So much for silly season. This August has seen a ceaseless stream of ‘real news’ – from Gaza, Liberia and Ukraine – too awful and important to be ignored. It has repressed the traditional journalistic fall-back position to sell papers via a bizarre mix of the weird and wonderful: pranks, parties and exceptionally gifted animals.
The headlines are still designed to command and hold our attention, but the dafter stories we might expect at this time of year have been replaced with tales of human desperation and tragedy.
Philanthropists will want respite from the misery as much as anyone else. We all enjoy a heart-warming story, the sort that charity fundraisers excel in telling: lives touched, challenges overcome. But the best philanthropists are also in a privileged position. They can understand a good headline, but will search for the facts to uncover the right solution.
Occasionally, the two coincide: the brilliantly, arresting idea proven to have a real impact on the ground.
1. Landmines and giant rats. 40-50 people are killed or maimed by a landmine daily, and each year 40,000 new mines are planted in conflict areas. Belgian social enterprise APOPO uses giant pouched rats to detect explosives by smell, identifying landmines in conflict zones across Africa and Asia. The rats, which are about the size of a domestic cat, weigh just over a kilogram — too light to detonate the mines. After nine months of training and performance testing, a rat can scan 100 metres in half an hour — twice the area covered by an expert de-miner in a day.
2. Premier League coaching for the young homeless. Birmingham-based homelessness charity St Basil’s provides NEET young people with the tough mental skills training developed for Premier League footballers. Using techniques developed by the University of Birmingham to improve confidence, concentration and resilience, the project is designed to help participants cope with pressure and improve their wellbeing. Birmingham academics are currently refining and evaluating the programme.
3. Yoga in prisons. The Prison Phoenix Trust train and support qualified yoga teachers to run courses in prisons. Yoga helps prisoners to relax and contemplate, reducing aggression, tension and impulsive behaviour. A randomised study by the University of Oxford found that the programme significantly increased prisoner’s ability to control their behaviour, reducing distress and improving performance in cognitive testing.
4. Blind women detect breast cancer. German social enterprise Discovering Hands trains visually impaired women to use their highly developed sense of touch to detect early signs of breast cancer. By using their perceived disability as a talent, ‘medical tactile examiners’ detect 30 per cent more potential cancers than doctors, and 50 per cent smaller breast tissue abnormalities, according to preliminary research. A full clinical trial is currently being carried out at the University of Erlangen.
Projects like these combine a great headline with great impact potential — and they are gathering evidence to prove it. This won’t always be the case: toilets are not an appealing conversation topic, for example, and yet today one billion people worldwide still practice open defecation. A good story is optional for good giving, but the facts — what is the need? what works? — are essential.
Catherine Glew is a researcher at NPC