Building Momentum, Pixel by Pixel

11 June 2019
Dispatch, Imad Yassin
Illustration: Aistė Stancikaitė
Social media should be more than its flaws. We can’t underestimate its power for good

When my father passed away suddenly in 2013, my siblings and I discovered something we never expected: he had built an orphanage housing 150 children in the refugee camps of Sudan.

As you can imagine, that news really opened a door for me. When I visited for the first time I was stunned to find out that there were more than 300,000 refugees in Sudan – some since the ’80s.

But even so, when my siblings and I decided to start the Idris Foundation – named after my father – everyone thought we were crazy. They thought that, unless we dropped everything and quit our day jobs, running an impactful not-for-profit organisation was impossible. Five years later, we have more than 25 volunteers spread across the world. None of us gets paid a salary and everyone has a day job. Through the foundation, we fund and raise awareness for projects that improve the quality of life for refugees, particularly those in Sudan. Currently, we are supporting nine schools, each housing more than 250 children. There are more on the way. This unlikely feat has been made possible by one big factor: technology.

There has been a steady turning of the tide of goodwill for the internet – an erosion of trust in our platforms, concerns about tech addiction, and a rise in toxic discourse. Nowadays, we’re just as likely to look at the technology around us with contempt as we are wonder. But, for all the worry about privacy, accuracy and wellbeing, we cannot be too quick to dismiss the tangible, daily good that digital devices and platforms gift us.

The strategic use of technology, in particular social media, has changed the charitable fundraising landscape forever. Yes, everyone remembers the viral campaigns that encouraged the public to take part in challenges while in turn nominating others to do the same – it emerged, post-Kony, as a reliable, credible way to raise awareness and funds for previously forgotten causes.

Although successful viral campaigns are hard to come by, at our foundation, we know that social media platforms empower our donors from all the corners of the world to connect and share content – they are a critical resource for delivering our messages to raise funds. Raising awareness digitally allows us to share creative events and campaigns with people from different walks of life to inspire kindness, all at a click of a button. It does not replace traditional methods of engagement – and nor should it – but for a foundation like ours, it enables our international team of volunteers to communicate regularly and commit to the Foundation while still working and living busy lives.

It’s wild to think, but the power of posting the right photo and caption, at the right time, cannot be understated. Just in the way that it can boost the presence of a brand, product or person, it can be harnessed to bring tangible good to underprivileged young refugees, offering learning tools and life-altering health resources.

A paper published in the Journal of Public Economics found that $22 bn was donated online in 2010 – and that number, inevitably, will have grown since. Despite the negative press associated with social media, we are a frequent champion of its ability to bring like-minded people together, foster group learning, and inexpensively spread the word about our worthy cause.

The world is certainly a smaller place and fundraising is competitive, but without a presence you risk being perceived as unable to serve your cause, or ignorant to the importance of communication. Long-term supporters or regular donors are willing to keep going as long as you are. In 2019 that’s not through a letterbox but straight into their social media feeds.

Technology for us is not only about reaching donors it’s also about helping us manage donations and sponsorships in a responsible and an accountable way. Information from our partners’ automated services equip us with invaluable data to help us grow.

Tech solutions on the ground are also where we believe we will invest. Isolated refugee camps with basic wifi connections can be revolutionised with internet-based learning and healthcare. The real opportunities are endless. We have seen first-hand the positive impact portable tablets have had on the learning environment in the schools we sponsor. The bulky, old fashioned and often heavily custom-taxed textbooks could not compete. Similarly, the introduction of simple technology to aid medics in the camps’ health shelters reduced waiting times and increased the number of patients treated for minor illnesses. Technology also allowed us to work globally with designers in Dubai (Efro & Co), graphic designers in New York (Lovett Hines) and photographers in Barcelona (Bruno Gabriel). We were able to, without moving an inch, deliver a t-shirt collection and sell it in Marrakech, and online across the world.

Yes, we are right to question the tools in front of us – to audit the impact they have on our work, our lives and the way we relate to each other. But to dismiss or forget the way these tools can be utilised for all things good wouldn’t just be a shame – it would be downright foolish.