case studies, storytelling

World Humanitarian Day Assessed in a Word

2 Comments 17 August 2012


There’s a new social media campaign going around, and if you’re not living underground, you may have heard of it: Beyonce is promoting this year’s World Humanitarian Day on August 19. The campaign “I Was Here” is intended to be a “global celebration of people helping people.” The purported call to action is to “send the biggest social media message in history” with a message of hope. The website asks you to “join Beyoncé, the UN and humanitarian aid organizations around the world to reach 1 billion people, on 1 day, with 1 message of hope.” While I think that the idea of personalizing and sharing stories of hope is admirable, I’m frustrated by the lack of community, real action, and what is being measured.


World Humanitarian Day was designated by the General Assembly to coincide with the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, which killed 22 UN staff. In years past, World Humanitarian Day (WHD) has focused on the humanitarian workers in places of crisis around the world: inspiring the spirit of aid around the world, or remembering humanitarian aid workers who gave their lives. The 2012 WHD is not about humanitarian aid workers but rather about personalizing a general social media message of “This World Humanitarian Day, I’m doing something good, somewhere for someone else.” The story has moved from the humanitarian aid workers to the humane, from general to personal, so much so that one may not even realize that World Humanitarian Day is connected to humanitarian aid workers.

I actually applaud the change in story from general to personal. People volunteer and give back because they connect personally to something, and especially to a personal story. The problem is that personal stories are not being told…just the ask. Where are the featured tweets of how people intend to give back? The type of giving trending? The community of inspired volunteers?

The real ask is to share a message. The doing and giving is lost in this campaign.

Lost opportunity for community

The other thing that’s missing here is the opportunity to develop a community of people who are moved and motivated by the message. There’s no place to plug into if you’re really, really excited about it. The only community-building activities are the Twitter hashtags (#WHD2012, #IWasHere), and the twibbon. This is such a lost opportunity for the United Nations, and any of the partnering organizations.

In contrast, the Points of Light Institute/HandsOn Network created the “Get Hands On” campaign to promote volunteering and volunteer projects within one’s own community. This campaign brought community participants together, promoted volunteerism, and offered stories and volunteering ideas on the site. The campaign’s call to action was to create a volunteer project, or join one, and the community hub highlighted the participants and growing community of projects.


What’s being measured in this campaign is reach. However, what is the value of social reach if the campaign has no idea if Facebook friends read updates, or Twitter followers care? The website features a ticker stating the current campaign’s “social reach.” Social reach is the combined number of people each supporter could reach through social media messaging. To give the campaign measurement its credit, it has never purported to be about anything other than reaching people. Social reach doesn’t mean the message is heard, only broadcasted.

My second issue is with what is being measured.  The message that the campaign wants you to share is what good you will do somewhere, for someone else. So why wouldn’t the UN want to measure actions, participation, or engagement? I’d love the campaign to measure number of actions taken, types of actions, where the “somewhere” is around the world, how the call to action was taken to completion, etc.

I’ll sum up my thought about the campaign in one word: “Meh.” I’m not inspired by the call to action of sharing the message to my social media followers. I suspect it’s because the campaign doesn’t seem to connect to any real movement, community, or change, nor does the ask.

I think it’ll make a nice social media splash on August 19th when all the messages will be released on Twitter and Facebook. Meh. What will that do for humanitarian aid workers? Will this really make my world better, or are people just going to tweet and do nothing? Show me the metrics and a Google map of what people are doing on that day, who’s helping someone for the first time, and how to create momentum, and I’ll quickly move beyond “meh” to “YEAH.”



Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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