A new approach to suicide prevention: promote happiness

Instead of talking about death and depression, Samaritans, a Boston-based suicide-prevention group, is focusing on the opposite – life and happiness – in a publicity campaign.

Adrees Latif/Reuters/File
Happy revelers dress up for Halloween 2012 and play around in Times Square, New York. Samaritans, a nonprofit suicide prevention group, has decided that instead of talking about depression and suicide it will focus on the opposite – life and happiness.

What can you do when donors don’t give because your charity works on painful, unpleasant, or controversial issues?

One solution is to change people’s perception of the work you do. Samaritans, a Boston charity that helps prevent suicide, took that approach and is already attracting more corporate aid as a result.

Instead of talking about death and the depression associated with suicide, Samaritans is focusing on the opposite—life and happiness—in a publicity campaign called Happier Boston.

The idea came from Hill Holliday, an advertising company that donated its services to come up with the campaign. The goal: changing people’s view of the charity and thus improving its ability to recruit corporate donors.

Instead of print ads or radio spots, the campaign features people who reach out to strangers in subway stations, city streets, and other public spaces with gestures designed to bring a smile to their face and encourage acts of kindness. For example, some volunteers have handed out oranges bearing stickers that say, “Peel stress away” or “Orange you happy,” while others hold up signs with messages like “Have a great day!”

The campaign also features HappierBoston.org, a site where visitors can post photos and thoughts about places and things in Boston that make them happy.

At first, says Roberta Hurtig, the charity’s executive director, Samaritans was concerned about the campaign appearing to make light of a serious and painful issue. But, she says, she and her colleagues ultimately realized “this is really a better way of saying what we do. We make our community better and happier and touch people in a profound way.”

The campaign, Ms. Hurtig says, also “underscores how important it is to be present for someone when they are troubled.” The goal, she says, is for people to “react with enthusiasm to an issue normally characterized by isolation and shame.”

Judging from its response so far, the campaign is a big hit after getting under way in earnest last month.  The Boston Globe and other news outlets have written about the campaign, and it has also drawn three new corporate donors, each one giving $1,000 or more.

That may not seem like a lot of money, but Ms. Hurtig says it’s significant for her small, local organization, which has an annual budget of $1.4-million.

And she’s cautiously optimistic of a bigger increase in corporate support just around the corner. As part of the campaign, the president of Hill Holliday, who also chairs the local Chamber of Commerce, is sending a letter next week to more than 900 corporations in the area to encourage them give to Samaritans.

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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