War Child Canada's creative fight for attention

James Topham, Director of Communications and Marketing, War Child Canada

Madeline Lunney interviews James Topham, War Child Canada’s director of communications and marketing


Inspired by altruism, faith, family or end-of-year taking stock (and income tax receipts), the majority of people in Canada choose December to make financial contributions to charities. Realizing this, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) run special, targeted campaigns during the holidays. Others anticipate that their outreach and communication efforts carried out throughout the year will have an impact. Whether a short- or long-term campaign, increasingly charities are looking for creative ways to differentiate their organization and find new supporters and audiences.

Since its founding in 1999, War Child Canada has used a range of strategies, including music and relationships with musicians, to raise awareness of the plight of children in war-affected regions of the globe. Canadians have been inspired by the organization’s founder and executive director, Samantha Nutt, a Canadian doctor who is a well-regarded advocate, speaker and writer on children’s rights.

Interview focus: What makes War Child Canada different in terms of the way the organization promotes its messages? What kinds of awareness and fundraising campaigns are proving successful in a changing media landscape?

Madeline Lunney (ML): When War Child develops campaigns or when you communicate about your work overseas, is there a specific audience that you’re looking to reach?

James Topham (JT): The majority of our supporters are around 30 years old and from what we can tell it’s significantly skewed towards women. We’re different from MSF [previous interview profile] because our focus is not on emergency situations. For example, the average person is more interested in Haiti right after the earthquake than they’re going to be two years after the disaster. That’s just a fact of life. It’s very difficult to get the media’s sustained interest about stories in obscure places—narratives get old fast. Despite this, War Child has received attention from journalists.

As the traditional media industry appears to disappear before our eyes, it’s going to get increasingly difficult to find many journalists whose employers will fund airfare and other expenses. So, War Child is coming up with creative ways to get its message across.

The digital media “challenge” project and War Child

For example, we recently undertook a project with a group of four young bloggers. We’d been thinking about doing this for two or three years; it moved forward when we received government funding through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The potential correspondents competed through four blogging “tests” and the winner will travel with the War Child Canada team to Ethiopia this year. Next, we’ll travel around to school campuses, using this campaign to talk about using social media to stimulate discussion on social issues.

From mid-October to early December, 2010, War Child invited four “digitally savvy and socially conscious” young Canadians to take part in a series of multimedia citizen journalism challenges. The resulting posts were shared online and the winner selected by a youth jury, including War Child youth volunteers. Together they assessed posts from the four bloggers.

Judging criteria included:

  • clarity
  • focus
  • depth of knowledge
  • creativity
  • originality

Traditional media

ML: Tell me more about War Child and the media. I recently read a profile on Dr. Samantha Nutt [War Child Canada’s executive director] in More magazine, which is a magazine for women over 40. For me, the article was distinguished by the fact that it covered some of the issues related to children in war, while also profiling her in a very thoughtful way.

JT: That was a really good article. I didn’t know what to expect from More magazine but, actually, that was one of the best profiles of Samantha Nutt in a while! Sam was also named among the Globe and Mail’s 25 Transformational Canadians. That was very good. In 2006 she was named by Chatelaine magazine as one of “12 Women Who Should Run for Politics.” But I can’t take credit for Sam being recognized, personally, for her dedicated work.

ML: Is War Child actively seeking out this media attention?

JT: We don’t chase the tributes and awards—that would be tacky!

We do get a lot of requests for interviews through our various networks. It’s great to have a good article to forward to people who want to know about our work. If an article is thoughtful and well-written, it’s an opportunity to hold people’s attention for a little longer.

We receive a tremendous amount of requests for Sam to speak. And whenever Sam speaks publicly, we see a corresponding spike in donations.

Sam is now taking time out to finish a book. She has yet to decide on the title, but it should be published in the fall of 2011. Her book isn’t really autobiographical; rather, it’s based around some things that have happened to her in her life, but it focuses on international development: what we’re doing wrong and what could be done better.

Cultivating understanding

ML: Are there some issues or points of view about War Child Canada and international development that are sometimes misinterpreted by the public? What are some of your concerns about public perceptions? And what do you do about them?

JT: I don’t think people understand the complexity of international cooperation and I don’t think that is necessarily their collective fault. I think a lot of the problem has to do with the way many charities simplify the issues: if members of the public are told, repeatedly, that all it takes is $10 and the world will be fine, that the problems of the world are black and white, then one can start believing it.

The request we receive the most is from people who want to go overseas to help. This completely fails to recognize the fact that the people in those countries really need support [financial and infrastructure] to create the solutions for themselves. It’s well meaning, but if you’re building a school, chances are you’re taking a job out of the local economy.

Not enough people see it as a responsibility for us in the developed world to do what we can to improve the world around us. This is probably because of the way non-profits advertise by manipulating guilt. “Responsibility, not charity” is a bit of a mantra at War Child Canada.

Cultural differences in soliciting donations

ML: You started out working with War Child in the UK. How is it different working on achieving a public profile and understanding in Canada?

JT: I know several of the Canadian media outlets have Christmas campaigns, with donations going to local—not international—charities. But, in general, it’s nothing like the campaigns that are run in the UK, where the journalists make an explicit link between the story on a charity and the opportunities to donate.

For example, with War Child UK, we did a lot of work in Sudan, Rwanda and East Timor. We’d arrange for newspaper journalists to visit these countries—not just to find out about our program, but various organizations. The invited journalists would write about the experience and at the end of every article there would be a donation form at the bottom of an article. This makes sense for the newspaper as well, because presumably if the writing is good, people will want to do something to help the various causes. The easiest thing would be for journalists to provide the URLs to websites, but it’s more effective to print actual donation forms, which are referred to as “coupons.”

This practice isn’t done in Canada. Perhaps owners and editors of media outlets are concerned that journalistic integrity would be compromised. If so, I think that’s nonsense. The Canadian media seem very reluctant to link a specific request for a charitable donation to a story.

The weird thing about those [UK] “coupons” is that people would cut them out and stick them on their fridges and we’d get donations eight months later. If the public wants to give, let them give. From my end, it’s an honest relationship: you pitch the story to a journalist and offer to organize a tour. If the actual cause proves worthy of coverage, the least the newspaper can do is print a donation form within the article so that readers who are moved can contribute.

ML: Are there other differences that you’ve noticed working in Canada?

JT: Yes, but more from a marketing than a PR perspective. For example, I’ve been shocked at the way some North American organizations promote their causes, in such a guilt-inducing, exploitative way—I hadn’t witnessed that in the UK, or at least not so much. Those terrible spots with children crying to the beat—they’re really quite disturbing.

Also, when we were planning the first john st. creative campaign—Camp Okutta—I was warned by people within War Child that Canadians were too conservative for provocative advertising. But at the same time I was meeting more and more people who really didn’t seem much different to my London friends. In the end I figured we should just try it and—surprise, surprise—we received a 98 per cent positive reaction. I think the British are actually more conservative than Canadians!

Multiple award-winning, Toronto-based advertising firm, john st., developed a campaign based on the fictitious Camp Okutta for “kids aged 8-12.” Instead of the usual camp activities, children were required to fire AK47s, throw grenades and walk through minefields, replicating the real-life experiences of actual child soldiers. The campaign included a traditional television ad, but the campaign really took off as a result of non-traditional advertising methods, such as online video sites, blogs and guerilla posters and leaflet distribution. In 2007, john st. was the only Canadian recipient of Adweek Media’s prestigious BUZZ Awards, which recognize the best in advertising and marketing and draw hundreds of entries from the top agencies working on the biggest brands.

john st. was also behind a campaign that used posters, stencils and YouTube to advertise bizarre, faked efforts to support the use of child soldiers. The idea behind this creative was that if Canadians aren’t part oft the solution, they’re part of the problem. The YouTube video showing people taking action to support “the cause” received more than 100,000 hits within a couple of weeks, leading to discussion on hundreds of websites and spots in national media.

ML: That’s great that john st. does your advertising for free. What other agencies do you work with to develop your campaigns?

JT: The recent blogger project was done in conjunction with Hill & Knowlton Canada, which also does great pro bono work for us. We approached H&K Canada for digital PR assistance with the second john st campaign. War Child Canada was already active in the digital realm, but our goal was to be at the forefront in the charitable sector.

Credit goes to (former H&K Canada staffers) David Jones and Sharon Fernandes—I particularly blame Sharon—for getting me to set up my Twitter account. She was my Twitter pusher. Next they got Sam Nutt on there… Sam began tweeting when she visited Darfur in 2009 and War Child Canada received a lot of attention from it.

The fact that Sam was in Darfur made her entry into the Twitterverse more interesting, but her continued popularity on Twitter demonstrates that the important thing remains the relevant and interesting content of her tweets. She is quite skilled at providing content that moves people, which is a real feat considering the 140-character limitation on the length of a tweet. Sadly, writing her book has slightly gotten in the way of her tweeting, recently.

One result of those early tweets was a significant amount of coverage in media dealing with technology—we were then able to profile Darfur on the back of it. In fact, all of the coverage we received for Darfur that year was on the back of Sam’s tweeting—which must say something about all our priorities.

ML: Did you have any earlier experience in public relations?

JT: My earlier experience was in the music industry. I managed Brian Eno in the early 1990s. He came on board in the first group of celebrity supporters [for War Child UK] and he also helped persuade several other musicians, like David Bowie, to become involved. In the four years of doing fundraising there, it proved very handy to have access to Brian Eno’s address book!

The ongoing duet between musicians and War Child

ML: Tell me more about the music industry connection with War Child.

JT: From the beginning, the music-focused fundraisers done in the UK were first-rate; every component of the highest quality. It’s the standard I try to keep in my work with War Child Canada: anything done in connection with raising funds for War Child should be an event people would attend or music they would buy, regardless of whether it’s for charity.

In general, this is a really good rule to live by in event fundraising; it is key to our ongoing success. In the UK, there were few problems recruiting people to help. Key artists know that other good artists are contributing. They know ahead of time that they’ll be there with their peers and that everyone involved will be doing the best job possible. You end up with great events or recordings that way.

ML: Are you making connections with similarly established or up-and-coming artists in Canada?

JT: I’m not involved in the music side of the equation as much, anymore. I was raised on British music and I’m a bit old to become an expert on the Canadian music scene! But, yes, we have a lot of support from artists.

For example, we have a weekly auction conducted through The Edge radio station. There are a lot of signed guitars. We had a signed Tegan and Sara guitar last year. The prices bid went through the roof. It turns out that Tegan and Sara has a huge online following, and when the band tweeted, the followers responded—and then some. It wound up selling for thousands of dollars to a young woman who lives in Germany! Obviously we were thrilled.

Also, we do the Toronto-based busking festival each year in September, which gets a lot of media attention. Alas, the weather is often freezing…except for the last year, which was sunny and warm…and I was not available to attend!

In 2010, Busking for Change, an event supported by MuchMusic, featured musicians Jesse Labelle, Raine Maida, The Midway State, Alyssa Reid, KO, The Artist Life and The Junction, busking on street corners all over the city of Toronto. All the money collected went to War Child Canada.

ML: How do you see marketing and communications for not-for-profits as being different from the private sector?

JT: When you’re working in the private sector, it’s very clear what you’re selling and what you’re promoting.

It isn’t always tangible what we’re promoting. Essentially, we’re trying to get people to think of it as their responsibility to donate funds and help to change the world for the better.

ML: Finally, what keeps you motivated? What do you like about this job?

JT: I really like and respect this organization. Plus you can be a lot more creative working for a smallish charity.

It’s fun to do the stuff you really want to do…as long as it works. It’s good to know that what we (as staff and volunteers) do during the day can makes a difference in the world.

Also—and don’t tell her I said this—Samantha Nutt is an inspiring person to be around. It’s gratifying working for someone you respect.


James Topham is responsible for North American communications at War Child, based out of Toronto, Ontario. Before moving to Canada, James worked at War Child in London, England, doing much the same job, but with a little more irony.

Before becoming charitable, James ran Brian Eno’s management company, working on projects including a David Bowie album, a fashion show, a computer program for generating music, an aborted magazine and a 3’ x 3’ representation of the dance floor from Saturday Night Fever. He once accidentally put the phone down on Bono. Bono was very gracious about it. You can find out more about James’ work and personal interests at Tops’ Blog.

For more information on War Child Canada, contact James by email.

Photo of James Topham by Rannie Turingan, who is also known as @photojunkie.

Madeline Lunney
Madeline Lunney

Madeline Lunney is a consultant to Canadian non-profit organizations who have a keen interest in public response to social issues. Since 2000, Lunney Consultants has assisted some 40 non-profits, consulting in the inter-related areas of public education, fundraising and program evaluation. Her clients include international development organizations as well as local non-profit agencies working in literacy, human rights and to prevent violence against women. A graduate of the International Development Studies Programme at the University of Toronto, Madeline has also lived in Ecuador, working for an Ecuadorian women’s shelter and on a radio program with street youth. Contact Madeline by email for more information or to suggest an interview subject.

This is the second in a series of occasional interviews that Madeline Lunney has agreed to conduct with public relations and communication leads of NGOs (for publishing on PR Conversations).

Earlier interview:

Visibility, aid and advocacy: balancing effective yet sensitive communication at MSF

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12 Replies to “War Child Canada's creative fight for attention

  1. Thanks to James for his contributions. I’m glad this organization is still going strong and unfortunately it is as necessary as ever. Also, good on the advertising agency for doing their work pro bono.

  2. Judy:

    you have an amazing site here and I could spend all day reading your great information! I think the Internet has afforded us the opportunity to help people and learn about things we never would have even dreamed about. I know at least for myself I have found things on the web I would never have learned before.

    All the best,

  3. There are currently two War Child organizations that make up the War Child network and are engaged in field programming in war torn communities War Child Canada and War Child Holland. The logo is internationally trademarked and evolved from a collaborative process involving the War Child office in Holland together with MTV Europe who together designed the new logo that was later adopted by all other War Child offices.

    1. Actually, War Child was first founded in the UK in 1992/3. There are currently War Child offices in North America, the UK and Holland, with fundraising arms in Australia and Ireland. The logo was initially designed by War Child’s founder – it is square because it was initially sketched on a beer coaster. A designer at MTV Europe then cleaned it up after Brett Hansen, President of MTV Europe, became a patron of War Child UK.

  4. Wow! Your info was great. I think internet is the best way to make others know about how to help people who are in distress all over this world. Internet is the latest, safest, fastest way to donate to a cause. And there are many sites who are offering this facility. Good causes

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