Innovation & Design

Make Poverty History - Passion Statement


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 ubiquitous

as 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?


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