The #NoMakeUpSelfie Phenomenon

Will Holmes

Will is a campaigner, political obsessive and sometime amateur actor. Having just helped win the election for Barack Obama, he's looking for his next cause to take up his life. Often seen walking the fields and drinking in the pubs of Kent, he's got a lot of opinions (and love) to share.

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In a little over twenty-four hours last week, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) saw a huge spike in its text donations, raising £1 million from ladies who were willing to go without makeup, posting a selfie on social media, and nominating their friends to do the same. Breakthrough Breast Cancer saw similar spikes. Women up and down the country (and apparently even men, putting make-up on, and some championing #cockinasock) were showing their financial support and raising awareness of cancer through a fundraising tactic which the charities didn’t even think up themselves.

I work for a pretty large national charity. I’ve spoken to a lot of people in our fundraising team who are in awe of this massive, viral fundraising tactic. It has similarities to KONI 2012 or 1 Billion Rising in its reach and impact. I think everyone in the charity sector is pretty jealous of the attention and money pouring into cancer charities because of these selfies. For these charities, it is a bonus load of fundraising that they would never have received were it not for someone thinking of the idea, and it not only raises money now, but brings to those organisations a whole host of potential future supporters, providing their contact details so that they can be tapped for more money in future.

But does cancer as a cause really need this attention? Many would argue that it does and, of course, cancer affects millions of people across the country every year. Most families are touched by it at some point in their lives, and people are still dying needlessly because it has been diagnosed far too late. Research is still needed to find a perfect cure for every form of cancer.

But let’s do some comparisons. According to research, 1 in 3 people will have cancer. That’s a huge amount. Cancer Research UK gets £460 million in voluntary donations per year, which is by far the largest of any charity, and puts this directly into research. Alzheimer’s Society raises £41.1 million (again a huge amount) and provides support services as well as funding research. 1 in 3 people over 65 will develop dementia before they die, and most families are affected by it in some way. At just ten per cent of the money CRUK gets, dementia research is far behind that of cancer. This Alzheimer’s Society video shows the disparity quite starkly.

Most other causes, like child abuse, homelessness, poverty, international development, sexual health or hearing loss – causes that affect millions of people across the country – don’t get anywhere near the money or attention that cancer charities do. I don’t think charitable giving should be mutually exclusive, but it does seem that cancer charities get the attention and the money at the expense of, arguably, just as needy causes.

And what of the selfies themselves? Clearly – they’ve been a roaring success in terms of fundraising. But have they ‘raised’ awareness of cancer? I’m not entirely sure its possible to raise anymore awareness of cancer, and I struggle to see how a face with no make-up relates to cancer awareness at all. At least the male version of ‘cock in a sock’ has a link to testicular cancer! I also have a sense of foreboding when people are seemingly forced or guilted into giving money (yes, no-ones putting a gun to anyone’s head, but public shaming through ‘nominations’ – as well as the obvious link to the neknominate saga – give me an uneasy feeling). A short-term spike in donations (like the kind we see during comic or sport relief) doesn’t raise awareness in the long term.

I’m sure many readers, including my female friends and family, will be pissed off by the time they’ve got to here. Ladies, I promise I am not belittling your generosity. Charitable giving is a wonderful thing, and I wish more people were as willing to give funds in the long term as you have all seemed to be in the past week.

However, perhaps its jealousy, and a feeling of disappointment that my charity didn’t think of it first, but I remain uneasy. Let’s start using the wonders of social media and people’s considerate spirit to raise money and awareness for causes that don’t get all the attention at the moment.