It's all like and no action

By Jamie Small

Is Facebook killing charity? Will facial hair save men's health? We report on the rise of slacktivism and research revealing big public gestures do not always translate into real donations

Robert Dunne and Richie McCaw taking part in Movember. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Robert Dunne and Richie McCaw taking part in Movember. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

I didn't do it for charity. I didn't do it just for novelty. I really did it to irritate the girl I was seeing at the time. My mates, a bunch of rag-tag Otago University students, all grew moustaches that Movember 2007.

None of us were thinking of doing good. We haven't really thought about it since - until last year when I decided I should finally pay my dues and signed up to raise funds as well as grow facial hair.

Slacktivists, all of us, part of a new social movement that has everything to do with being seen to do the right thing, while doing nothing at all.

A new study out of the University of British Columbia says slacktivism is making an arbitrary effort at supporting a good cause, but offering little in the way of real help.

It does not take any effort to neglect shaving for a month in support of men's health. It takes little to "like" a cause on Facebook. Retweeting on Twitter - easy.

Wear a ribbon? Give up drinking for a month? Brilliant but a bit hopeless at actually helping.

The UBC study shows not only is slacktivism a bit thoughtless, it might actually be counterproductive.

Researchers compared what happens when people make a public gesture in their initial interaction with a charity, with what happens when their interaction is private.

Their report, The Nature of Slacktivism, shows that first public gesture, on Facebook or joining a social campaign, is likely to deter you from ever making a meaningful contribution to the cause.

If instead you privately sign a pledge or vote for something, you will think about how your values align with the charity and are more likely to give in future.

Slacktivists are an issue for charities in New Zealand as Robert Dunne, brand ambassador for Movember, reveals.

"Slacktivism? Jesus, slacktivism. It's the bane of my existence," he says. "I would say for 15,000 people who sign up and grow a moustache for Movember there's probably 30-40,000 moustaches, maybe more, around. It's phenomenal how many people grow but don't register or fundraise."

Dunne says sponsors are often excited by the number of people seen to be supporting a charity, even though it may have little to do with the real number of fundraisers.

"They'll say back to you, 'Look, we have x amount of Facebook followers' or 'x amount of this, that and the other'. But the reality is anyone can hit a 'like' button.

"Their level of engagement is so hard to judge. It's becoming a thing that people are using it as a guideline but it really is a rubbish guideline."

But the non-givers are not all bad. "Movember is completely different in that we're a non-typical charity," says Dunne, who believes doing something - such as growing hair - is preferable for many than standing on a street corner holding a bucket.

Of course he'd like money to be made too, but he says at least moustache-growers are spreading awareness of men's health.

Philip Hope, national manager of development for the Cancer Society, says if nothing else, social media is great for raising visibility of a charity.

"Even five years ago, very few smaller charities were spending much money in the digital space," he says. "Now you can't deliver a major campaign without significant investment in that area.

Allana Hollister, Neisha Matheson and Kelsey Oldham taking part in Daffodil Day. Photo / Greg Robertson
Allana Hollister, Neisha Matheson and Kelsey Oldham taking part in Daffodil Day. Photo / Greg Robertson

But Hope knows of a UK charity event that had 3,600 "likes" on Facebook but zero registrations.

He says the Cancer Society is always developing strategies to convert "likes" into contributions. "It's not straightforward," he says. Real engagement is key.

"We try to ask a question. Start a conversation." Key to long-term real contributions will always be face-to-face interactions.

Diana Bird, a teacher at Maeroa Intermediate School in Hamilton, regularly shares posts in support of her favourite charities, but says she is no slacktivist.

"I'm an environmentalist," she says. "I'm pretty ardent. I haven't taken plastic bags from the shop for two years."

She teaches her students with a class garden and an environmental blog but she is careful about what she puts on her Facebook wall.

"I feel when you get a whole lot of stuff coming at you, you get overwhelmed. I just periodically repost the things that I think could have a bigger impact," she says.

Bird's aim is to spread awareness and she has chosen to focus on Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, both of which she regularly donates to.

Slacktivism worries her, but she believes spreading the word will cause some people to act.

"Perhaps people will make some changes. If you just see something once it won't have much effect. I think if you're seeing things repeatedly enough it might have an effect. That's why I do it."

Mel Lloyd has created a new Cancer Society fundraiser Walking Stars and says Facebook was helpful, but word of mouth was instrumental.

The Auckland woman has organised a night walk fundraiser in two weeks and the number of registrations exceeds the number of "likes" on the Facebook page.

"I've been quite reliant on word of mouth. And when I look at where people heard about the event, the majority say friends and family."

In Sweden, Unicef ran a campaign this year tackling slacktivism. "Likes don't save lives" was a series of videos, one of which showed a man trying to pay for a cashmere jersey with Facebook likes.

The UBC study offers guidance on how charities can effectively manage social media campaigns to encourage real contributions, using polls and private signatures for first-time engagement followed by encouraging givers to consider their values, and those of the charity.

Getting Facebook users to turn their profile pictures blue - as one New Zealand charity did this year - won't do it. Nor will simply wearing pink for breast cancer.

Next time you click share or grow a mo or give up the drink think: "Am I really contributing?"


• To support the growth of Jamie Small's moustache, as well as men's health charities like the Prostate Cancer Foundation, go to mobro.co/jamieasmall.

• To donate to the Cancer Society, go to cancernz.org.nz.

- Herald on Sunday

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