The charities we choose to support say a lot about us. Consciously or not, we prioritize and decide which charities mean the most to us, just like we do with a consumer brand.
Occasionally a single cause captures the public imagination, as Make Poverty History (MPH) has; its symbolic white wristband has become as ubiquitousas iPod earphones or the latest Harry Potter book, and is in itself a fashion statement (or as Richard Curtis, one of the UK charity's patrons, prefers to call it, a "passion statement").
MPH is a charity set up to lobby the G8 summit to increase aid and reduce debt in Africa. To raise awareness, Nelson Mandela spoke to a crowd filling out Trafalgar Square in London in March earlier this year. While to a spectator the patchwork of banners from many different charities, trade unions and even churches displayed across the square may imply that the simple message of MPH had been hijacked by a multitude of different agendas, this diversity is the whole point of MPH: it is in fact a brand front representing over 460 member organizations.
"Brand" and "charity" -- many people still feel uncomfortable uttering these words in the same breath. Some of the members that make up Make Poverty History's coalition still feel uneasy about combining the two. But as Live8 (a worldwide series of concerts staged to focus the world's attention on decisions being made at the G8 summit) proved in July, Make Poverty History is a brand, and a powerful one at that.
Make Poverty History is the UK arm of a wider, global coalition. The Global Call to Action Against Poverty (G-CAP) was launched in September 2004. It's led by Oxfam, Action Aid, and many less well-known national organizations. Most countries (Australia and Denmark among them) have adopted the MPH nametag to front their campaign; the US equivalent campaign is called One. However, all the national campaigns share the same aim and have adapted corporate branding techniques to get their messages heard.
It starts with the coalition. The coalition brand model is becoming a strategic template for high profile charity campaigns. Jubilee 2000, a predecessor to MPH, lobbied for an elimination of Africa debt five years ago by creating a coalition of charities. The Stop the War Coalition mobilized organizations and protestors from all walks of life against the Gulf War two years ago. Similarly, the G-CAP coalition allows its members to retain their identities and differences but join forces around a shared agenda.
Mergers and acquisitions usually come about in the commercial sector for strictly economical reasons (no matter what the press release might say to the contrary). It's usually hoped that the brand can plaster over the divisions. The charity coalition on the other hand is purely brand motivated. It's set up to enable a single big idea to be filtered simply, powerfully and consistently.
But the coalition creates a different set of problems. For instance, who decides what's on the agenda and what's out? Some charities (including the Southern coalition of Jubilee 2000) have refused to support MPH, arguing that the G8 itself is unaccountable and that the aims of the charity are too simplistic. Then there are the tricky problems around representation. Some (including music artists like Damon Albarn and Peter Gabriel) have been critical of the lack of African artists playing at the large Live 8 concerts. There's also the even thornier issue of deciding who's in and who's left out of the coalition. According to a report from Red Pepper magazine, the MPH steering team has vetoed the Stop the War Coalition's application to join them, because they don't feel their agendas are compatible. Which is probably right: one ill-fitting organization could alienate part of its audience.
In reality, no coalition can please everyone, especially if it's trying to mobilize a fragmented, brand-shy charity sector. By necessity, MPH has opted to follow the lead of successful corporate brands, by sticking to a simple powerful idea that people can easily relate to and connect with. But without doubt, MPH's profile has also been greatly propped up by celebrities like Bono and the support of heavyweight names. (Nelson Mandela is an ambassador of the cause.)
Richard Curtis, screenwriter of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and founder of UK charity Comic Relief, has undoubtedly been instrumental in bringing these big names together and pulling in favors from his address book. He persuaded Bob Geldof, the public face of Live Aid, to organize Live 8. In addition to the impact of the concerts, Geldof has become a focal point for the personality hungry media to latch onto.
But the charity truly comes into its own once people sign up to support the cause. Periodically, supporters are sent emails or texts prompting them about what they can do next. The ‘net has proved to be a tried and tested way of mobilizing supporter activism for WTO protests. MPH has just refined this process for a mass audience. In June MPH asked its registered members to email their G8 finance minister; a million emails were sent in five days.
There's one more fundamental way that MPH (and coalitions before it) differs from most brands and even charities: MPH isn't asking for money. MPH exists purely to raise awareness and create support. And support is made simple and easy. People are asked to show their support for the message in any way they can, whether that's by writing letters to a member of parliament, attending a march or just wearing a wristband.
On the plus side, this makes it easy to create a large groundswell of support with very little effort, and the awareness generated has been enormous. In the weeks leading up to the G8 summit, every UK paper was discussing the issues. More pointedly, in less than 12 months, MPH has gone from nothing to a brand that eight of the most powerful people in the world have heard of. On the downside, if MPH is so easy to support, it's just as easy to forget and ultimately harder to engender deep commitment.
Time will tell if MPH makes a lasting impact. But if brands can contrive an emotional attachment to soft drinks or sneakers, it's only a matter of time before more charities do the same, but more so. After all, what's more real and emotional than putting an end to poverty?