5 uncomfortable lessons from the no makeup selfie campaign

CRUK Facebook post

The Cancer Research UK team mark £2 million raised from #nomakeupselfie

No doubt you’ve seen the no makeup selfie taking over the internet by now. Millions of selfies, varied reactions and some uncomfortable questions raised.

The concept

The idea is simple – take a selfie of you wearing no make up, share it on Facebook and Twitter, and nominate friends to do the same by tagging them in your post.

The early posts featured the hashtag #beatcancer, so cancer charities got in on the act and encouraged participants to include text to donate numbers, helping those participating to do something practical to beat cancer. It has raised millions in a staggeringly short period.

In fact, JustGiving have reported:

  • 400% increase in direct donations to charities
  • 34,000 new members signed up to the site in just 24 hours
  • A global impact – Charles Wells, CMO at JustGiving, said “We have donations coming from all over the world, with charities in Australia now benefitting from the campaign, revealing its borderless reach.”

Despite these impressive numbers, the campaign raises some uncomfortable facts.

1.We have no idea what campaigns will work

No charity started the campaign – it came from the actions of a few individual supporters, and charities joined in. If an ‘expert’ had been asked to predict the next big viral charity campaign, there is no way they would have come up with this one. The truth is, we have no idea what will catch on, what will be truly successful.

If the (wo)man on the street keeps coming up with the best campaigns, how can those of us doing it professionally keep up?

Kym Marsh selfie

Coronation Street star Kym Marsh posts her no make up selfie

2. It’s not all good

A lot of the reaction has not been about the ends (everyone’s down with millions raised to beat cancer), but the means. Not wearing make up is no sacrifice and belittles those putting in real effort, like marathon runners. The campaign is sexist. The participants are egotistical. Nominating others is peer pressure. And more arguments besides.

There are undoubtedly fundraisers up and down the country who would love to raise millions for their cause (and indeed define their career) by starting a campaign like this one. But many of them share these concerns about the way this one is done. So they would be hesitant to be known as the fundraiser who started something like this – it’s too controversial.

3. Lots of people hate it

These very issues mean some people hate the campaign. Sali Hughes wrote in the Guardian about how it has opened the floodgates to “more reductive, sexist, self-congratulatory campaigns for ominous gain”.

For more negative reaction, do a quick Twitter search for “social media charity” on Twitter. You’ll see many, many tweets calling out participants for being vain and selfish, not generous and selfless.

Such a search also reveals a growing distaste for people publicly sharing the fact that they’ve made a donation to a charity. Charity professionals might know that doing so leads to even more donations, and more lives changed as a result. But there are many people who think donating so publicly completely removes the selflessness of the act. So while we will raise more money by encouraging sharing of donations, we will continue to alienate this growing group of people.

4. Everything hinges on an adventurous culture

From a charity point of view, you have to act fast to take advantage of a campaign like this. Such quick thinking requires a culture of experimentation and adventure, where permission to try things out (like quickly lending your name to a campaign like this) is already given from senior management.

Not every charity is lucky enough to have this culture – and if they want to make real strides in how much money they raise and people they reach in future, they need to have it.

5. You have to give up the power

A good point was made on the ECF email group about this. Sites like Change.org let anyone run a petition. They never know which ones will capture the imagination of the public and gather momentum – they just give their supporters the power to go with what matters to them, and they lend organisational expertise where they can. The most successful campaigns are often a surprise. 

In order to recreate a campaign like this, charities need to hand over the power and creativity to their supporters, and let them run wild with it. Scary.

The lessons

Madeleine Sugden did a great blog post on the lessons learned, and Lisa Clavering gives a cancer charity perspective on the campaign in her blog post.

I’d also add:

  • Create an adventurous culture by sharing the success of this campaign with others in your charity, no matter what your cause is
  • Give the power to your supporters – let them run any fundraising or other campaign they want.
  • Decide what your priorities are – how much negative reaction are you ok with? If you want to run a big campaign, it will have to be at least some.

How does #nomakeupselfie resonate with you?

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4 Responses to “5 uncomfortable lessons from the no makeup selfie campaign”

  1. Louise 03/25/2014 at 3:10 pm #

    Nice post, Matt. Obviously you’re learning *a lot* in our General Assembly classes…

    The adventurous culture point is really interesting. You need to be able to give up some control to your supporters (though see the Visit Sweden ‘Citizens Take Over Twitter’ debacle to make yourself well aware of the risks!) and you also need to have an internal structure and culture that lets movements like this happen.

    A great example is how Mondelez had to structure themselves to create the brilliant Oreo newsjacking posts. Traditional agency relationships, internal hierarchy and the sign-off process effectively had to go out of the window to create that kind of “in-the-moment” work. The brand essentially had a war room during the Super Bowl, where all of the key decision makers + the agency + designers sat in the same room for several hours so they could make stuff on the fly.

    • CharityChap 03/26/2014 at 7:30 am #

      Quite right Louise, and a great example of that permission to run wild being explicitly given, rather than needing a culture shift which can take years.

      Cancer Research UK could easily have shied away from the whole thing because of the issues raised, but they didn’t, and their risk-taking means they’re £8 million closer to a cure.

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