The World Vision Christmas Gift Catalogue 2012: Good; but paperless would be even better.

Lix and I recently received the hardcopy World Vision Christmas Gift Catalogue in our mailbox, the second since we started co-sponsoring a Zambian child a little over a year ago. Though we largely ignored it the first time, this time around we sat down and went through it together, donating far more than we’d anticipated; partly because we sincerely wanted to help, and partly because we couldn’t bear to see the beautiful catalogue go to waste.

The World Vision catalogue we received resembled those commercial ones you often get in the mail or as newspaper supplements. At over forty(!) pages long, printed in full colour and on relatively heavy glossy paper, it doesn’t feel cheap; in fact, it makes you wonder for a moment whether the printing of the catalogue alone makes up most of World Vision’s marketing/communications budget (which in Singapore stands at 11.6%, as stated in the catalogue).

As soon as you get past the cover page however (which states that you can “choose from over 90 extraordinary gifts and bring cheer to some of the world’s poorest children”), and flip through the stories contained within, you won’t think of anything else but how you may be able to help.

Each item in the catalogue is presented in a similar fashion: a short, open-ended story written in the first person (as if the actual beneficiaries penned it), detailing a problem faced and its proposed solution, accompanied by one or more vivid photographs of World Vision beneficiaries and the things you can get to help them solve the problem.

(Noticed I said “open ended”? Well, it’s because the story has no ending: how the story ends is left to you — potential donor and protagonist — to decide: donate, and little Finne gets to eat; don’t, and she, along with the rest of her peers, starves.)

It’s a simple formula, but it works surprisingly well. By breaking down a problem of unimaginable scale into the individual level, and crafting tangible solutions to these smaller-scale problems, potential donors are made to feel empowered to make a real change in the world. Traditional methods, by contrast, often leave donors with little else but a vague sense of having dented the great wall of poverty with a penny. To whom would you rather give your $96 to: some random charity, or severely undernourished little Finne so that she can eat for a good half a year?

I don’t know about you, but little Finne’s not going hungry on my watch.

The catalogue’s a great idea, and for what it does it works extremely well (which explains why it has caught on so well among charities around the world). But remember how many pages I mentioned this catalogue was? That’s right: 40-plus, no-expense-spared pages. At the end of it all, my thoughts couldn’t help but return to that of how resource-hungry the catalogue was. Just a thought, but, at the risk of sounding too Year-2000-Dot-Com-Era-ish, couldn’t this catalogue have been digitised and put online?

The simple answer: yes.

A quick internet search showed that this catalogue could be found online in its entirety, so I was a tad puzzled that there wasn’t an option in the marketing material sent to me by World Vision on how I could “opt out” of receiving hardcopy editions in the future, and have the digital version sent to me instead. Having a postcard pointing me to the updated catalogue online would have worked as well.

But maybe I shouldn’t have been too puzzled about not receiving an option to opt out, as the online catalogue was, quite frankly, a rather disappointing experience. I was hoping for something more Web 2.0, something that’d make me think “it looks like an online shop” only that the items were for donation and not purchase. But what I found was that you either got the PDF/flash version of the catalogue that didn’t accept any online methods of payment, or you got the version that accepted online methods of payments but looked like it belonged to the 1990’s.

So here’s a thought: what if each catalogue item had its own fundraising page like that found on GIVE.sg or, another one of my favourite sites, Kickstarter.com? Maybe it wouldn’t work so well with the smaller ticket items like “three bowls of rice for a week”, but even these could be expanded to “three bowls of rice for a week for a village” to fit the “project” structure of these sites. The great thing about these types of fundraising sites is the tremendous amount of interaction they allow between fundraisers and donors/contributors (and among donors/contributors themselves as well) and the fact that as a donor you can see your contribution affect the “total contributions” on the page more or less immediately (again, the feeling of empowerment). I don’t know about you, but I’d think the experience would rival any hardcopy catalogue.

Adopting the gift catalogue idea from the commercial world was a great innovative step for charities, but it’s probably time it evolved. Online “catalogues” (which may or may take on the traditional “catalogue” form) would be a great place to start, not only reducing both costs and paper usage, but also possibly raising more funds by virtue of being more easily and widely distributed via social media and other traditional online means. Who knows, but in the not-too-distant-future you could well be browsing for gifts to send to impoverished Mongolian kids through your mobile device, and sharing with friends on Facebook that they should do the same.

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