How Non-Endemic Charities Are Raising Money Through Games

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We speak to organisations such as Macmillan Cancer Support and The Make-A-Wish Foundation about how video games enable them to reach new audiences with their fundraising initiatives.

The growth and popularity of gaming have made the industry ripe for exploration from non-endemic brands, as can be seen by brand sponsorships and collaborations within the esports scene and beyond. 

For many charities that are not directly related or connected to games – as opposed to organisations such as SpecialEffect and GamesAid – the market has remained a largely untapped sector for fundraising and raising awareness for their work despite the industry's growing dominance within the modern media landscape. 

This is particularly notable when the audience for games skews to a younger demographic than the one that would be reached through more traditional awareness campaigns: in-person events, TV and newspaper advertising, and so on. According to the UKIE, the average age of a video game player in Europe is 31.

In recent years, there has been a growing number of charities embracing games as a fundraising tool, particularly through streaming. Within the US, charities such as the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital have organised charity streaming events like their Play Live initiative since 2013, while the massively popular Games Done Quick charity events have brought the speedrunning community together to raise money for various charities since its inception in 2010. Their most recent marathon, Summer Games Done Quick 2021, raised over $2.9 million for Doctors Without Borders, with the twice-annual event regularly raising seven-figure sums for charity.

This is on top of a growing number of interest groups and charities using gaming as a medium to explore and bring attention to global issues. When Animal Crossing was released to the public in March 2020, the game exploded in popularity as many players became invested in the Nintendo title as a means of escape during the first COVID-19 lockdown. Several groups used the in-game creative features to raise awareness on social media of their work and various initiatives. The Museum of English Rural Life began collecting a digital collection of smocks that was used to bring awareness to the museum and its work at a time when people were unable to visit. Hellmann’s UK partnered with FareShare to invite users to visit their island and discard their spoiled turnips in exchange for a real-world donation of two meals to those who need it.

There are also studios creating games with the express aim of raising awareness of certain issues. Playmob is a UK-based mobile games developer dedicated to creating experiences based on current-affairs topics with brands and non-profit organisations. Examples include the climate change-themed Mission 1.5°, made in partnership with the United Nations Development Program, Dumb Ways to Kill Oceans with Lipton Ice Tea, and Self-Esteem Squad with Dove. Similarly, Parallel Studio’s EQQO allowed players to purchase a special DLC pack that granted players an in-game tree for the protagonist to rest underneath, as well as donating money to WeForest to assist them in planting trees in aid of reforestation.

It’s hard to deny that the use of these unique forms of fundraising and raising awareness proved to be successful for the groups involved: each of these initiatives received large amounts of press coverage not just from traditional media, but also from specialist gaming publications like Polygon and Eurogamer, publications that would otherwise not be reporting on the work of these charities and organisations.

Since 2016, Macmillan has run the Macmillan Game Heroes initiative, allowing all kinds of streamers to raise money for the charity through online livestreaming marathons. Participants are challenged to host a 24-hour livestream, either on their own or with friends, while raising funds for Macmillan by playing games on platforms like Twitch, YouTube and Facebook. In its first incarnation, the charity partnered with several major streamers to launch a headline stream hosted on the Twitch homepage alongside a DIY website, where anyone could create a fundraising page and stream for themselves. Over time, the DIY side of the campaign became the charity’s focus.

“We were starting to see that within JustGiving that some people, mostly pro streamers, were raising significant amounts of money through streaming their fundraising efforts,” explained Kirsty Hobbs, Senior Marketing Manager at Macmillan Cancer Support. “Then we had a look at the US where that was a much more advanced model of fundraising, so we took a lot of the insights from what was already happening organically and where it was already an established model of fundraising and we launched what was, at the time, called Game Changers.”

While the event has evolved since its inception, the initial intent and idea behind the program have been retained throughout. “We launched in 2016 with a few pro streamers and we had Twitch as a partner. At the same time, we then put another message out there which was more of a ‘do it yourself’, so you didn't have to be a pro streamer to take on the 24-hour challenge and raise money for Macmillan. What actually happened was that, although the pro streamers were successful, the DIY streamers raised more.”

By 2018, the event had evolved into Game Heroes and veered away from the pro streamer element due to the difficulties in arranging streams with increasingly busy influences, plus the success of the DIY initiatives. Since its launch, over £2 million has been raised for Macmillan through Game Heroes, with the program being expanded to include things like a Discord group for those who choose to stream and raise money that acts as an extension of the charity’s work assisting people with cancer and their families.

“Anyone that takes part is invited to join the Discord group,” noted Hobbs. “Within that chat, we have specific rooms for if people are in need of wanting others to talk to you and for if they're going through a similar experience, whether that is someone living with or affected by cancer. That is a really core area that we want to build because a lot of what Macmillan does is in these kinds of services, so the more areas that we can we can give people access to that the better.”

Another charity conducting similar work is Make-A-Wish, which has raised money through streaming and their Gamestars initiative, asking the gaming community, developers and streamers to come together to help raise money for children with critical illnesses. During the recent Wish 100 Week event in July, the charity broke its initial fundraising goal by raising £295,000. This July event was a collaborative idea between the charity and the president of Miniclip, Robert Small, who has raised money for the charity in the past.

“Many charities around the globe have been very badly hit by the COVID pandemic, particularly those that work with vulnerable or critically ill people,” said Small. “Make-A-Wish is one such charity. Their mission of 'creating life-changing wishes for children diagnosed with serious illnesses’ is something that really resonated with everyone at Miniclip and our mission of 'unleashing the gamer in everyone’.”

Tom Hemming, Gaming and Talent Engagement Lead at Make-A-Wish UK, added: “Make-A-Wish has a unique connection to gaming vis-a-vis many other charities because we grant so many wishes to have gaming technology or to meet well-known gamers. We hear regularly from young people for whom gaming has had an impact way beyond the fun and distraction that it is for healthy individuals. They tell us that playing online games on mobiles, tablets, PCs or consoles can create a level playing field for those who are less physically able in real life. 

“Also, this was an urgent fundraising drive after hundreds of wishes were put on hold during the pandemic, and after new research showed there are more than 63,000 children and young people in the UK right now who are eligible for a wish because of their health condition. Technology and video game-related wishes can still be granted during lockdown and Make-A-Wish has seen a fourfold increase in demand for them in as many years.”

In both cases, the initiatives surpassed expectations and allowed the charities to raise unrestricted funds for their work that could be allocated to wherever it was needed. For Make-A-Wish, the £295,000 raised was beyond the initial £200,000 target, an amount which would have granted the charity the ability to grant 100 wishes to children around the UK.

Notably, the initiatives were able to reach beyond their traditional fundraising demographics by tapping into the audience of people who play games and particularly those who watch and participate in streaming. 

“It’s a really good product to have on the portfolio because it reaches a younger audience for Macmillan,” says Hobbs. “Game Heroes typically reaches audiences between 18 and 35, and it reaches both male and female audiences, whereas a lot of our other products, challenges or events target an older demographic, and they target a more female audience. This is a great way to reach a different audience and communicate the message about what Macmillan does, and for them to also raise money with their friends and family.”

These initiatives, and similar ones such as Movember's gaming initiative and War Child’s GameOn movement, showcase the ability for non-endemic charities to utilise gaming and the industry’s diverse audience as a way to raise money and awareness for important causes. While the number of charities and companies taking advantage of the popularity of games to raise awareness is growing, gaming and the world of livestreaming remain relatively untapped.

“The gaming population is huge, and the streaming platforms like Twitch are huge to the point that we are, I think, barely scratching the surface,” stated Hobbs. “The more we can leverage gaming to give support to people and for people to get support from us is a really interesting thing we are looking at.”

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