Africa: How a Sports Writer Unleashed a New Wave of Philanthropy

opinion

Elizabeth McKee Gore is director of Nothing But Nets, one of the most successful campaigns to distribute insecticide-treated bed nets to malaria-endemic countries. The global Roll Back Malaria Partnership estimates that 700 million insecticide-treated bed nets will have to be distributed by 2010 to remain on target for the goal of nearly eliminating malaria by 2015. More than half of those nets must be distributed in Africa, where most malaria deaths occur.

Nothing But Nets, based in the United States, uses an integrated approach to distribution, relying on existing networks, such as inoculation campaigns, non-governmental organizations, faith-based communities, health workers and others to ensure nets are delivered to even the most remote villages and that they are consistently and properly used. So far, Nothing But Nets has distributed nearly 2.5 million bed nets. Gore recently talked to AllAfrica about how Nothing But Nets came about.

About five years ago what we really needed was larger U.S. government funding for malaria and we needed the rest of the world to start paying attention. The Aids community in the United States is amazing in terms of advocacy and ensuring proper funding but there's no malaria community.

So we started thinking at the United Nations Foundation that we've got to build a public campaign for malaria so people will start supporting it. Nets seemed like a really interesting entry point and a hook for the public to get behind. And it's such a small price for an American – to think of a 10-dollar donation as literally saving someone's life.

So we decided to start fundraising for the nets publicly and we were hoping to leverage that into bigger U.S. dollars and start building this constituency. It was going along okay, not great, but then we got a phone call from Rick Reilly, a writer for Sports Illustrated magazine, who has a huge following. He called and said, "I just saw this documentary on malaria and I am blown away by it. In sports we have nothing but nets – even a sports fan can figure it out." So, we asked him to write a column about it.

He had not been to Africa. He just really liked the solution around the net. So he wrote a column called "Nothing But Nets." Nothing but net is a basketball term when you swish a basketball. It was also used in a McDonald's commercial. [With the column] he did what the entire UN probably couldn't have done and pulled a huge issue down to a 30-second sound bite, down to 800 words in a column.

He said, if you've ever scored a goal in soccer, if you've ever dunked in a basketball net, if you like cheerleaders in fishnets, donate 10 dollars, do it now. And 1.2 million dollars were raised in four weeks from that article. It almost crashed our server. We had to hire temps to man the phones. The amount of mail that came in was just unbelievable. And the bigger thing was 18,000 people responded, which in a community, on an issue where you don't have a following, is pretty huge.

It evolved into the Nothing But Nets campaign and Rick said why not get the sports groups involved. NBA [National Basketball Association] Cares were immediately in. They just loved it. But then we really needed an organizational partner.

We had already been talking to the Methodists a little bit about malaria and so I approached them again. They came on board, which was huge for us because if you think there are 12 million Methodists worldwide and they agreed to communicate this, suddenly we have this enormous audience.

So those were the pinnacle partners that got us kicked off. We had the public launch in January 2007 and we took Rick to Nigeria to see where his nets had gone. And instead of asking the public again we thanked the public. So he published this article "Nothing But Thanks," which garnered double the amount of donations and that's how we broadened out the campaign.

We boiled this whole issue down to Malaria Kills, Send a Net, Save a Life. Donate 10 dollars. The UN Foundation pays the cost of the campaign so that 10 dollars is the full contribution. There's no overhead taken out, which is important to people at that price point.  Then we just kept bringing in new partners. Major League Soccer came on board, the WNBA [Women's National Basketball Association] Cares came on board, the Lutherans, the Union for Reform Judaism.

These partnerships are what created the now 100,000 registered people involved in malaria. Who would have thought? We couldn't get three people in a room to talk about malaria and now we have 100,000 registered people. We think that through all of our partners that Nothing But Nets touches about 25 million people.

We take the marketing very seriously but we also take the distribution very seriously. We continue to follow this money all the way to the ground. We go as often as we can to communicate back to the donors: this is how your money is being used, this is what's happening, this is how the mortality rates have dropped. So half of our job is reporting back, which I think people love because you're not just contributing to malaria, you're learning about Africa, you're learning about the UN, you're learning about these awesome kids that we're working with.

The youth have become the power of this campaign, which was not the original goal. We have an eight-year-old in Pennsylvania who just hit 100 thousand dollars. They're just amazing, they're our celebrities and they surprise us every day. These kids are educating us on the new wave of philanthropy and a new way of getting involved. It's not just raising money. While that's important, it's the whole awareness around this issue.

We need everybody and most of all we need our peers in Africa to lead this and they are. We are supporting them and they are leading the way. These nets only go where they say they should go and I think this has been incredibly effective because they're our partners.

We are encouraging everyone to go out and do their own Nothing But Nets campaign, whether they're hosting a bake sale or a basketball tournament, or just educating the public through their own press release in their local town or at their school to get involved. They can actually populate our Google map on nothingbutnets.net and show the rest of the world what they're doing in honor of World Malaria Day.

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