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How Global Citizen Became the BuzzFeed of Social Activism

A few weeks ago, comedian Chelsea Handler stuck her face in a bowl of spaghetti bolognese. The video was not a stint on one of her late night appearances. Instead, it was a call to action for Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to pledge his allegiance to fight world hunger.

Orchestrated by Global Citizen, a nonprofit that uses digital content to encourage social and political action, the video was part of a larger campaign enticing young people to demand support from the Italian prime minister. Viewers were encouraged to dive into their own bowl of pasta and tweet the message: “I get to eat this, but 795 million people are hungry. Will Italy pledge to end hunger at the Global Citizen Festival? #PastaPolitics.”

Handler’s clip, which stays true to her offbeat sense of humor, is an example of Global Citizen’s unique brand of activism that involves viewer education, celebrity endorsement, journalism, and social media participation.

The approach runs contrary to traditional aid organizations, like the American Red Cross, which focus on relief fundraising and donation.

“We don’t raise money for ourselves and don’t generally raise money for other people. We don’t deliver vaccines or feed the hungry,” explained Richard Wolffe, Global Citizen’s chief digital and marketing officer. “We mobilize people. We build a movement to put pressure on other people, mostly governments and corporations, to go and do the big stuff.”

A more meaningful conversion

In New York, the term “global citizen” may conjure up images of Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, and a slew of other celebrities performing live in Central Park. Since 2012, the Global Citizen Festival has been a staple of the city’s fall festival lineup, hosting big-name politicians like Vice President Joe Biden and activists like female education advocate Malala Yousafzai.

This year, Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, Demi Lovato, and other celebrity headliners will appear alongside hosts Chelsea Handler, Hugh Jackman, and Salma Hayek-Pinault. Already popular in the U.S., Global Citizen just took the concert to Montréal and plans to host a festival in India this November.

The festivals have become a clever, entertaining way to draw millennial attention to international issues. Attendees can purchase VIP tickets, but general admissions passes can only be acquired through social action. In Canada, global citizens must complete five tasks, ranging from taking a video quiz on global health to signing a petition in support of education for adolescent girls.

Global Citizen

In the U.S., participants can write a message to political leaders to support the Global Polio Eradication Initiative or download the Global Citizen mobile app and complete enough actions to earn 25 points and qualify for a ticket.

The event itself also serves a philanthropic purpose. In 2012, the festival drew signatures for a petition encouraging the U.S. Government to invest more in the eradication of polio, which helped spur Congress to award $50 million to the cause.

“The role of content is to help build a movement,” Wolffe said. “The success we’ve had has been around social content. It’s the first calling card, the way to attract people in.”

Global Citizen supports its social initiatives with a homepage that functions like that of a proper news site, similar to MSNBC or Newsweek, where Wolffe used to work. Since Wolffe joined the team last November, Global Citizen has refined its voice, with writers and videographers serving as budding reporters. News stories have replaced first-person blog posts. Each morning, reported articles on women’s rights, sanitation, health, and education fill the homepage.

“The line between what you might consider traditional journalism and social content is blurring all the time,” Wolffe said. “There needs to be continuity between the two.”

This convergence is particularly important for a nonprofit like Global Citizen. In the business of social activism, social media strategy is not just a way to convert audience members from viewers to followers—these campaigns can be the impetus for policies that changes lives. Instead of pageviews and revenue, the key metrics are social actions, political and financial commitments, and lives affected.

Global Citizen

“Not only is this a much more uplifting type of conversion, converting people into taking action to make the world a better place is a better model,” Wolffe asserted. “Each conversion is more meaningful. If we think about the policy piece to this, we track very closely the number of actions taken and the number of action-takers.”

Hashtag activism

In the nonprofit world, the concept of hashtag activism gets a bad rap. People are skeptical that social posts can lead to tangible results at the government level. But Wolffe rejects this perception, using Global Citizen’s system to show how hashtags can be an effective form of protest.

The reason for its effectiveness, he explains, is that like marketers and publishers, politicians are also at a loss for how to engage with their audience. In 2016, social media pressure has become the modern equivalent of dialing your local representative.

“There’s no difference between calling a member of Congress and tweeting them,” Wolffe said. “Especially when we can roadblock someone’s Twitter feed, and they say, ‘Please stop this. I can’t hear from my own constituents anymore.’ What do you want to stop?”

A driving force behind these social voices is Global Citizen’s investment in video, like the one of Handler, shared on major social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Operating more like a startup than an aid organization, Global Citizen is free to be, as Wolffe puts it, “more nimble and innovative.”

Video topics range from women reacting to sexist laws to busting myths about refugees, and all use data to tell a story that ends with a call to action. Content—video and otherwise—is based on the interpretation of hard facts, yet for Wolffe the goal is less Vox, more BuzzFeed.

“Vox can be a bit too intellectual and, I would say, a bit too masculine,” Wolffe explained. “The idea of trying to be the smartest person in the room is a pretty young male persona. My biggest insights on social content come from BuzzFeed’s social media team.”

Among these insights includes how to create engaging viral content for a largely millennial audience. Modeling after a media powerhouse like BuzzFeed, Global Citizen has defied what seems to be a curse of nonprofits: the inability to connect social media participation to political action. Look no further than Global Citizen’s work to help Congress pass the Global Food Security Act in July.

In 2014, Global Citizen joined a coalition of non-governmental organizations (CAREONECaterpillar FoundationOxfamWorld VisionInterActionBread for the WorldFarm Journal Foundation, and Save the Children) trying to influence U.S. legislation that would combat global hunger, poverty, and malnutrition. In order for the resolution to pass, it needed more public support and recognition in Congress. Global Citizen used its platform to create social campaigns, rallies, and speaking events to encourage its audience to take action beyond a hashtag, meme, or a tweet. Over the last two years, the campaigns inspired more than 120,000 social actions—including writing letters and calling congressional representatives, signing petitions, and gathering thousands of people for a protest on the National Mall.

The culmination of these efforts sparked media attention, and the issue made its way to the House of Representatives, which passed the bill with a vote of 369 to 53. Obama signed the resolution on July 20, 2016, making the law official.

The ambitious nonprofit still faces its own challenges, chief of which is maintaining the bright set of staffers who produce content on a limited budget.

“It’s tough. … I feel like all I’ve done is hire people,” Wolffe said. For now, he hopes the same incentive driving social media participation will keep the editorial team motivated. “Millennials want companies to share their values. It’s about having a sense of purpose.”

While promoting videos of Chelsea Handler face-planting into her spaghetti may not immediately evoke a sense of purpose, if the collective action of social media users can help feed millions of hungry citizens, that’s proof enough that Global Citizen’s content is doing its job.

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