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Global Citizen's Hugh Evans on tokenism by brands: 'Stop spending media dollars on frivolous activities'


By Shawn Lim | Reporter, Asia Pacific

June 10, 2019 | 9 min read

People want to make a difference in the fight to end extreme poverty, but they often do not know how to act or where to start because they have not been trained in the component parts required to end poverty.

Brands have an opportunity to change that, says the founder and chief executive of non-governmental organization Global Citizen.

Sitting down to speak to The Drum after his keynote at Mediacom’s Blink event, Hugh Evans explains the challenge to end extreme poverty and climate change through global development, like any area of life, is a specialty. For example, doctors and astronauts must undergo training to excel in their respective fields.

“Most people who want to make a change in the world, start by thinking of volunteering with a charity. They then wonder if that makes a difference or if there will be a change,” explains the Australian.

“They also ask how it all contributes to the bigger challenge because there is always going to be a local problem. The quandary at a global level is when the next hurricane will strikes, the next tsunami, the next outbreak of a deadly disease like Ebola etc. So, the sense of being overwhelmed sets in.”

On Global Citizen’s part, it has been holding the Global Citizen Festival since 2012, a public event which brings celebrities, politicians and world leaders together to promote the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include 17 tasks to end extreme global poverty by 2030.

It has also gamified access to the Festival, allowing the public to score free tickets by demonstrating charity acts on its website and app, as well as watching videos and signing petitions.

Brands the NGO has worked with, include Proctor & Gamble and National Geographic, to launch Activate, a six-part documentary series that will focus on extreme poverty, inequality and sustainability issues to mobilize global citizens to drive meaningful and lasting change.

It previously worked with Johnson & Johnson to launch a global campaign and announced the first-ever human trials of HIV vaccine across sub-Saharan Africa, as well as with Unilever.

“What we try to do at Global Citizen is to make taking action more accessible to humans. You know, if you want to learn about how to stand up for gender equality, or you want to stand up for education, or for food and hunger and agriculture, or for global health and combating preventable diseases, you can download the Global Citizen app,” Evans says.

“All of the actions that you take on that app will earn you points and you can use those points to ultimately win rewards across Asia and also to come to the Global Citizen festivals around the world.”

He adds: “We are trying to, in some ways, take that step to correct the terrible statistics of having only 18% percent of people who care about global issues, do something about it. We are trying to increase that number dramatically by building a movement of citizens committed to that.”

Evans also points out that brands need to innovate with how they work with NGOs, rather than writing a cheque to a single Unicef program and building a single school somewhere. He is quick to add that while there is nothing wrong with that, it is just not scalable.

For example, he explains that if a brand that is starting to work with a traditional NGO like Save the Children, Oxfam or Unicef, they need to start by asking the question of how its contribution tackles the root cause of the issue.

If a brand is interested in natural disasters, they must choose between building one school that was destroyed in the tsunami or destroyed in a mudslide across Asia or find a way to unlock billions of dollars in new capital to ensure that it address the issue wholeheartedly.

“If you're a brand working with, say, Unicef, my encouragement to you would be to work to fund their subsidiary fund called Education Cannot Wait that is focused on trying to finance education for children displaced by emergency, natural disaster or refugee children, of which there are 10 of millions all around the world,” says Evans.

“They are chronically underfunded, and I think brands can often do better by doing what brands do best, which is the mass mobilization of citizens which can then call on more brands and even governments to be more generous.”


Evans adds this will ultimately help brands not to participate in tokenism social causes and instead, raise billions of dollars to finance education as a whole or change the way that the water management system works.

“I always encourage brands, as they're thinking about their CSR strategies, as they're thinking about their media and marketing spend strategies, to think differently and don't do what every other brand is doing just by giving a random pair of schools sneakers to kids,” he says.

“Actually ask the question why there isn't a market for free sneakers in the first place. I think that's where that's where we're trying to change the thinking to make it more systemic thinking.”

One example Evans urges brands to follow is P&G, which he says have been very creative with how they spent their media dollars. He credits Mark Pritchard, the FMCG giant’s chief brand officer and Allison Tummon Kamphuis, the global program leader, gender equality and children's Safe Drinking water at P&G and their team for thinking outside of the box about how they leverage their media spend to make an impact.

“I think that there are some brands that unfortunately still just spend media dollars on frivolous activities that are just pure entertainment and I think it's always death by entertainment. You know, why don't we actually use entertainment for good,” he says.

“You can still have a great time and can change the world. The two are not mutually exclusive. You can use music and entertainment to do good. This is where I think brands should challenge the big entertainment assets like the Olympics, the Formula One Grand Prix and Fifa. They should challenge these big institutions to actually do better in the world.”

Evans also has a piece of advice for other NGOs who are struggling to get brands to work with them – reinvent the model, take risks and try to measure everything because brands want to achieve real measurable outcomes.

Recalling when he first started Global Citizen a decade ago, Evans says brands and NGOs like Citi and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made big bets on the organization even when it was hard to measure an achievable outcome.

While all parties made mistakes along the way, they learned to hold on and continue to invest in the growth of Global Citizen’s membership, Evans explains, adding that they had to take risks because it was hard to assume what consumer engagement trends are like as everything can change the next week.

“The first brand that believed in us were Citi. Jennifer Breithaupt who is now their global chief marketing officer was the first person to take a big bet on us. And in those days, it was very hard,” says Evans.

“These days it is a lot easier because we have grown, are established now and achieving real measurable outcomes that are very tangible. But I think like everything in life, it takes time and we are very fortunate that we now have wonderful brand partners like Live Nation, Citibank, Verizon, Cisco, J&J and P&G.”

“These are some of the world's leading brands that believe in Global Citizen's mission and work and have backed us for the long term and are with us year on year on year.”

Evans is also glad that Global Citizen decided that it needed to reinvent the NGO model because “nobody needed just another Live Aid”. That is why it introduced gamification on its app and website.

It has been reported that Global Citizen's model of ticket distribution in 2017 generated 1.6m actions in two months, equalling commitments and announcements of $3.2bn for sustainable development and affecting 221m people.

“NGOs have previously tried one method of citizen engagement and realize it doesn't lead to long-term or longevity, which is why we need to try something different,” he explains.

“We didn't want people to just come along, have a great night and then forget about it. We wanted people to be ongoing citizen action takers. So, the app-based technology was highly innovative, and I think for us we have got to continually disrupt our own model because then other people will start replicating what we are doing."

As the end of extreme poverty will not be achieved just by focusing on sub-Saharan Africa or like America because half of the world's poor still live in Asia, Evans say Global Citizen will be focused on building a lasting movement of citizens across Asia who can work with governments to make sure that money invested by brands in aid and development is invested effectively.

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