I had the opportunity recently to hear Jasmime Whitbread, the CEO of Save the Children International, the aid organization founded in 1919 by Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928) giving a talk to a group of young people who want to work in non-profit organisations. Save the Children is a fantastic example of success in the sector. It is a massive enterprise, working in more than 120 countries to support over ten million children annually.
Whitbread did a marvelous job of explaining how support for large-scale international NGOs is changing in ways that these ‘digital natives’ will understand perhaps better than the rest of us – by the increasingly intitmate-yet-chaotic communications landscape of YouTube and the internet more generally.
The example she highlighted was the organization’s Most Shocking Second a Day Video, which was released in March to call attention to the urgent needs of children in the Syria crisis, and the fantastic work Save the Children is doing there. The video begins with the birthday party of a London school child and shows, in one-second-per-day-increments, how quickly the happy safety of a child’s world can deteriorate and be replaced by the fear and anonymity of life in a war zone. Whitbread took a straw poll of the audience, and it turned out that most of the young people in the room had already seen the video – perhaps unsurprisingly, since it has reached (as I write this in late April) nearly 30 million views on YouTube. What was most surprising, she told us, was the fact that no one knew that this particular video was going to ‘go viral’. The organisation has a strong track-record in using powerful – and often beautiful images to communicate the urgency of its work. And of course, the production team made every effort to make a video that deserved to be shared round the world so enthusiastically. But remains a mystery exactly why this particular video went viral when other similarly brilliant did have not.
Historically, Save the Children have shown a remarkable ability to create a sense of connection between the world’s children and their supporters in distant countries. One of the most interesting opportunities for the modern organisation is stream-lining the arrangements for sponsoring individual children, since digital communication is not only cheaper but more immediate. (The organisation has an enviable record for finding ways to keep costs low.) Over the decades the Child Sponsors programme has been an important pathway for donors to ‘connect’ emotionally with the organisation’s work. It has also been a way for the children and their families who benefit from its programmes to contribute, in a real and indispensable way, by inspiring and motivating donors all over the world with their photos and messages. One can imagine all sorts of wonderful opportunities for this contribution to really ‘take off’.
One of the most fascinating moments for me as a historian came when Whitbread was asked how important the small donations by individuals really are. Her response was electric. ‘That money is like GOLD dust to us’, she said – it’s those small gifts in large numbers that provide the base-line from which everything else can grow. Grants and large gifts from major donors tend to be restricted to specific projects or areas, she went on to explain. But the support from private individuals tends to be unrestricted, which means it can be used to respond swiftly to changing needs and priorities. And the fact that the support is coming from so many people gives it a sort of statistical predictability by comparison to larger one-off gifts and grants. All this means that communicating with small-scale supporters – and mobilizing us to do what we can – is even more important than it seems.
So let’s hope that the videos continue to go viral. In the mean time, get out your pocketbook!