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Sponsor a Spouse: Adding a face to Illegal Detainment - Updated 11/16

Create a campaign similar to "Sponsor a Child" where people can learn about spouses' individual stories and donate directly to them. By radically shifting the webpage from statistics to emotional stories, viewers will care and contribute.

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Written by DeletedUser

Mother Teresa: "If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."

A quick jot around my MIT community, and not a single undergraduate student I interviewed could tell me what illegal detainment meant or why it was important. We suggest that Amnesty International radically change its donation web page to better help motivate citizens to care and participate. Our recommendations are inspired by the highly successful World Vision’s “Sponsor a Child” model.


Emotionally connecting to people who are illegally detained is difficult.

A look at the front of the Amnesty International Donate participation page highlights key missions:

  • As many as 1800 political prisoners still languishing behind bars in Myanmar.
  • Hundreds of people have gone missing in Pakistan
  • More than 400 people living in a Romani settlement are at risk of being evicted.

Now imagine one of these detainee’s faces. What is he or she feeling right now? Connecting to these faceless, large numbers is difficult, if not impossible.

It is human nature to be affected and want to help one individual compared to an overwhelming mass. As the number of people needing our help increases, our desire to help diminishes: we become overwhelmed. The statistical stories presented by Amnesty International, while staggering, fail to produce moving feelings. According to Dr. Slovic, humans need strong imagery (stories) to be able to feel, which in turn inspires helping.


Create stories that people can connect to.

Amnesty international should change its news stories and donation platform to help people emotionally care about the problem and provide opportunities where participants can make a substantial change for the spouses of detainees.

To do this, Amnesty International creates stories about detainees. These stories are rich with personal detail. For example a webpage may include this:

Mariam is a mother of three living in Tehran, Iran. Her husband disappeared after writing an editorial piece in the local newspaper. Miriam has not been informed where her husband is, nor whether he will ever be released or receive a trial. She has no way of making income, as she lived at home, taking care of her two children Amir (7 years old) and Babek (10 years old).

Currently she has reached out to people like you for your support in obtaining nutritious food, paying her rent, and sending her two children to school. For less than a dollar a day you can provide Miriam with life-saving basics as she builds a life without her husband.

How it works:

1) Choose a spouse to sponsor. In 10 days you’ll receive your welcome kit with a photo, sponsorship DVD and more.

2) In 6 to 12 weeks be looking in the mail for your first letter from your sponsored spouse.

3) Sponsorship fosters sustainability. Amnesty International plans and works alongside community members to help build healthy communities for spouses of those who are illegally detained.

How to reach out:

Include personal stories in generated media articles, created a marketing campaign, and work through churches.

I would closely copy World Vision’s marketing campaign, which has proved successful. This involves media exposure, web site ads, and word of mouth. Amnesty International may also want to work with various religious organizations to help promote these programs. A good example of this can be seen in the Heifer project, which works with churches to build an “arc”.

One additional opportunity is that Amnesty International is strongly connected to news agencies and publishing articles about current events. Amnesty should add a column on their webpage (if not to all stories) about an individual or two who are directly affected by current events. These stories could link to the “Sponsor a Spouse” section of the Amnesty International webpage. Not only do these stories personalize the event, but would allow readers to make an actionable, quick change after reading the emotional article.

Challenges with Anonymity:

A tension exists between anonymity and empathy.

For some members, anonymity will be important. This creates a tension, as people can most easily relate to a face and a story. Making the story vague and non-identifying will make empathizing with the spouse much harder. Additionally, any attempt for the spouse to reach out could result in very dangerous consequences upon discovery.

So, we propose that a portion of all donations go to helping other spouses. A line in the donation can explain this:

While a majority of your money will go to helping Miriam (60%), 40% of your money will be allocated to spouses who are in such challenging positions that they cannot reveal their identity or tell their stories. Read more about this hardship in the linked article. If you would prefer to adjust the percentage of funds going to Miriam or anonymous victims, you can do so with the below slider. (A slider is below which has Miriam on one side and and Anonymous Victims on the other, with the slider at 60% for Miriam.


  • Brings a face to an issue that has few faces and lots of numbers.
  • Creates actionable items that citizens can participate in.
  • Generates emotional awareness through stories.
  • Creates sustainable support, as donors develop connections with spouses and families they support.
  • May have difficulties generating support for anonymous families


  • Marketing can be done internally through personal side stories.
  • A similar solution has already been done through World Vision
  • With a simple system in place, stories can be generated from people seeking legal help
  • System does not reach out to mother’s who do not contact Amnesty International

  • Service brings in money from donors while creating awareness and action
  • Generated donor relationships are maintained through personal contact
  • Website may be costly to initiate without sponsorship or partnership
  • Website and story generation may be difficult to maintain

What kind of resources are needed to get this idea off the ground and/or support it over time?

Fortunately, Amnesty International is in a great position to create stories. When spouses reach out for legal support, Amnesty can provide an optional form for spouses to tell their stories, which may in turn provide financial support for them on a long-term basis. This form would ask participants to provide pictures, stories, and a list of financial burdens that could be alleviated. Amnesty International will need to read these case applications and make sure that the publicity will not generate threats to the spouse’s safety. As for generating a website, the easiest solution would be to copy the already existing infrastructure of Sponsor a Child. Could the two organizations partner? The organization could reach out to web developers to help build a strong webpage. Think of all the supporters of Anonymous, some of them may want to work on this webpage too. Otherwise, Amnesty International will need to make its own web page. Without sponsorship or free assistance, I imagine a webpage, which enables easy creation and browsing of spouses will cost around $5,000 to $15,000.

My Virtual Team

This idea came during the MIT Design Brainstorming night. A special thanks goes out to Mark Arnoldy from Nyaya Health for his inspiration about the topic of psychic numbing. Props go to: Jon Menaster, Rachel Happen, Anne-Laure Fayard, and Meena Kadri all on OpenIDEO for pushing this idea to its full fruition.

How could this idea also be adapted to work in low-tech situations?

Spouses could write answers on a physical sheet of paper and send answers with pictures to Amnesty International or spouses could be interviewed via a phone and a volunteer would write the story into a profile. The money delivering system could be done through cellphone credits or via wire transfer.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Edmund Ng

This is a great initiative. Many of the detainees are innocent victims that was never given a fair trial. It's important that the world really know who they are. Maybe then, we could understand that it could just be anyone in their shoes.

This will definitely complement Amnesty International's movement to gather support for those that are locked up in Guantanamo. I hope justice will finally be served and the innocent be set free eventually.

Edmund Ng

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