In September 2017, the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) welcomed a group of Global Shapers to help the organization brainstorm key pitches and messages for its in-the-works crowdfunding platform.

It’s 7 a.m.; you’re on your early commute to work, considering a second round of caffeine to negate the unpleasant effects of rising before dawn. Almost telepathically, a push notification lights up your phone screen: ‘For the price of a cup of coffee, you could buy a bulk sized food parcel for Ukrainian families displaced by armed conflict. All you need to do is tap here’. [1]

These were the kinds of ideas put forward by a group of 30 or so Global Shapers, at a joint workshop with the ICRC that took place in early September 2017. The aim of the workshop? Brainstorming ideas for the ICRC’s new crowdfunding platform, with a specific focus on how the platform could be used to pitch the ICRC’s work to younger generations. Co-hosted with the Geneva Hub, this workshop was a follow up of a 2016 one, which had focused on the earlier question of: should the ICRC engage in crowdfunding at all?

But why the focus on young audiences? First, because this up and coming crowd has already dethroned baby boomers as the largest, living generation in countries like the United States. They’re predicted to make up three quarters of the world’s workforce by 2025, and in spite of their historically low wages, they still opt to spend their paycheck in a socially responsible manner. Their relationship to philanthropy is unprecedentedly complex, shaped by a paradoxical combination of genuine altruism and high susceptibility to data-driven marketing campaigns.

All of the above makes them a fascinating audience for the humanitarian sector. Among them are the Global Shapers: a network of over 6,000 people, all aged under 30, who work together to address local, regional and global challenges. Spread across 378 city based hubs that span 160 countries, the Global Shapers define themselves as individuals who “believe in a world where young people are central to solution building, policy-making and lasting change” (for more information, have a look at their website).

The Global Shapers’ enthusiasm for dialogue explains why the ICRC has so often taken advantage of their yearly attendance at the Annual Curators Meeting of the Global Shapers Community, seizing the opportunity of their presence in Geneva to invite them for joint workshops and discussions on humanitarian impact and innovation. This year, the session’s introductory address focused on the challenges currently faced by humanitarian organizations. For the ICRC, these not only include the increasingly protracted nature of conflict, but also the increasing politicization of aid (and ensuing impacts on funding); the need to adapt to a changing communications landscape that favors intermediary free interactions; the penetration of private sector companies into the aid sector (see Google’s Can’t Wait to Learn project, or Facebook’s Disaster Maps); and the ethical and data protection concerns that result from all of the above.

The idea of an ICRC owned, crowdfunding platform was introduced as a possible compromise to some of these challenges – starting with the promotion of a more direct and transparent engagement between donors and target communities. Yet, this argument alone is not enough to make sure that the idea sells. To attract a large audience, it has to be re-packaged into key messages, slogans, and a vision capable of relaying, in the simplest, yet most hard hitting terms, ‘why’ this idea matters, and why one should support it (for more on the importance of the “why” in selling an idea or a product, check out Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, or pick up his bestseller, “Start with Why”).

To this end, a few proposals had been prepared for the Shapers to discuss, in smaller groups. As the heads and members of leading private sector companies, successful start-ups, and various multilateral organizations split across four tables and started debating each proposal’s content, a number of key insights emerged.

The main one? Philanthropy must adapt and integrate itself into the individual’s life, and not the other way around. In a world where each and every person is constantly confronted to a plethora of humanitarian causes, the winning crown goes to the initiative best able to seamlessly relay key content in real time, and preferably info-graphic fashion; bonus points if it uses platforms where the individual already exists and has something to gain (e.g. social status on Facebook or Twitter, discounts on Amazon or Netflix…).

Second, stimuli is a short but golden window. This article started off with a push notification providing an individual with a piece of information and a choice. Whatever inner debate that piece of information may have triggered, it will only last until the next stimuli shifts that individual’s attention. Bearing in mind that humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish, that’s an exceptionally short amount of time. The choice being presented therefore has to be easily actionable, with quick delivery, at the literal press of a button.

Need to lengthen people’s attention spans? Use game-ification tools, or create competition to incentivize and reward. As stated earlier, individuals prefer content that meets them where they are… and with something they want. Now, it’s up to humanitarian organisations to get creative: although material rewards are the go-to tradition (a pen, a t-shirt…), true innovation lies in those more immaterial ones (social media ‘goodies’, company discounts, matched donation schemes with the individual’s employer…).

Scant time and incentive frenzy aside, human interest is still the major motivating factor behind individual donations. Young generations might be jaded and cynical about many institutions, but this doesn’t mean that they have no interest in changing things for the better. On the contrary, their quest for better inclusivity and accountability in any philanthropic process stems from their desire to have a more measurable impact on people they can connect with and relate to.

And finally, all of the above must be taken with a barrel of salt. Most of the research linked in this article stems from studies conducted in Western countries, with and on predominantly Western people. Patterns of philanthropy in non-Western countries have yet to be documented to the same extent, and could reveal habits and preferences that challenge the points made above. To this end, greater effort should be made towards including markets from different regions, and with different maturity levels, in any research.

In summary, the workshop successfully capitalized on the audience’s diversity and enthusiasm, engaging with a number of opinions, experiences, and visions of the world. As these feed into the ICRC’s strategy to better navigate modern day challenges in all of their complexity, it should be reiterated that only with such cross-cutting alliances and corresponding, caffeinated brainstorms can we find innovative and sustainable solutions to better serve those affected by conflict and disaster.


[1] Disclaimer: the ICRC does not have mind reading abilities. It can, however, program push notifications at different times, or according to different triggers, across different time zones. For concrete examples of how different companies are dispatching quick and engaging content at tailored schedules, check out Leanplum’s list of the 7 most creative push notifications.