alive?) for many months and close to death from trauma alone to smile for the camera. There is no stomach for capturing that “money shot” in Syria where hospitals and schools are bombed.
Duhigg asks, “So why does one of the most important and heart-wrenching issues have so much trouble attracting donations? Blame bad marketing.” To make his case, Duhigg offers us a years-long study conducted by a “wife-and-husband team” team of researchers in Britain. “Ads that convey ‘If you don’t donate, people will die.’ That’s what everyone believes works.” Really? Taking their cue from Nike advertising, the researchers tested various marketing approaches for a charity in Bangladesh and found, “The data was clear. If you can trigger a sense of hope, donations go up.’’ Aside from purveyors of “poverty porn,” who does not already know this? According to Duhigg, “Put differently, it’s not entirely your fault you aren’t giving to Syrian refugees. You just haven’t been manipulated properly.” It is far more nuanced than that crass assessment.
Duhigg writes that to better understand this subject he went in search of a nonprofit that consistently got their marketing right. “Everyone pointed to a group named Charity: Water.” During a visit to Charity: Water its founder, Scott Harrison, explained, “So we came up with some rules: No pictures of crying children or people with flies in their eyes. No using guilt or shame. Only use mottos that people would want to wear on T-shirts.”
“Every piece of marketing has a hero,” said Lauren Letta, Charity: Water’s chief operating officer. “Maybe the hero is a girl in a village. Maybe it’s a drilling rig operator. Or, maybe, if you make a donation, the hero is you.”
Harrison also offers that their marketing is successful because they keep it simple.
“Our approach is that water is binary,” Mr. Harrison told me. “People are either drinking clean water, which is good, or they aren’t, which is bad. We want to present an easy choice.”
Duhigg reports that some professionals take issue with this oversimplification of global water issues. Amanda Seller of the International Rescue Committee thankfully offered why the Syrian war does not lend itself to “binary” and “easy” choices, let alone “mottos that people would want to wear on T-shirts.” “Wars and man-made disasters are really hard,” Ms. Seller said, “because sometimes you can’t tell the victims from the perpetrators or how long it’ll last.”
Writing in his “Adventures in Capitalism” column, Duhigg is undeterred. “We need more philanthropies that raise funds by mimicking the tactics of Madison Avenue.” Duhigg asks Harrison how he would improve sample Syrian refugee fund-raising campaign materials he brought along on his visit.
“These are all pictures of sad kids, crying women, scary statistics,” Mr. Harrison said. “What kind of success stories can I tell? And what is success? How do we know when things are getting better?”
Duhigg imagines that if Charity: Water created Charity: Refugee, the marketing “would most likely feature a photo of a child who has carved out a successful life in the chaos. It would be hopeful and optimistic.” That could be 12-year-old Syrian refugee Hanan Dacka, who carried the torch for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Or that could be 18-year-old Yusra Mardini, who competed in the Olympics after saving the lives of 19 fellow refugees by swimming for three hours, pushing her nearly capsized dingy to safety. But neither of these two authentic heroes is any charity’s poster child. They are not defined by their circumstances.
Duhigg concludes his column by offering a glimpse of what great marketing would look like for a Charity: Refugee campaign.
It would help you sleep at night, instead of giving you more to worry about. It might even have a catchy phrase that looks great on a T-shirt. And it would persuade more people to donate. Which, right now, might be what matters most. It would, in other words, be a great piece of marketing.
Great marketing might work for Charity: Water, but war and its terrible aftermath call for truth and clarity. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHVR) partners with more than 900 NGOs, governmental institutions, and other United Nations agencies in the face of 65.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world today. This number includes 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. Each of these organizations sign on to these Principles of Partnership, which say a lot about equality, transparency, result-oriented approaches, responsibility, and complementarity, but nothing about marketing. UNHCR and its partners are raising billions of dollars from governments, UN and pooled funding mechanisms, intergovernmental institutions, and, to a much lesser extent, the private sector. Smart marketing won’t do much to help solve the Syrian refugee crisis.
According to their latest IRS Form 990 on GuideStar, Charity: Water raised $35 million in contributions in 2015, down from nearly $44 million in 2014. That would not go very far in Syria or to help refugees elsewhere. Charity: Water’s YouTube channel indicates that the video that received the most views (904,453) was produced nine years ago featuring the actress Jennifer Connelly. Save the Children produced this video with no celebrities three years ago showing what war does to children. It received 57,466,271 views. The video begins by depicting a beautiful child enjoying life with her family. It ends one minute and 33-seconds later (a second-a-day video) with this same girl hardly recognizable, separated from her parents, sitting in a hospital ward traumatized beyond description.
Charity: Water does important work and their marketing is exemplary. Go to their homepage and you’ll be reminded to make a Father’s Day appeal front and center on your homepage as well. Duhigg’s thesis that Charity: Water’s marketing successes have anything to say about what is needed to keep the world aware of and concerned about the Syria refugee crisis is simplistic, poorly researched, trivializes the suffering, and belittles the great work that UNHCR and its more than 900 partners are accomplishing on the ground and in their respective marketing campaigns.—James Schaffer