Monday, June 2, 2008

Making charity cool again

How do you make teenagers give a damn about anything? For starters, remember that the medium is the message, and get the right people aboard. In a world of teenagers, the "right people" are American Idol and the NBA. But if the medium is carrying anything but a tangible, straight-forward message, it isn't likely to go far.

But tell a teenager that ten dollars can save the life of a child in Africa by preventing malaria, that is tangible and they are on board.

Addressing a conference of 6,000 Methodist youths in North Carolina last year, Bishop Thomas Bickerton held up his own $10 and told the crowd: “This represents your lunch today at McDonald’s or your pizza tonight from Domino’s. Or you could save a human life.”

The lights were so bright that he could see only what was happening at his feet. “They just showered the stage with $10 bills,” Bishop Bickerton said. “In 30 seconds, we had $16,000. I’m just lucky they didn’t throw coins.”

Part of what has helped the campaign catch on is its sheer simplicity and affordability — $10 buys one net to save a child. Nothing But Nets, the best-known campaign, has raised $20 million from 70,000 individuals, most of it in donations averaging $60.

That is a small fraction of the overall need, which experts estimate at $2.5 billion. But it gives the effort a populist edge, and participation is psychologically rewarding for anyone whose philanthropic pockets are shallower than those of Bill Gates.
More than ever, young people are becoming engaged. They look around and see so much that needs to be done, and they want to do something. A ten dollar mosquito net is something that they can do, that is within their reach and that matters on a real, one-to-one level. It allows them to connect in a very real way.

And to think that it all started because Rick Reilly, a columnist for Sports Illustrated took his daughter to Venice and got his ass whooped trying to keep up with a teenage daughter on a shopping trip. Exhausted and channel surfing back in the hotel, he landed on a BBC documentary and stopped to watch for a moment, and it hit him...“I thought, ‘That’s a column,’ ” he said. “Sports is nothing but nets — basketball nets, tennis nets, soccer nets, lacrosse nets, jumping the net, cutting down nets, the New Jersey Nets, girls in fishnets, whatever ... .”

And from one fathers exhaustion, a movement was spawned, and lives have been saved.

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