When RSPCA VIC turned 150, they wanted to recognise the milestone and address animal cruelty. What eventuated was the ‘Wombat in the Room’ campaign.

Sometimes an email lands in your inbox that really catches your attention. For F&P’s Content Creator, Fiona Atkinson, a recent RSPCA Victoria campaign based on modern art and a clever play on words caught her eye.  

The concept, was 30 life-size wombat sculptures, each painted by an artist with a unique story behind the design and their own motivation to support the campaign. The fundraising mechanism was an online silent auction hosted on the givergy platform.  

Fiona spoke with the organisation’s Head of Fundraising, John Boyle, to find out more.  

John, hello! How did the concept of Wombat in the Room come about?  

I was sitting at my desk and looking at one of our iconic wombat money boxes. At the time we were thinking about what we could do for our 150th anniversary. We take inspiration from many different places, and the Royal Children’s Hospital had recently rolled out their ‘UooUoo’ RCH150 Art Trail [featuring 100 sculptures across Melbourne]. When I was at Guide Dogs 20 years ago, we featured art on our dog-shaped money boxes.

So this art fundraiser isn’t a new concept and going back to our RSPCA wombat money boxes, I realised we could base a campaign on them. We struck upon a company in South Australia who could make life-size fibreglass wombats for us and the event grew from there. 

We ordered 30 of the wombat sculptures, put them on bases and approched an artistic curating company called FORT HEART CO. They were wonderful – they connected us to lots of artists, which was so much better than our initial plan of cold calling them ourselves!  

The brief was that the RSPCA’s end goal hasn’t changed – we want to end cruelty to animals – and we wanted the artists to represent that through the wombats. The name “Wombat in the Room” is a play on the saying “elephant in the room”. And that elephant, or wombat in our case, is that animal cruelty still exists. We’ve come such a long way, but there is still much to do to end cruelty to animals. 

The opportunity to be involved was snapped up by artists and because they are creative and deep thinkers, they looked at the brief and the issue in lots of different ways that we couldn’t have imagined.  

Both the curator, James Heenan, and the artists provided their time and service on a pro bono basis, they were amazing.   

What came first when you were thinking of the concept? Did you think of the concept and then think, “this could be a fundraiser”? Or did you think “we need a fundraiser around the 150th anniversary, what could it be?”  

It was the need for an event that came first – we were turning 150 and we knew we wanted to draw attention to it. We were also thinking about this in the middle of a COVID year [so it needed to be digital-friendly].  

We agreed early in the piece that we weren’t going to ‘celebrate’ turning 150. You know why? Because the job’s not done yet. We’ve worked with [influential fundraising consultant] Alan Clayton a lot and one of his most well-known case studies is the UK-based Cystic Fibrosis Trust’s “We won’t celebrate being 50 until everyone can” campaign. That has always stuck with me.  

“We agreed early in the piece that we weren’t going to ‘celebrate’ turning 150. You know why? Because the job’s not done yet.” 

[F&P side note – really consider whether donors actually care that your organisation is having an anniversary. What does it mean to them? What need does it represent that they can help meet? Ask yourself these questions before sending out any communications with birthday cake illustrations, because you may be missing a golden opportunity to do something far more powerful with your milestone].  

What was the audience for the campaign communications?  

We have an amazing loyal donor base, event participants and advocates, and we have customers – people who have adopted animals or used our vet clinic. There’s a couple of cases in the year where we will use this ‘whole universe’ to promote a campaign. Two examples are this campaign and our giving day, ‘Give to get them home’. When you combine all of those groups the eDM lists is close to six figures.  

Interestingly, when we looked at who placed bids for the wombats in this campaign, there were a number of people we didn’t know. We’re not sure where they came from. Our corporate networks promoted the campaign, so maybe they came through that. 

We also did Facebook advertising – we only did digital, no DM. For a campaign like this, digital is so much more cost-effective.  

Media didn’t jump on board sadly. Normally we do ok with the media, but we couldn’t get TV coverage, the Herald Sun didn’t respond. The reality is, there was a war unfolding at the same time.  

We wanted to get the wombats into public places to showcase them and we secured spots in locations such as Eastland Shopping Centre and RACV Healesville. 

Wombats on display at Eastland shopping centre.

Wombats on display at RSPCA Victoria’s Burwood East shelter. Each wombat was displayed with a unique QR code that linked to artist information and the bidding page.

What was the fundraising target? 

We had no idea! Sometimes you have to just go out on a limb and trial things. We knew we wanted to cover costs at a minimum. If we’d got $15,000 that would have been great – all our costs and time would have been covered – but in the end, we made just over $60,000 which we were thrilled with. We had almost another $20,000 of sponsorship on top.  

What was the sponsor involvement?  

Promoting the campaign to their networks and they all gave cash [there were eight sponsors]. All sponsors received a wombat of their choice as part of their package. They were also recognised in our social media posts, on our print collateral, and on the wombats themselves.  

What were your learnings?  

We could have done more wombats – the artist and bidder interest was certainly there. But we ordered 30. really not knowing how the campaign would be received.   

Having the wombats in more public places would have got us to the next level. The wombats are so impressive in person.  

Rolling out a campaign that is state-based can be limiting for media engagement. 

We used the campaign for staff engagement internally – we asked staff and volunteers to vote on their favourite wombat. We are keeping the one with the most votes here at our Burwood East shelter. It was really good for morale. [Look closely at the design and description of the chosen wombat and you will see that different animals are weaved throughout the design on the sculpture and that the artist, Yan Yan Candy Ng, has herself been an animal foster carer].  

It was also really fun for our fundraising team and graphic designer – it was something new for us to be creative with and work out as we went along.  

Now we’re thinking about how we continue to engage with the people who bought the wombats – about half of whom we knew, and half we didn’t.  

Will you do the campaign again?  

We have been asked already! Would we do it again? Not in the short term because it has a novelty aspect to it, and we wouldn’t want to dilute that. You also have to be careful with events – the return on the effort has to be worth it.  

“Some campaigns can just be a moment in time.” 

What’s great is that a couple of the other states [RSPCA is a federated structure in Australia] are already talking about doing it and we can share our knowledge with them.  

Perhaps the opportunity will present itself to do a campaign like this again, but for now, it was a moment in time.  

Reflecting back on why we did this, I remember writing at the bottom of the project proposal, “it will be fun.” It made people smile and that is what we needed after the past two years.  

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