From “We are the World” to “We are a Tribe” – Communicating Global Health During Diffusion

This piece originally appeared in Impact, the magazine of PSI, on April 2, 2013. PSI and Devex partnered with Fenton on a special report on the new era of philanthropy and investment in global health.

My mother and I were driving back from soccer practice when I first heard Michael Jackson and other superstars sing out “We are the World.” It was 1985 and I was 12. I knew I wanted to do my part the minute I heard that song.

Soon after, I begged my mom to take me to the mall so I could buy an oversized “We are the World” T-shirt. I wanted to help starving kids in Africa, but I wanted to be cool at school too – everybody was talking about that shirt. Wearing it was part an attempt to fit in and join the tribe, and part a genuine act of empathy.

Hunger was on my do-gooder plate because someone put it there. They set my agenda.

Campaign after campaign has tried since, but few have felt like the “We Are the World” tribe from 1985.

Why? The internet. While creating new opportunities, the internet has made it challenging for a cause campaign to singularly capture attention.

The guys on the nightly news used to tell us what to care about. Then it was Oprah. We now get messages from our masses. Our friends engage us in the cause they care about – sometimes incessantly. Compassion fatigue is setting in. Americans consume an average of 12 hours of information – media – each day. It’s exceptionally challenging for a cause to break through.

Despite this new normal, global health sticks out as issues on people’s minds – not top of mind, but still there. Why? Someone put it on our agenda.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private donor to global health, put it there by funding organizations, programming, documentaries, social media campaigns and more. It’s working; in 2011, health organizations saw an estimated 2.7 percent increase in donations.

The Gates Foundation understands the importance of an engaged public. It leads to funding innovation, bridging gaps, government support and lives saved. This is especially true during economic downturns when the tendency is to spend within instead of helping people “over there.”

The next big challenge I see is at the intersection of communications diffusion and disinterest in “over there.” It’s not easy, but with the following strategies, I believe it’s a solvable challenge.

  1. Mass market campaigns are still important. Because of our new ability to personalize the content we consume, it is going to be more and more important to specifically engage people in their tribe. That’s where smart social media campaigns come in. Increasingly, engagement will be rooted in social marketing, gamification and face-to-face connectedness. We’re wired for human connection, so the global health tribe leaders need to find ways to bring people together and do the things they love in support of the cause. Volunteering, micro-investing, hyper-localization, community spirit – those are the new, untapped potentials.
  2. Communicating solutions is critical. Researchers from the University of Notre Dame have found that people are more likely to give when they can see the specific impact of their donation. It’s pretty simple. People want to know they are making a difference. The rise of solution journalism by reporters like David Bornstein is a beginning, but nongovernmental organizations and governments need to communicate when things are working.
  3. Connect to home. According to science reporter Benedict Carey, it is much easier for our brains to extend empathetic concern to a neighbor than to a nation. Whenever possible, global health advocates should look for ways to connect issues back home. Vaccinations are just as important in the U.S. as they are “over there.” People get the danger when their child has diarrhea and why they’d want to support families just like them. While it is true that donor money goes further in developing countries, helping people at home is a sign of solidarity and a smart political investment.

The days of the “We are the World” massive attention-grabbing campaigns are over. Keeping global health on the tribe’s agenda won’t just happen – we’ll need to make it happen.