Six hacks for social activists

Learn how new activists are using Twitter and JustGiving to ignite social change

by Louka Travlos

“Let’s get on with it, we can’t wait for the politicians” (Ruth Baker, Doctors of the World)
From left to right: John Domokos, Caroline Criado-Perez, Jasmine O’Hara, Ruth Baker and (Chair) Patrick Butler. Photograph: @JRemigus

The scoop.

Last week, JustGiving and The Guardian put on a Masterclass with video-journalist John Domokos, activist Jasmine O’Hara, journalist and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, head of fundraising at Doctors of the World UK, Ruth Baker. It was chaired by The Guardian’s Patrick Butler.

Our panel are part of the new wave of activists that use the internet and social media to connect a growing number of people with causes they care about. From charity and humanitarian fundraising to political debate and media coverage, internet activism is challenging us to think differently.

Luckily for you, we’ve compiled countless hours of hard-earned campaign wisdom into a commute-friendly 8 minute read (with pictures and everything!)


1. Get to know your subject

2. Tell a human story

3. Amplify your voice

4. Know your message

5. Engage with your community

6. Go to the press


1. Get to know your subject

Get off your sofa and out of your comfort zone. The more you can explore an issue first hand, the more energy and experience you will bring to your campaign.

Personal connection.

Jasmine O’Hara and her friends started a campaign to help refugees — CalAid — after visiting the ‘jungle’ refugee camp in Calais over the summer.

Photograph: Twitter
“I wanted to meet the humans behind the headlines.”
Photograph: Facebook
“I’ve been living, sleeping and eating in the camp. I’ve built some really strong relationships. Our experience and friendships here have informed the campaign at every stage.”

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

John Domokos walked with a Syrian family across Hungary in order to make a documentary film about their journey.

“I’ve made over 650 films and none of them have affected quite as much as this one. My usual shield completely fell away.”
Photograph: The Guardian
“I experienced everything with them. I literally walked miles in one of their shoes.”
Photograph: Twitter

2. Tell a human story

What are the stories behind the statistics?

According to John, “Too often, refugees and migrants are portrayed as objects. That makes it easier for politicians to ignore them or treat them as statistics. You have to drop this veil and learn to be human yourself.”

“When you approach things determined to be objective, this can turn into objectifying people. You have to get emotionally close to someone to tell a story.”
Photograph: The Guardian
“Storytelling is how you learn that these are people, just like us. They have problems, but they also have jokes and banter.”

Share your two cents.

After returning from Calais, Jasmine felt compelled to share what she had experienced. She wrote an impassioned Facebook post. The post was shared, and shared, and shared again…over 65,000 times.

Photograph: Facebook
“I’ve been talking to people in the camp and getting their stories out there — that’s where my strengths lie.”

Understand your audience.

Caroline Criado-Perez believes that a new wave of internet activists, “Are attracting people who aren’t attracted to established charities.”

Photograph: The Trouble Club
“Bigger institutions can often feel corporate and removed. When the message is coming from someone like you it can be much more motivating. It inspires other people to feel that they can make a difference too.”

Jasmine agrees, “We have the freedom to say exactly what we feel. We’re not constrained by bureaucracy or funding; we can tell the story the way we see it.”

“We’re just normal people who want to do something. We’ve been successful because we’ve been able to relate to people. That’s why we’ve been able to mobilise them.”
Photograph: Facebook

3. Amplify your voice

Campaigner? Who…me?!

Caroline Criado-Perez admits, “I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I wasn’t a campaigner. But social media helps you turn your passion into a story that people take notice of.”

Photograph: The Guardian
“The internet is the most powerful tool for democracy we’ve had in a very long time. The Bank of England caved under a mighty £13,000 crowdfunding campaign, and they actually print money!”

With the help of petition website Change.org and Twitter Caroline launched a campaign to have great English women represented on banknotes. She received 30,000 signatures and raised £13,000 with a crowdfunding project to take The Bank of England to court. Under growing pressure on Twitter and in the media, they announced that Jane Austen would be the new face of the £10 note.

Get internet savvy.

Using social media, petition and crowdfunding platforms will ensure the right people hear about your campaign.

What was the secret of Caroline’s campaign success?

I had a publishing platform at my fingertips. Every time the Bank of England would respond, I could immediately publish a scathing take-down of the letter on Twitter. When you’re going up against a lumbering bureaucracy, social media is your friend.”

Overwhelmed by the messages of support and pledges of money and supplies, Jasmine and her friends set up a JustGiving crowdfunding page in order to centralise donations and coordinate their fundraising effort. They raised more than £164,000: smashing their £1,000 target by over 16400%.


Ruth Baker is the head of fundraising at Doctors of the World, the only medical aid organisation working on the ground in Calais.

Photograph: Linkedin
“Doctors of the World have been working in Calais for over a decade, but this is really different from what we’ve done before.”
“Crowdfunding has allowed us to be part of the news agenda and get people engaged. We set up a page on JustGiving in less than an hour. Now we have 42 fundraisers raising over £50,000 for us.”
Photograph: JustGiving
“The response on social media has been fantastic. People like Jaz (O’Hara) have used it to attract more support, which has brought more money and supplies to the people that need it.”
Photograph: Facebook

4. Know your message

What’s the right tone?

Caroline: “People are inspired by other ordinary people taking on big organisations; a David and Goliath story. There has to be an obvious injustice.”

John: “I’m attracted to human stories and stories that aren’t being told well.”

Photograph: Facebook
“Stories that speak to people are personal and emotional; they don’t treat the subject as a victim. Humour can be a great tool, even in the darkest of situations.”

Clear message, simple ask.

Ruth: “At the beginning of the refugee crisis in Calais, we weren't clear enough about our fundraising ask or call to action. Time can be short, so make sure you’re clear on how people can help.”

Jasmine: “Decide on simple bold messages and calls to action. Demonstrate what you’re doing with the funds.”

Photograph: Facebook
“Individual stories of people you’re helping or volunteers doing innovative things are the ones that appeal the most.”

…say what you don’t want.

Ruth: “The proximity of Calais to the UK has been a blessing and a curse. Lots of well meaning people turning up to Calais with boot-loads of supplies can create confusion and rifts in the camp.”

Photograph: Facebook
“There have been some strange items: we’ve had high heeled shoes donated!”

One canny group of campaigners — HelpCalais — set up an Amazon wishlist to avoid unwanted supplies and encourage people to give money towards exactly what’s needed.

5. Engage with your community

Remember to send updates.

Jasmine recognises that, “It’s important to engage with a mobilised community.”

“You have to harness the passion while it’s there. Regular updates on progress keep supporters engaged with the issue.”

She acknowledges that this can be tricky at scale: “We put together some templates and responded to as many people as we could. We also had an evening for Calais supporters to hear from those on the ground and explain how the funds are spent.”

Give them stuff to do.

Caroline points out that, “People don’t always just want to give money. If they can do something too, then feel more engaged.”

“The best thing about online campaigning is the huge database of people who are willing to support you. You can email these people and can ask them to turn up to events, campaign or tweet for you.”

You can keep people engaged through petitions, events and volunteering. Think of things they can do that make them feel they’re involved and build a sense of momentum around your campaign.

6. Go to the press

Newspapers aren’t dead!

Caroline warns not to neglect the ‘lighthouse’ effect that the national or regional press can have on a campaign.

“The traditional media is still incredibly important. Social media can galvanize a movement that the media will take notice of.”

Contact journalists

“The media today are so much more accessible.” (Caroline)

Caroline: “Journalists are on Twitter. You can talk to them directly and create a buzz for your story. One of the things traditional media loved about my crowdfunding campaign was that it was so easy to understand.”

John: “Be pushy. Everybody wants to tell a story that isn’t being told. I respond to everyone who tweets me. I often find my stories that way.”


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