When ShelterBox set up a book subscription five years ago, we were looking for a regular giving product that could reach a new audience; what we got was a committed community of thousands of supporters across the UK.
A novel idea
ShelterBox is an international disaster relief charity. We specialise in emergency shelters and have helped over 2.5 million people across almost 100 countries. As with many disaster relief organisations, we experience incredible support after big, headline-grabbing disasters but find it harder to fundraise for more protracted crises that don’t make the news.
In November 2018, ShelterBox launched the ShelterBox Book Club to bring in regular donations outside of major disasters, but we were keen to do so in a way which brought our supporters closer to the people their donations would be supporting. We chose books because they can be treasured items, but they can also introduce people to lives they’ve not lived, themes to learn more about, and characters who take up residence in their hearts.
The concept is relatively simple: every six weeks we invite our members to vote on a shortlist of three titles from countries and regions where ShelterBox has worked. The book which wins the popular vote is then sent out in the post to members with a case study about a family ShelterBox has supported – people connected to the story we’re about to read. After reading the book, we invite members to discuss it through online events, generally including a live Q&A with the author joining us from their home across the globe.
One of the reasons we think the ShelterBox Book Club is one of the last charity subscription services going is the deep connection to the cause. Through reading wonderful stories from the countries that ShelterBox has worked in, our members learn about the communities they support, deepening their connection to our work and making them more invested as ongoing supporters.
The twist: how the pandemic helped us evolve
The ShelterBox Book Club had been running for just over a year when the pandemic hit and took our small community stratospheric. Through digital advertising, we were able to reach an incredible number of people searching for connection during lockdown. The result? The club tripled in size by the end of 2021.
The pandemic also helped us to evolve our offering organically. We introduced online calls to discuss the books and began hosting author Q&As. It’s hard to believe that they weren’t integral to our original product as they now feel like the beating heart of the Book Club. Some of my personal highlights have been our events, interviewing Booker-Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo after we read her book Mr Loverman or running an International Women’s Day event with women’s rights campaigner Edna Adan Ismail, whose autobiography A Woman of Firsts we read in 2020.
Our social media channels blossomed as a result. At the time we had separate accounts for Facebook, Instagram, and X (formerly known as Twitter), and all of these received a huge boost in followers and engagement. We used these to find out more about our incredible members, which in turn helped us to tailor our digital ads and reach even more people.
Through our social media channels and our regular events, our members turned from a disparate group of supporters into a community – making connections and forming friendships. For us, the trials of the pandemic made us better than the sum of our parts.
The main learning for communicators? Lean into the reasons why your audience wants to connect: with your cause and with the community you’re building.
Spin-offs and sequels
We often hear from our members that they feel deeply connected to the work of ShelterBox because of the Book Club. That’s why so many of them have chosen to extend their support outside of their subscription. We now have members who are regular volunteers for ShelterBox, sharing their passion for our cause with others or fundraising for us through our campaigns like Tent for Lent or running their own ideas like Shelter Snails.
We’ve also been able to bring new ambassadors to our cause through the Book Club, inviting well-known authors and celebrities to take part in our own book Tamesis Street, which was illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake, and included writing by Joanne Harris, Samira Ahmed and Chris Packham. They have since become committed supporters of ShelterBox, helping to amplify our campaigns outside of the Book Club.
We’ve also branched out into physical events, taking the ShelterBox Book Club on the road, to Hay Festival and smaller local literary festivals, reaching people offline as well as online.
The never-ending story?
Five years on, the ShelterBox Book Club has just reached its next huge milestone – 90,000 books read – and £1,250,000 raised. We’re excited to see what else we will learn from our thousands of members across the UK, and how we will develop as the world around us changes. But we know one thing for sure, we’ll continue reading amazing books, telling incredible stories about people recovering from disaster, and connecting people to our cause.
Other reads that may interest you:
- CommuniTeas: Growing the community-led welcome of refugees over a cuppa
- A foray into Online Film Clubs – a peek into the future of community building
Banner Image: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash