Lessons from Oaktree’s “Live Below the Line”

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of working on the hugely successful campaign Live Below the Line (LBL). This campaign asks individuals to live on $2 a day for five days (henceforth known as “the challenge”) to have an eye-opening experience about what it’s like to live in extreme poverty. Participants receive sponsorship to take the challenge; their unique experience also opens opportunities to have conversations about the issue of extreme poverty.

In 2012, the campaign’s third year, we had over 7,000 participants, over 50,000 donors,  and raised almost $1.7 million. This project is supported almost entirely by volunteers and runs on a budget of less than $250,000. We can safely say it’s a whopping success. (That said, there are many lessons for Live Below the Line.)

In my evaluation, LBL’s success is due to three things in particular: the challenge’s uniqueness and availability; how donations work; and the style of community that is generated. My analysis of this is informed by a stint of approximately three months as the campaign’s Online Director. I’m also influenced by both the approximately two years I’ve spent as an organiser and campaigner with the AYCC and my familiarity with online organising, gaming, and community development.

‘Live Below the Line’ is Unique and Available

Witnessing LBL’s success in 2011, I experienced what I refer to as “LBL-envy”. I was jealous that this campaign managed to engage people who weren’t being engaged by campaigns I was invested in. In 2012, I’ve seen old school friends, siblings’ ex-boyfriends, casual acquaintances, get on board. These people are not ‘activists’. Why do they do the challenge? Because it is unique and it is available.

Participants in LBL get an experience they can not get otherwise. Many aren’t confident in their ability to succeed at the challenge, and doing so thus deepens their self-awareness, personal insight, and esteem. Their understanding of extreme poverty is enhanced in a way that no other experience could imitate.

LBL’s website is part of this. It provides a platform for people to reflect and track their own experience, amplifying its impact. It offers information on the campaign’s impact, and advice on how to succeed at the challenge. In 2012, the LBL team invested in the development of an online peer-to-peer fundraising platform that is without peer in the world. This means that, while anyone might choose to do the challenge independently of LBL, those who do it through LBL nonetheless have a unique and particularly profound experience. This uniqueness is an important motivation to take part.

The campaign’s availability is not a motivation per se, but a factor that facilitates participation. The campaign is available because, while it asks sacrifice, this sacrifice is acceptable to participants. Also, the use of celebrity ambassadors, the support given to participants, and the media coverage that the campaign garners, all serve to normalise the experience as a whole, thus eroding psychological resistance to being outside the mainstream.

a facebook status about live below the line

My sister’s ex-boyfriend: anecdotal proof of LBL’s wide appeal.

Is living on $2 a day a small sacrifice? Certainly not. Participants will deal with hunger, withdrawals, and an inability to concentrate at study or work. It’s a pretty big deal. In comparison, however, what do other campaigns ask people to sacrifice? Most other campaigns that actually ask something of participants – as opposed to slacktivism-style operations – demand a sacrifice of time. Whether asking someone to write a letter to their politician, attend a meeting, or organise an event, these campaigns are asking for participants’ time. Upon reflection, I suspect that young people (the target demographic of LBL, fo’ shizzle, and the target demographic in almost all the campaigning I’ve done) are readier to eat on $2 a day for five days – a bound commitment – than to give their time in service of an equally worthy cause, especially where that time commitment might be ongoing.

Live Below the Line is successful because it asks participants to make an acceptable sacrifice, portrays the making of that sacrifice as mainstream, and offers participants in return a unique experience.

Live Below the Line works because donations are to individuals, not the cause.

Live Below the Line offers donors two options. They can make a ‘general donation’, or they can donate to an individual/team. In any case, the donation flows to the same result, the only difference is whether or not that donation is highlighted to a recipient.

This being the case, I’d like you to guess three things:

  1. What proportion of funds raised came from donations to participants?
  2. What proportion of donations were to participants?
  3. Is the mean donation higher or lower when it is ‘general’ as opposed to participant/team specific?

Prepare to be shocked and astounded, and then astounded again as I explain why this isn’t astounding.The answers are:

  1. Almost 100% (99.3%)
  2. Almost 100% (99.6%)
  3. Higher. Average ‘general’ donation = $60, average participant/team donation = $35.
a pie graph showing that most money went to participants!

Fundsraised from donations to participant/team in blue. Sometimes the data talk, sometimes they yell.

These data don’t surprise me. I’ve responded to countless emails where people are irate because they accidentally made a general donation and it isn’t showing up on their friend’s profile. I patiently explain to these people that the money all goes to the same cause. That doesn’t help as much as you’d hope. Some people have even demanded their money back. While the significance of these results does surprise me, I already knew that a lot of people donate simply to support people they care about, not because they support the work. Of course, they do support the projects, and that is necessary for them to donate, but it is not sufficient. The fact that it is a good cause makes donating possible, the fact that they are supporting their friend makes donating desirable.

Why are general donations higher? Because it costs more to solve poverty than it does to show your friend you care. While this is affected by the tendency for people to accidentally make general donations, it’s nonetheless clear that people making general donations are willing to give more to the campaign – they are probably more invested in ending extreme poverty than those who donate principally to show an individual they care.

Live Below the Line is able to raise such a high amount of funds because it leverages personal ties to encourage donations in support of an individual. While the worthiness of the cause is relevant, the use of personal appeals in line with strong ties is fundamental to the fundraising success.

‘Live Below the Line’ creates collective effervescence

Have you read your Durkheim?
[quote]Durkheim noted how feelings of sacred often emerge in rituals that elicit what he called “collective effervescence”, the feeling of oneness with the larger community…two central elements: a feeling of oneness or unity with something bigger than oneself, and a shared sense of community and identification with that community and its collective symbols.”[/quote]I began my role as Online Director with some reservations about LBL, its theory of change, its political effectiveness. However, I knew I had an opportunity to give thousands of participants a transformative experience of being part of something greater than the sum of its parts.

Many organisations call their social media personnel “Community Managers” and with good reason. Social media facilitates community, in that people with shared interests or experiences can easily commune. As LBL expanded offline, these communities blossomed online. Every LBLer was connected to every other LBLer, and in online communities they could support one another and share experiences.

Don’t believe me? The weekend before LBL week, my team (ie, me) created a Facebook group for each Australian state/territory. LBLers were invited to join each group. Remember, these people don’t know each other. All they have in common is that they are doing LBL. Yet awesome conversation, dialogue and reflection flourished. People shared pictures, recipes, insights. There was positive reflection on and analysis of the campaign itself.

In one case I saw, somebody had experienced trolling on a LBL-themed picture she had posted publicly. She revealed this to the group and was promptly validated, reassured, and comforted. In another case, somebody posted a question – “I’d really like to know if there is anyone else out there in LBTL land who is over 40.” In response, other middle-aged LBLers spoke up and made the original poster feel welcome. People spoke about their mums and others taking part. The poster, having expressed her uncertainty about whether she could be part of the LBL experience, was lovingly accepted. These Facebook groups, more than anything else, made me realise the beauty of how LBL enabled participants to be part of something bigger.

These days, of course, every man person and his their donkey is getting on board with social media. The edge that LBL has is:

  1. Participants have a novel experience. They are thus motivated to share this experience, and to connect with others having it.
  2. Success depends on connection. No LBLer is an island. The LBLers that fundraise the most and have the best experience necessarily are reaching out to donors and are communicating about their experience with others.
  3. I was the Online Director and I’m bloody good at what I do.

All up, LBL’s community is crucial to its success. This is evident both online and offline. In both causes, involving LBLers in something bigger, providing an experience of “collective effervescence”, is central.

a photo collage of live below the line participants' faces

A photo mosaic with the profile picture of every LBLer. Concept credit goes to Glen Berman.

Wrapping Up

It’s been awesome watching LBL succeed this year. Seeing the diversity of participants, the transformative experiences they had, the donations rolling in, the community growing – it has been tremendous. LBL, as a unique and available campaign, successfully leverages strong personal ties to motivate charitable giving. It provides participants with an experience that is unique for each individual, but also shared with thousands of others, allowing participants to connect with people around this common experience. LBL is truly a groundbreaking campaign that will continue to enjoy success for years to come, and the source of this success is well worth understanding.

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4 Responses to “Lessons from Oaktree’s “Live Below the Line””

  1. Hi Joel – thanks for the analysis! Really great. Now we all know what elements add up to success, the challenge is how to replicate it. I’ll give you an AYCC-themed lollipop if you can come up with an LBL that works for us! 😉

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  1. Lessons for Live Below the Line | Scit Necessitas - May 19, 2012

    […] We can safely say it’s a whopping success. I’ve discussed the cause for this success in a previous post. In this post, I’d like to see how LBL can […]

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