Slacktivism

I don’t like new words like “glamping” and “staycation”. They are portmanteau neologisms invented by marketeers and adopted by insipid lifestyle journalists to lend weight to insubstantial trends.

But I have to admit that “slacktivism” – actions ostensibly in a good cause but too lazy to have a useful effect – has some allure. Several of my friends changed their profile pictures on Facebook recently in the name of protesting against violence to children. The more pious ones posted a message at the same time:

“Change your Facebook profile picture to a cartoon character from your childhood & invite your friends to do the same, for the NSPCC. Until Monday (6 Dec), there should be no human faces on Facebook, but an invasion of memories. This is a campaign to stop violence against children.”

This may seem like a Good Thing to do, but actually it has more in common with a chain letter than a charitable exercise. There is a small possibility that the people who changed their picture donated money to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (although there was no helpful link to the charity’s giving page) but I suspect that almost everyone who did it gave nothing. It may even be a Bad Thing: some people may feel that their supposedly good actions are a substitute for actual charitable activity.

It is a particularly stupid idea because not only will it fail to prevent the tiniest bit of violence, but it does not even raise awareness of a live issue. No one is in favour of violence against children, except perhaps recruiters of child soldiers and sadists. Even if Joseph Kony and Baby P’s mother were your friends on Facebook, it seems unlikely that this would change their minds.

This campaign wasn’t even supported by the NSPCC, although a spokeswoman did say they were “monitoring the results with interest”. Not that the NSPCC is a faultless charity anyway. More than a quarter of its charitable spending goes on income generation and governance – 28 per cent, in fact. This is way more than the RNLI (20 per cent), Save the Children (13 per cent), Comic Relief (10 per cent) or any other charity I could think of when searching the Charities Commission website. When the NSPCC says that £4 answers a child’s call for help on its telephone helpline Childline, it means that £2.88 answers the child’s call and £1.12 pays a bloke in a brightly coloured bib to hassle people in shopping precincts.

My friend D responded to the Facebook campaign yesterday by changing his profile picture to one of Lionel Richie and suggesting that by doing so he was helping to bring about peace in the Middle East. I followed his lead. I don’t wish to sound presumptious, but does anyone know whether I have to wear white tie at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, or can I just turn up in a suit?

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2 Responses to “Slacktivism”

  1. Tom L Says:

    Ah, this blog continues its excellent heritage of eloquent miserablism, most of which I usually agree with but in this case part ways.

    The cartoon character thingy was a bit of fun – it’s not like you are immune to nostalgia, Supercars 2 boy. I’m sure some people believed it was a genuine campaign, but probably would have done it anyhow because their mates did. Like the many other low-effort stuff that millions of slackers do – like wearing a poppy or a red nose, growing a handlebar moustache or having a side parting (that last one yet to be claimed by a charity) – it’s not the act itself, but the symbolic support for the ideas behind it, and the resources that it channels to groups that legitimately work on the issue at hand. That the NPCC has nothing to do with it (http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/7538159-nspcc-denies-facebook-cartoon-pics-campaign) makes this all the more interesting in my view. At some point, this mass willingness to associate with an issue through a simple is going to be very well used for something effective and socially beneficial and not just getting Rage Against the Machine to the top of the charts.

    I also think you’ve fallen into general ignorance in thinking that the amount a charity spends on “admin” is on its own a useful indicator of its impact or effectiveness. It’s easy to think that you can compare charitable activities and the resources required to do them, but they’re apples and oranges. Distributing maize in a humanitarian relief camp in Sudan is fundamentally different from running a 24-hour hotline for abused kids. Some activities are incredibly difficult and costly, but nonetheless worthy of charitable action despite the high cost of administering them. Have a scan through New Philanthropy Capital’s Charity Assessment Tool: “Our approach also challenges popular myths about measuring charities, the most prevalent of which is that administrative cost is a useful measure of a charity’s efficiency.” It’s a handy, but far less amenable to snarky blogging download here: http://www.philanthropycapital.org/publications/improving_the_sector/charity_analysis/Funding_Success.aspx

  2. pouletnoir Says:

    I think we’ll just have to disagree on this one. Wearing a poppy or a red nose are fundamentally different, in that buyers have necessarily given money to charity, and pressure others to do so. The campaigns that involve growing a moustache are not symbolic either. People who do this ask others to sponsor them.
    The Facebook campaign did nothing more than make people feel they were part of something, although that something was actually nothing.
    The argument that it is symbolic support would work if this was an issue that was divisive, but, as I said in the original post, it is not. Personally, I’m against murder and rape, but I don’t go around saying this because it goes without saying.
    I’m not arguing against having a bit of fun. Just don’t pretend to yourselves that you were doing anything worthwhile.

    On your second point, I’m sure that the link you provide does give a more nuanced test of how charities perform, but my measure is still sound. The percentages I cite are the proportion spent by charities on “income generation and governance”. This is not admin in the sense that you imply. It is not the cost of the staff who run the telephone lines at Childline – that is counted as charitable activity. The point I was making is that the NSPCC spends a vast amount of money on generating income (£26 million a year) in a self-perpetuating cycle. (Its governance spend is just under £1 million.) I think this is pretty shameful, and I think if people knew how much of their donations were being spent on advertising, gala dinners and chuggers then they would be pretty angry about it.
    Presumably the NSPCC justifies this to itself by saying that this fundraising activity pays for itself, but I’m not satisfied that this is true. There comes a point when income generation stops being creative (getting people to give more than they normally would) and starts being competitive (getting people to give money to your charity rather than another one). If the NSPCC is spending millions of pounds on its brand at the expense of other charities then this is a Bad Thing.

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