The Charity Online panel at Summer in the City 2014 took place on Sunday. It featured Charlie McDonnell’s mother Lindsay Atkin, YouTube stars Jack Howard and Benjamin Cook, as well as Linda McBain from charity Save The Children. The panel was chaired by Martin Gill from Home Made Digital.
To begin proceedings the panellists are asked what got them involved with charity projects and why they chose to do them. For Lindsay Atkin, working with Save the Children resonated with her childhood when it was known as the Save the Children Fund. “I didn’t actually realise the extent of the amazing work that they do until I started to work with them,” she says.
For Benjamin Cook and Jack Howard, who went on a trip to Syria with Oxfam, it was more about the creative freedom the charity were offering. “It’s nice to be able to do something selfless, but realistically you wanna kinda know what you’re going to get out of it, as harsh as that sounds,” admits Ben. “Otherwise you’d be doing a YouTube charity video every week!
“When they were saying you can pretty much do what you want, I started thinking of a few good jokes I could put in,” he continues. “Half an hour on the Syrian refugee crisis but with jokes about Jack Howard, comedy sketches and stuff. And Oxfam were up for that, which immediately endeared Oxfam to both Jack and I.”
Jack discusses why he chose to parody other charity videos within his Oxfam video. He believes the reason people primarily feel apathetic towards causes is as a result of being bombarded by cliché-ridden shorts and this in turn had resulted in him feeling helpless when he was in Syria.
“I was very honest by saying I didn’t really feel anything,” he says. “It was just so strange to be there and so overwhelmed by it that it was just default; nothing. It was strange to be around such an awful situation and kind of have really nothing to add to it.”
Ben agrees with this and discusses how bizarre it was to arrive and not feel what they thought they should have felt. “Jack and I felt it was perhaps because we’d grown up with charity appeal after charity appeal, sad music and black and white images of children, and we wanted to be honest about that,” he explains.
Because of this Ben emphasised in his video that if his audience couldn’t donate money, that was OK too. “It was important for us to say to an audience, ‘look, just caring can be enough, don’t feel too bad,'” he says. “We didn’t wanna just guilt trip our audience.”
Lindsay uses this opportunity to remind everyone that there are other ways of supporting charities than just donating money, and that for her working with charities has always been about raising awareness. “Use social media to tell people about issues that you really care about,” she says. “Also, lots of charities do campaigning to the government to as for change. Just adding your name and fighting for those children’s rights is as important as giving money.”
She goes on to discuss how strange it is returning to the UK from charity trips, in particular she mentions her most recent travels to Dar es Salaam with her son Charlie McDonnell. “We were in Paddington Station, and we both looked at each other and said ‘Everybody here is so glum,” she remembers. “In Dar es Salaam where you’ve got huge hunger problems, everybody there was so much happier. It was things like that you just don’t expect. It’s those kind of things that hit you.”
This resonates with Ben and Jack, who are reminded of a man who joked he would start fishing after losing his house in a flood. “He’s still making light of it even though he’s in this bad situation,” says Jack. “Whereas in comparison to here, we’ve got whatever to complain about. Oh the bus is late, oh shit!”
The discussion then turns to why charities have started involving YouTube content creators in their causes. Linda McBain from Save The Children believes it’s a very important avenue that more charities should explore, because it gives charities access to huge audiences that are engaged with the particular creator and who would otherwise be bored listening to the stories the charity is trying to tell.
“Charities are really struggling with creating content that will engage audiences because we’re stuck in that quite old school way of doing things,” she says. “Whereas everyone who’s grown up with YouTube gets it and they’re creating the right kind of content. So I think vloggers are of huge value to charities.”
Picking up on the creative freedom that Ben and Jack spoke about earlier, Linda discusses the relationship charities have to have with content creators, mentioning the importance of trust. “If you’re associated you’ve gotta hope that the projects they produce are really good and robust,” she says. “We have certain guidelines if vloggers go out, to make sure they’re not putting anyone at risk. But within guidelines it’s fine, and I think content creators should be free to create the content and talk about it in the way they want to.”
This opens up a debate about the difficulties in striking the right balance between humour with sincerity. “We were seeing some difficult things, and so you do deal with that with humour quite often,” explains Ben. “Then you think ‘should I have said that? that’s kind of inappropriate.’ So it was about getting that right, and I think that’s where Oxfam was probably most nervous of what we might say.”
Jack, Ben and Lindsay are asked if it excites them that they have a voice that is trusted, understood and heard which enables them to get across a message that charities often find hard to do. Jack comments that this isn’t the thing motivates them to do it, it’s the trust in their creative mind.
“I don’t think that I have certain power charities want,” he says, “I’m hoping they wanna work with people like Ben and I because we can do something creative with it as well. We’re not just going to turn on the camera and go ‘Hey, so Save the Children’ and talk for a bit. You want us to do something with it.”
An interesting question comes from an audience member, who explains that she used to take part in a lot of charity work when she was younger and still sees the importance of it, but now finds herself apathetic whenever her twitter feed is bombarded with noise. She asks how can we spread the message without spreading apathy.
Linda believes that it’s all about making engaging content. “It’s difficult, and I know what you mean, there is so much noise online, how do you cut through?” she says. “You can’t engage with everything, so charities really need to up their game and make better content. That’s why we’re trying to work with vloggers and other communities to understand what’s engaging and what isn’t. And we need your advice to do that.”
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