Harnessing celebrity to fundraising

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Since the Boxing Day tsunamis, Australians have donated more than $64 million dollars to aid agencies. This figure is greater than our Government’s commitment so far ($60m). [ABC news 3 January]

Next Saturday night, channels 7, 9 and 10 will collaborate for the first time in history to host a fundraising concert at Sydney Opera House and simultaneous telethon for World Vision’s relief effort in south-east Asia. Despite having reached so generously into their pockets over the past week, Australians will dig even deeper this Saturday night. Rock stars will urge them to, Rove will urge them to, and they will give even more.

Aid agencies have been overwhelmed and genuinely surprised by Australians’ generosity. They are used to begging for meager donations from a public they assume suffers from ‘compassion fatigue’.

In my view, Australians are just as generous as previous generations “ in fact more so, as they are better informed about tragedies on their doorstep “ despite the popular, post-election pronouncements that we are more selfish and inward-looking than ever.

It is simply a matter of reaching people’s hearts via the television. The tsunami coverage proves that when Australians are told of human suffering (albeit over and over and over again), they respond generously.

What does this teach those of us who work to change everyday suffering, everyday human rights abuses for which there are few or no TV-friendly images?

I work for an Australian non-profit, ChilOut, which advocates for the release of children and their families from immigration detention. When ordinary Australians learn the facts about traumatised children behind razor wire in Australian desert camps, they become shocked, then upset, then angry. I am talking about people who may have referred to the detainees as ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘illegals’ for years. However, when they actually meet the refugees, or learn from friends or colleagues what the refugees have been through, they change their minds. They open their hearts and their wallets.

However, in order to raise mass awareness (which is what ChilOut does more than raising funds), we need a constant flow of fresh horrific images to be ‘sold’ to Australian networks and print media. Stories about life in Baxter or Nauru detention centres are extremely rare. This is not for lack of journalists’ trying. They simply have a hard time getting stories up without graphic images. Look at last week’s deportation of the Bakhtiyari family. This family, incarcerated for the past four years in South Australia, was sellable to the media because there were images of them available, including those of the two eldest sons’ abduction and recapture in 2002.

For ChilOut to reach the general public we have harnessed the fame of actors, musicians and religious dignitaries, politicians and Merlin from Big Brother. Everyone can relate to a celebrity and everyone listens to what a celebrity has to say.

UNICEF Australia uses its special representatives “ such as Roy & HG, Jimmy Barnes, Gretel Killeen “ in order to reach out to mainstream Australia. By taking celebrities on field trips they can see UNICEF’s work for the world’s neediest children with their own eyes. When Jimmy Barnes says that child trafficking is the most insidious trade on the planet, and that UNICEF will stop it if you join him as a ‘global parent’, then you join him.

Australia for UNHCR does the same. It has comedian Jane Turner and cricketer Ian Chappell. Jane Turner’s face (and voice) is one of the most loved and recognized on Australian television. As a spokesperson for its work in low-profile Darfur, UNHCR could not hope for better. Every time Jane Turner opens her mouth, the media report what she has to say. That UNHCR managed to spirit her away to Chad in November “ one of the most difficult-to-reach countries in Africa – is a credit to their fundraising team.

I attended the UNHCR Christmas Appeal launch in Sydney last month. Jane Turner, with the natural chutzpah of a comedy actress, talked the audience through a fifteen minute film of her trip to refugee camps on the Chad-Sudanese border. She easily engaged with the audience (mostly serious donors from the top end of town), translating the horror of the crisis into material that moved them to reach for their wallets, but without making them feel helpless.

The previous evening, after she spoke of her trip on Nine’s A Current Affair, the UNHCR was inundated with donations from channel 9’s audience. Prior to Jane Turner’s field trip, things had been looking pretty skint for the Darfur appeal.

If you believe the up market media columnists, Australia may appear to be wallowing in myopia, but don’t be fooled. Our natural curiosity with all things ‘overseas’ and morbid fascination with natural disasters will ensure we are glued to the screen for the rest of January. We are in traditionally the most apathetic month, where we waste away in paradise (with apologies to Midnight Oil). Luckily for charities, if they have commercial television on their side, they will reap the benefits of Australians showing their true, charitable colours. There is plenty of time for cricket, the beach, the pub and caring for those unable to enjoy such things.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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