In as little as 15 years, events such as Movember and the Ice Bucket Challenge have gone from being quirky jokes to global fundraisers that almost single-handedly raise the profile and funding of previously little-known causes such as prostate cancer and motor neuron disease.
What is Embodied Philanthropy?
Unlike volunteering or simply donating money, embodied philanthropy has participants commit their bodies to a cause and seek sponsorship from others for their endeavours. They typically require very little time or money from the ‘philanthropists’ themselves, something that makes them accessible to groups who typically lack such resources. Alcohol-free months, daily physical activity challenges and myriad appearance-altering endeavours, are some of the many forms of embodied philanthropy that are prompting people of all ages to temporarily change their consumption habits, engage in more physical activity or modify their looks for a cause.
Embodied philanthropy began as mass events, charity runs and walkathons, in the 1980s when fitness became both a concern and a hobby for many. These early events succeeded because they paired individualistic objectives, notably fitness, with altruism. The slightly exaggerated form these events took – going further than one’s routine jogging route – made the effort worthy of compensation. They were smaller-scale versions of heroic feats, like Canadian Terry Fox’s 1980 Marathon of Hope for cancer research. Social media has since given new life to embodied philanthropy and has driven a spike in appearance-based and attention-getting initiatives as embodied philanthropists hashtag and selfie their way to fundraising success and awareness for their cause.
How to create a successful embodied philanthropy campaign
Successful campaigns rely on a combination of logical factors that will attract participants and entice sponsorship. Appearance-altering campaigns should ensure that the change required is achievable by many, temporary, visible and recognisable as linked to a cause, hence the success of Movember and head-shaving challenges. Abstention campaigns need to target guilty pleasures (like alcohol, sugar or caffeine) to increase the difficulty – a way of raising funds – and to give people a chance to see positive results from their change – the motivation for participants. Such challenges, however, are best timed to coincide with our traditional periods of restraint. Activity initiatives should provide a sense of challenge to participants and sponsors alike. Some connection between cause and the action required is also a plus because the body can generate empathy for the ultimate beneficiaries of the charity’s endeavours; the recent challenge to live for a week on UN refugee rations while raising money for refugees is a perfect example of this.
Trends driving gains in the philanthropic sector more broadly – peer-to-peer fundraising, social media as major avenue for outreach, online giving, smaller donations from many sponsors – are all part of the embodied philanthropy landscape. And because we have yet to systematically study embodied philanthropy as a class of initiatives, it is difficult to tell to what extent the move toward embodied forms of giving are driving these trends or merely reflecting the shift. A catchy, well-timed and easily do-able idea, however, has already proven that it can be a game-changer for a cause.