The Science Behind Inspiring More Support For Refugees

How the same online voter targeting strategies used in U.S. elections are being deployed to build support for the refugee cause.

The Science Behind Inspiring More Support For Refugees
[Illustration: Made by Radio]

The rainbow-themed ads began popping up on Facebook in early 2016. “Homosexuality Is a Crime in 77 Countries,” read one with a rainbow-colored globe. “All Over the World LGBTI People Are Facing Prosecution,” said another with a rainbow border above two men kissing as an angry mob approached. Another showed a rainbow being blocked from setting over the Kremlin and talked about the “ideological wall” of Russian politics. Yet another had one large rainbow-colored fist, raised in defiance. All featured the hash tag #RainbowRefugees.


In total, eight different #RainbowRefugees messages went out to gay-rights supporters on Facebook who were living in zip codes with high voter turnout during the last presidential election. They were created by the Hive, a special initiative of the U.S. Association of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whose mission is to provide refugee advocacy, aid, and assist with asylum.

That’s where #RainbowRefugees comes in. More than 65 million refugees have fled their homelands in fear of violence or persecution, in part because of sexual orientation. Share that with politically active gay people, Hive reasoned, and they might become passionate about the cause. As people clicked, the group honed on which message did best. (“More Than 10 Lesbians Are Attacked in ‘Corrective Rapes’ Every Week in South Africa,” read the top tagline.) As they pledged their support, donated, or added a rainbow-colored fist alongside their profile pictures, they traded contact information so the group could keep in touch.

Rainbow Refugees campaign, design by The Mixx

Hive wasn’t after money exactly—not up-front anyway. In the view of former Hive director Brian Reich, the “disaster porn” or “hope-and-horror storytelling bullshit” that many charities use to raise funds has led to an impulsive, emotionally driven style of giving.

Numerous studies show that people don’t give rationally—they can be cued by sympathy, which overrides considerations about what investments will be most effective. In Reich’s view, most of these “cry-and-buy” style pitches are trying to one-up each other. Donors aren’t necessarily loyal to one cause, and solicitors aren’t thinking beyond how to elicit the next tear-jerk reaction.

In a way, UNHCR can’t play that game because they are already too far behind. Its approximately $5 billion annual budget is mostly funded by voluntary governmental donations, which as regional conflicts and natural disasters have ramped up, has contributed to an unprecedented shortfall. By the third quarter of 2015, just 42% the group’s appeals were paid for, meaning they had to cut food rations and health care operations in some places. “Never before has UNHCR had to manage its programmed operations with such a high funding gap between approved budgetary requirements and funds received,” notes a recent report. Encouraging private donors like foundations, corporations, and people to give more could help—that group generally provides just 6% of what UNHCR annually receives—but obviously won’t totally solve the issue.

So Hive is trying a new tactic altogether. Since launching in late 2014, the group has been running targeted campaigns on Facebook and Instagram toward people who maybe never thought of themselves as refugee sympathizers before. It’s not just a creative fundraising push, although building a bigger donor list would be a happy by-product. Their goal is to engage a half million new people within two years to generate the kind of mainstream conversations and advocacy that can influence governments, policy makers, and entrepreneurs to try bolder interventions. Reich says, only half jokingly: “This is like, could we create that thing on Star Trek where you could beam people out of refugee zones so they didn’t have to go though the trauma of crossing 10 borders?”


To do that, Hive enlisted Civis Analytics, a data science company, and Timshel, an online platform builder, to create their own sentiment-changing skunkworks. They want to predict what kind of people might be open to joining their cause, how best to appeal to them, and design campaigns that can be A/B tested in real time to better make that happen

#RainbowRefugees is one of more than 20 tests the group has done to woo two camps of would-be allies. The first are dubbed “lookalikes”—those who resemble current supporters. The second are “persuadables” like the LGBTQ population–people don’t realize it yet, but might just have good reason to join the fray. But how do you convince people who’ve never really thought about a cause to join it?

Elevating “brand refugee”

Civis and Timshel both emerged from ideas that were prototyped, tested, and refined as tools for President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. On a basic level, Civis combines regional surveys with consumer information and voter registration data to figure out how a message might resonate so it can be tweaked or rebroadcasted to the right set of people. Timshel’s software lets groups easily build out ways to share those lessons, promote what’s working, and track on a granular level how users are interacting.

Hive cofounder Ari Wallach, who runs a consultancy called Synthesis Corp (and has ties to Fast Company), worked in varying capacities during both of Obama’s presidential runs. He’d since tapped Civis and Timshel for other ventures, so he asked them to collaborate with UNHCR. Some nonprofits may be using similar tools but most are still focused on how to drive immediate donations. UNHCR is trying to secure cause-loyalty first, then see what the financial and collaborative ripple effect might be.

That makes actual payoff difficult to count. For elections, it’s been pretty simple. You’re only trying to predict and spur two things: donations and voter turnout. Success is measurable because your candidate either wins or loses. But cause marketing has more variables and a less fixed outcome.

For example, Civis’s early sampling found that while nearly two thirds of Americans agree with UNHCR’s mission, three quarters hadn’t heard of the group at all. By combining regional surveys with indexes of national consumer behavior and voter registration data, they learned that lookalikes and persuadables are pretty different. In general, lookalikes are older urbanites, mostly white and female. Persuadables would be mainly adults age 40 and under, and tend to live in cities with strong Hispanic populations. (The Hispanic population in general seems supportive of refugees.)


Some UNHCR messaging was also being received differently than expected. For example, telegraphing that refugees undergo stringent security checks before entering the country generally decreased people’s affinity for the cause. Among Democrats, messages that rang with too much patriotic exceptionalism also decreased their interest. Messages about how refugees are more likely than nonrefugees to graduate college and secure jobs also caused Democratic favor to decline.

On the flip side, messages about how nearly half of all refugees are children encouraged Republican support. Citations about successful refugees like Albert Einstein also resonated positively.

Turning analytics into action

Because UNHCR itself lacks brand awareness, they’re pushing the cause over the Commission’s recognition. “Our job is to elevate ‘brand refugee,’ if you will, to close the empathy gap,” Wallach says. They’ve realized they can’t please every faction at once, so they use Timshel’s software to design niche campaigns targeted toward different audiences.

That’s led to unbranded “Jesus Was a Refugee” stickers to coincide with the Pope’s visit, which played well with the Catholic faith contingent. Before COP21, the international conference on climate change, the group rolled out more messages about how “climate-driven conflict” displaces people from their homes to attract more climate activists and eco-friendly consumers. “In many ways, we’re meeting people where they are,” Wallach says. “Instead of saying, ‘There is a global refugee crisis,’ we’re saying, ‘This is the way it impacts you and what you care about.”

In July, the group wrapped up two large pilot studies comparing what types of pitches might work best on a bigger scale. How valuable each engagement ends up being, though, depends on how long people stay passionate and what actions they ultimately take. On the back end, Timshel catalogues those actions, showing Hive who is taking pledges, sharing socially, turning up at events, or donating (perhaps repeatedly) so the group can hopefully add in more nudges to increase commitment.

The Hive is on pace to hit their 500,000-recruit target by January 2017. To be counted, each person must not only click an ad and leave contact info, but take virtual action—sign a petition, take a survey, re-share content on their own feeds. The direct impact of such clicktivism has proven hard to measure, but, in the short term, knowing your audience is at least a decent marketing tool; Hive recently published their own manifesto about why what they’re learning should matter to major brands. That could boost awareness and proceeds toward the cause.


At South by Southwest this year they debuted a crowdsourced brainstorming game to imagine what that might look like. The concept is no longer theoretical anymore. USA for UNHCR, Hive’s parent group, has been facilitating similar work for the White House through the Partnership for Refugees, a collaboration between the State Department and businesses to think up new ways to boost education, employment, and enablement among those displaced. So far, the organization has gained early commitments from 15 major companies, including Accenture, Airbnb, and Google. Hive may have provided part of the inspiration. “Our fingerprints are all over that kind of stuff,” Reich says.

In anticipation of a public-acceptance tipping point, Hive has created its own blueprint of solutions, an in-house playbook called “The Big Book of Ideas,” which suggests things like a survival migration phone or refugee camp-based fabrication labs to help displaced people immediately learn new skill sets. More future-looking ideas include a predictive intelligence engine that can spot the warning signs of mass exoduses. There’s even a “smart flight” Refugee Prevention Plan that might allow data scientists and policy makers to identify, uproot, and carefully transplant entire cities years ahead of destabilizing changes, keeping people’s families, communities, and jobs intact.

When the time comes, they hope their new ideological bloc encourages these kinds of radical ideas. Until then, they’ll settle for donations.

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This story was updated to reflect that Brian Reich is the former director of Hive and that USA for UNHCR is not a branch of UNHCR but a separate organization.


About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.