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Man versus the Mosquito: Building Public Support to Save Lives

This is the eighteenth in a series of posts that will examine ten insights Community Wealth Partners has uncovered through our research of and experience with initiatives that have created transformational social change.

Amy Farley’s recent post on our 7th transformational insight, “building public support,” reminded me of my experience working at Malaria No More.   Launching and growing Malaria No More truly felt like working on a presidential campaign: We were on a time-bound, ambitious mission to end malaria deaths by 2015 – and we knew we needed public support to achieve the goal.   In the earliest days of Malaria No More, though, we underestimated the degree to which public support was critical to our success – not only in the United States, but also in Africa where behavior change was absolutely paramount to results on the ground.  We had two broad audiences; and the support of each in the form of actions and behaviors, was critical to ending malaria deaths.

Immediately upon the launch of Malaria No More, we concentrated on building awareness of the issue among the American public, using strategies to reach Americans where they already were  – sports fields (we partnered with American Youth Soccer League (AYSO)), classrooms (Scholastic), and TV rooms across the country (American Idol).  American awareness of malaria in Africa jumped 46% in just 3 years.  This helped us raise money, build our brand and establish partnerships.  But we realized that raising awareness alone in the US was not enough and that even if every American we reached donated a $10 mosquito net, true traction on the problem would not occur until the largest government donors – i.e. the United States Government – took action on the issue. We needed to connect this growing awareness among the American public with policy change. So we set up a policy center in Washington to partner with the global health community and engage policy leaders to advance worldwide efforts to defeat malaria.

But even awareness connected to policy change in the United States was not enough.  Public support of the malaria fight was, of course, necessary in Africa amongst those impacted by the disease. The solution lay heavily with families affected by malaria every day.  Malaria No More stepped up its efforts to build public support – and ultimately drive behavior change – in Africa. The strategies used were highly tailored to the local context but they leveraged many of the same core skills in marketing and communications that Malaria No More relied upon at home.  For example, Malaria No More’s “Surround Sound” campaign, led by Grammy-Award winning West African musician, Youssou N’Dour, galvanized nontraditional partners from every sector of society – entertainment, sport, faith, government and business – and empowered them to serve as anti-malaria ambassadors within their communities. Locally-driven, detailed market research informed the best strategies to reach the desired behavior change around preventing and treating malaria. N’Dour even wrote a hit song that incorporated the message that was proven to resonate most effectively with his audience: that malaria can get in the way of achieving your dreams.

It took some time to understand the extent to which public support was critical to moving the needle on malaria deaths as well as a lot of deliberate effort to identify strategies that worked in two parts of the world.   Ultimately, the efforts to build public support both in the United States and in Africa had a meaningful impact on the results. Malaria deaths have fallen by more than 25 percent since 2000.  Nine African countries have reduced malaria deaths by more than 50 percent.

As you think about growing any movement to end a social problem, spend time early on carefully considering:

  • Among whom do you need to build public support?;
  • What is the ultimate aim of the public support you are building (awareness? legislative action? behavior change?); and
  • How can you best connect the support you build to real results on your issue?
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Alix Wilson

About Alix Wilson

In her role as Senior Director and Chief Strategy Officer, Alix oversees complex client engagements, builds the firms consulting business and plays a lead role in developing and implementing the firm’s strategy to solve social problems at the magnitude they exist. Alix has extensive experience partnering with and building early stage and rapidly growing entrepreneurial organizations and movements in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. She has deep experience in education, health and poverty both domestically and internationally.See Alix's full bio

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