How Viral Video Is Transforming Charity

By Peter Draw, CEO of Present App

Last year's Ice Bucket Challenge raised more than $100 million in donations for the ALS association in less than a month--and, along with them, serious questions about the role of viral video in charity.

Critics charged that the structure of the challenge "made charity an afterthought" by encouraging participants to avoid donating through a stunt. Others in the ALS community called the viral challenge superficial, pointing out that videos could hardly be said to "raise awareness" when very few of them even mentioned the disease at all. A bucket of ice water doesn't teach anyone about the experience of ALS sufferers, many of whom lose the ability to speak, eat and breathe.

It's still unclear who actually started the challenge (it wasn't ALS). But whomever they were, they were part of a wave that's been sweeping the nonprofit scene: Viral video is changing the way we raise money online. Increasingly, potential donors stream their news and entertainment via video apps. As of this January, the video platform Vine counted 1.5 billion views of its video loops each day, up from a little over 1 billion since last October.

Video charity campaigns aren't going away--but we can work to make sure that they spread a more substantive message than last year's ice-water-soaked celebrities. Here are four ways I've found charities can make their videos more than just memes:

1. Engage with the issues.

Charity: Water, a titan in the digital fundraising space, is an organization dedicated to bringing safe, clean drinking water to people in need. The company's founder, Scott Harrison, has long managed to tap into a younger donor base using viral video and partnering with YouTube celebrities like PewDiePie, the goofy gaming commentator who happens to be the most followed video blogger on YouTube. Harrison has a background in promoting clubs, and has said that he took naturally to the use of social media for leveraging support. "I like to say that 'we show and we don't tell,'" he told The New York Times in 2012. "Rather than tell you about a child walking for five hours a day to get drinking water, we'll show you online."

Unlike many of his competitors, he's done so without sacrificing substance. In 2011, this video of Rachel Beckwith, a nine-year-old girl whose last wish was to raise money for the charity, went viral long before the Ice Bucket Challenge. The video helped Charity: Water bring clean water to more than 37,000 people in Tigray, Ethiopia, and also educated viewers about the issue of clean water access--all without resorting to stunts.

2. Evoke real-world experiences.

The #GiveThem20 challenge is a new campaign organized by American Corporate Partners (ACP), a company helping soldiers transition into post-military careers. The challenge calls on viewers to film themselves completing 20 reps of any exercise, from pushups to sit-ups, and then post that video online, challenging two new friends in the process. It's a fun way to bring to mind the soldiers' basic training experience and drills. And, unlike the ice bucket challenge, it's actually related to the issue for which it's attempting to raise awareness. Participants so far have included Jimmy Kimmel, The New York Mets, and Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who has also worked with ACP to start a five-week bootcamp to help veterans break into the TV industry.

3. Take advantage of new technology.

Jon Stewart is also taking advantage of video through his charity event "Night of Too Many Stars," a comedy fundraiser that helps pay for schools and services that benefit people with autism. Comedy fans who give ten dollars online will be entered in a sweepstakes to spend the night at Judd Apatow's house in Los Angeles and be directed by him in a six-second Vine. Apatow posted a (NSFW) video from the Sony lot in Culver City announcing the news in what looked like his office, with story notes posted to the walls, and wondering out loud what Vine actually is. This tactic seems particularly savvy on Stewart and Apatow's part when considering that their audience skews slightly older than that of most video-sharing apps. (The median age of Daily Show viewers in 2014 was 40.5.) Through Apatow's tongue-and-cheek co-opting of Vine, he's bringing the two communities together in one fell swoop.

4. Aim for empathy

The organization I co-founded, Mothers For Nepal, is attempting to apply all of these insights to our own video charity. Mothers for Nepal uses the social video journaling app I developed, Present, to bring aid to earthquake survivors in that country. The magnitude 7.8 quake that struck Nepal last April resulted in more than 7,000 deaths and untold amounts of infrastructural damage. When a second disaster hit the country only two weeks later, Singaporean entrepreneurs such as Haslinda Ali, Chen Xiu Huan and Elim Chew came together to launch this initiative, designed to show mothers and children who have lost one another that they are not alone. Donors shoot video pledges on Present and post them to Twitter under #mothersfornepal. They also invite three other mothers to join the campaign. By allowing all mothers to put themselves in Nepalese mothers' shoes, the campaign aims to encourage empathy with earthquake victims, and spur greater levels of engagement and action.

Of course, the use of social media and the Internet for fundraising isn't new. However, thanks to non-profits like Charity:Water, #GiveThem20, and Mothers for Nepal, it's evolving towards a new kind of engagement, one that integrates real substance and meaning with financial results. I am proud to be a part of that trend.

With contribution by Sarah LaBrie of Hippo Reads.