Hopeless versus hopeful — why many campaigns on refugees fail

Children play on a playground inside a Syrian refugee camp 25km from Antakya near the border with Syria, in Boynuyogun, Turkey, March 27, 2012. Syrian refugees have been fleeing the conflict at home for almost 2 years now. As they cross into neighboring countries, the towns and villages on the borders have seen a remarkably different daily existence. There is gunfire in the distance and refugees streaming through continuously. There are FSA fighters who keep their family outside and come to visit, and smugglers who have made a living bringing supplies across the border. Some of the Syrian refugees go to nearby camps and others end up staying in the towns. All of these people have changed the daily lives of these border towns, and with no end in sight, the villagers have adapted to the new way of being.

What crisis gets the least donations? Syrian refugees, earthquake victims, or people affected by famine?

It might be surprising, but Syrian refugees are at the bottom of the donations list.

But why is that? In a recent article in The New York Times, entitled ‘Why Don’t You Donate for Syrian Refugees? Blame Bad Marketing’, the author Charles Duhigg explores the issue of charitable donations, and what makes people want to give to certain causes more than others. He delves into positive marketing, and says that part of the reason people don’t often donate to causes concerning refugees is that the crisis feels overwhelming and insurmountable. People want to feel like their money is going to something tangible and helpful. To sum up, the Syrian refugee crisis has been a victim of bad marketing.

Children play on a playground inside a Syrian refugee camp 25km from Antakya near the border with Syria, in Boynuyogun, Turkey.
If you had to choose between donating to a campaign showing a photo of a street child with the words ‘please help’, versus one with a student that said ‘future teacher’, which one would you choose? If you chose the future teacher, you would not be alone.


In the article, Duhigg talks to Scott Harrison, the founder of Charity: Water, an organization that has been an innovative marketer in the area of philanthropy. Harrison suggests that instead of donating to a crisis which seems unchangeable, give people something they can say they helped with — donating blankets, clothes, or books for kids. That way, a person handing over their cash/time/resources can feel like they are making a clear positive change on a crazy issue.

From stories on the Charity: Water webite

There are a lot of creative uplifting ideas that NGOs can do to make people feel involved. It’s not to say that any crisis should be sugar coated, but there are ways to help an audience understand an issue, feel good about helping, and become emotionally invested.


For example, take the video Vignette produced for the International Rescue Committee ‘We All Have Dreams’. We simply asked refugees in Greece about their dreams. The idea was to show the sad and happy moments together, and that at the end of the day, everyone has similar dreams. We wanted viewers to feel emotionally connected to the people we interviewed, and, in turn, would want to help the IRC.

For UNICEF Libya, Vignette worked to help get the word out about their polio vaccination campaign. We created an animated video of a Lion Hero that gave children drops of vaccines making them immune from an evil wizard. It was a positive take on a serious issue, but people responded to it extremely well — it was widely viewed on television and online, and the audio was used in radio spots all over the country.

In large global crises, it’s important to highlight the problems, but a small dose of positivity in NGO campaigns is helpful and can really go a long way.

By Tara Todras-Whitehill

Tara worked as a staff photographer for the Associated Press for four years in the Middle East, covering the uprisings, revolutions and numerous elections in the Arab world. Her photography has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic and Washington Post, among many others. She also works on personal projects focused on women's issues. Her passion is trying to portray strong women changing their lives and the world around them.


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