I’D Like To Thank The Academy

June 1, 2009       Michele Donohue      

Academy Award-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of how a poor, 18-year-old orphan named Jamal takes by storm India’s version of the television game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

The film, which won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, tells a larger story about the desperate conditions faced by Indian orphans in the slums of Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Nonprofits that work within the real Indian slums are hoping to turn the attention from the big screen and back to the big picture — children facing that poverty every day.

"What Slumdog Millionaire represented was an opportunity to express and leverage the intersection of popular culture with an important policy issue of poverty in a way where you can help people visualize the implications of poverty," said James Hickman, vice president of external affairs at the Institute for OneWorld Health in San Francisco.

Numerous organizations are trying to use the afterglow of Slumdog to their advantage. Hickman explained that international headlines in recent years have been dominated by peace, or lack thereof, in the Middle East, terrorism or genocide. Stories about the more than one billion people a year afflicted with neglected diseases in developing countries are far fewer. Slumdog provided in-your-face examples of poverty in India, bringing the problems closer to home for individuals.

OneWorld Health is a nonprofit pharmaceutical organization dedicated to creating affordable medicine for neglected diseases, such as diarrheal disease. The organization decided to leverage the attention on the developing world stemming from the movie and make that an intricate part of a year-long awareness campaign on neglected diseases.

The organization produced an advertisement that ran in The New York Times the day after Slumdog dominated the Academy Awards. The concept piggybacked on the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? theme in the movie and posed the question, "Why do millions of people die from treatable diseases every year?" The organization then urged readers to change the answers through donating and learning more about OneWorld Health.

OneWorld Health’s Web site traffic increased 53 percent the week the ad ran, of which an estimated 85 percent were first-time visitors. The day the ad ran, February 23, the organization’s Web traffic exploded by 360 percent.

The campaign did not end there. OneWorld Health CEO Dr. Richard Chin wrote a blog post for the popular Huffington Post regarding what changes can be made within the real Indian slums. The organization also plans to launch an online advertising campaign, including Google AdWords. The organization hopes the Slumdog-inspired campaign will open new cause-related marketing partnerships and usher in new donor prospects.

"Movies like Slumdog Millionaire give us a unique lens into the challenges of everyday living in other parts of the globe," said Hickman. "But hopefully it also helps us understand that we can do something about it."

Martina Fuchs, M.D., founder of The Real Medicine Foundation, knows the real slums of India. The Los Angeles-based organization provides support to poverty-stricken areas and has a team dedicated to India. Real Medicine is trying to expand the general interest in poverty to specific actions to change conditions, such as educating girls, providing continuous healthcare and improving sanitation.

"Millionaire helped bring India into focus and what’s needed there so it’s more that way involved right now," said Fuchs. "What we are trying to do with the focus on India through the movie is to make aware" how much is needed, she said.

"It says you can do something about these diseases and more importantly for these people who sometimes seem far, far away — until they win an Academy Award," said Hickman.

Another movie and award has increased awareness for the New York City-based Smile Train. The organization provides cleft palate surgeries in the developing world and shared its mission in the documentary, Smile Pinki. The documentary followed Pinki, a 6-year-old girl from rural India, as she received the free cleft surgery from Smile Train. The film won an Oscar for best documentary short.

"Every Oscar changes a career. This Oscar can change millions of lives. Our goal now is to turn this Oscar into a million smiles," said Brian Mullaney, co-founder and president of Smile Train.

Mullaney explained that the organization’s biggest problem during the past 10 years has been awareness. Nearly 4 million children around the world are afflicted with cleft palates, but children in the United States usually have the defect fixed by three months old, compared to impoverished children who often deal with the problem all their lives. The cultural differences divide the reality of the problem and the perception of need from U.S. donors.

Smile Train developed the idea for a movie more than three years ago. The organization decided to shoot a documentary focused on just one child’s journey after original plans for a feature film fell through. Megan Mylan, director of The Lost Boys of Sudan, was chosen to direct Smile Pinki. Smile Train would not disclose how much was spent on the film, but a spokesperson confirmed that the influx in donations more than covered the costs and the organization received more publicity in four weeks than in the past 10 years.

The documentary’s trailer had more than 110,000 views on the organization’s YouTube channel while Smile Train’s Web site traffic doubled the day after the Oscar win. Online donations doubled for a week and a half after the win. "This Oscar has been like a dream come true for us because it brought [cleft defects] to the attention of tens of millions of people now and they are really responding in all kinds of ways that make us think we are going to solve the problem," said Mullaney.

Now the organization is licensing Smile Pinki to HBO, which will further increase the documentary’s exposure.

He said that he didn’t expect that donors coming in from the documentary would be any different than donors acquired through other channels. What he does know is that Smile Pinki generated a lot of attention for the 42-person staffed organization. "We’ve been completely overwhelmed with the response. It’s all great but we are kind of drowning trying to keep up with it," said Mullaney. "It’s exciting. It’s exhausting. But we realize it’s our 15 minutes of fame and we have to really not let the opportunity pass to turn this into millions of smiles."

"For the nonprofit world, it really pays to think big and reach for the stars. A lot of times charities think ‘we can’t do that’ or ‘it’s beyond our reach’," said Mullaney. He explained the Oscar win proved that "if we can do it, anyone could do anything." NPT

NonProfit  Times
The Leading Business Publication For Nonprofit Management