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This is a cross-post from the always thoughtful and eloquent Ian Thorpe, who notes that fundraising is a means to help non-profit organizations fulfill their wider mission; it should not be mistaken as the end goal of non-profit organizations. Consistency in how we achieve our missions across all of our operations becomes ever more important in this age of growing transparency. Read the original post here.

by Ian Thorpe

I’ve been reflecting on a couple of interesting discussions lately on aid communication and fundraising.  In the first, Kurante organized a Google Hangout on “Poverty Porn” i.e. the use of negative, shocking images in aid campaigns (the recording and the twitter storify of the discussion can be found on Tom Murphy’s blog here). During the discussion @meowtree  shared a link to this rather discouraging blog post by a fundraising guru here that suggests that those who criticize the use of negative images are undermining the organizations they work for and should be fired!

A second twitter discussion concerned a new “buy one, give one” programme and whether or not it is harmful or helpful and on what basis this type of programme might be judged.

What comes out of both of these is the potential conflict between what makes good aid versus what makes good fundraising. It’s quite possible to raise money, a lot of money, if one is willing to do whatever it takes, use any kind of images and words and tactics in order to open their wallets. Marketers and fundraisers, to give them their due, make extensive use research and evidence in their work, perhaps more so than programme people, and much research backs up the claim that negative imagery is often more successful than positive imagery in evoking a response and getting out checkbooks.

If you were a private company then “maximizing shareholder value” by going where the money is might well be a great strategy. But aid agencies and civil society organizations are generally in place to serve a mission. The mission of the organization is a huge asset both in motivating staff and in generating support – but it’s also an important constraint in that in places limits around what you will be prepared to do to raise funds or attention. Essentially, if you exist to pursue a mission then all your activities need to be consistent with it. Generally an aid mission is not simply to raise as much money as possible, it’s to achieve a purpose such as reducing poverty or protecting children from harm. And it’s often more complicated to pursue this goal to maximize the amount of positive impact on your beneficiaries – you also need to do this in a principled way informed by your organization’s values such as in respecting the human dignity of the people of the people you aim to help and not exploiting them (even if with the aim of helping them).

I recall a conversation from when I worked on communication in UNICEF with our fundraisers about a similar topic (from more than 10 years ago so I’m not spilling any secrets). At that stage the organization was looking to move more into “upstream policy work” and on scaling back on “service delivery”, especially in middle-income countries. Programmatically this made a lot of sense, but the fundraisers were naturally concerned about the impact on their ability to talk about this shift in fundraising campaigns. It’s much easier to fundraise using images of nicely branded supplies coming in on trucks being handed out by aid workers to poor people than it is to “show” work on, or the results of influencing government policy, improving data collection and building capacity of civil servants.  But at the end of the discussion we were ready to say that while it might be harder to raise money for upstream work, and we might be able to raise less money as a result – if this is the work that needs to be done, then the task was to fund better ways of fundraising about this work, rather than changing the nature of the work to make it easier to raise funds.

Of course aid organizations rely on external funding (whether government, corporate or individual) and they need professional fundraisers to be able to get the resources they need to do their work. Professional fundraisers and communicators know better than programme staff, from their experience and research, how to put together effective fundraising communications in terms of who to approach, what approaches to use and what information is needed from programme staff to support it. That can include coming up with novel approaches to raising funds for something that is already a priority, even if these appear gimmicky to aid workers on the ground (such as sending a quarter coin to people to get them to send in donations or getting them to buy something to give something).

But it’s important to ensure that the fundraising is in service of the organization’s goals rather than the reverse. It can be easy to be tempted to do something because it’s popular with donors even if it isn’t fully consistent with your mission and values, and hard to forswear potential opportunities when aid funding is tight. In particular it can be tempting to agree to programmes which are appealing to donors but for which there isn’t a demand, or worse that do unintended harm. But if the organization exists to serve a mission – then it’s important to keep that front and centre in decision-making on what opportunities to pursue or what tactics to use to pursue them – in fundraising just as much as in programmes.

In fact in an age of increasing aid transparency it becomes ever more important to focus on your mission and values since it’s much more obvious if your communications, partnerships and programmes are not consistent with each other or with your mission, and your reputation will suffer as a result –as will the cause you are pursuing.

Greater transparency is also an opportunity to bring donors and beneficiaries closer together so that donors can see and hear the results of aid work directly from those being helped rather than via a “story” whether positive or negative constructed by the aid agency for the benefit of donors. Similarly donors can also hear more from those they are helping about what they want and need, seeing them more as individuals with dignity, aspirations and agency to improve their lives aided by donors rather than as passive objects of pity and charity. This way instead of going where donors give most now, you can change the discussion to educate and encourage them to give money to where it is really needed, and to understand better what their support really does and can do.

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Image captured from page 19 of the Polis report.

Who cares? Challenges and opportunities in communicating distant suffering: a view from the development and humanitarian sector, a study conducted by Polis, (the journalism think-tank within the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics- LSE) with Plan UKlaunched yesterday in London.
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The study complements several pieces of research released over the past year or two on the UK public’s perception of foreign aid, development, giving, and the NGO sector; including Intermedia’s Building Support for International Development, the UK Public Opinion Monitor/Institute of Development Studies’ What Does the Public Think, Know and Do about Aid and Development? report, the Oxfam/Bond/DfID Finding Frames report and the Overseas Development Institute’s Understanding Public Attitudes to Aid and Development.

Whereas the other reports focus on various aspects of how the public sees charity, development and foreign aid, the Polis report gives a window into the debates and challenges of those working in advocacy, marketing, campaigning, fundraising and communication departments at INGOs. As my Plan UK colleague, Leigh Daynes, writes in the introduction:

‘…Our work to inform, to educate, to campaign for change and to recruit long-term supporters to fund change is valid. Often it is life-saving. Yet the least understood area of our work often is the impact of our communications on public understanding of and support for aid and development. The public are telling us they are saturated with suffering, that we are charming or disarming them into acts of compassion, and that we are abusing their emotions….

…Understanding the impact of the “lingua franca” of our industry matters because it has fuelled a template approach to the media reporting of suffering. It matters because the exponential growth in access to mobile and social media technology and platforms means we are no longer the de facto guardians we once were. And it matters because it speaks to the power between us and them, and you and me.’

As more and more research is done, the ways that the sector is shifting become clearer and I hope we will start to see some positive changes in the aid and development industry and the way it communicates with the general public.

Some angles and voices that could help round out the discussion are still missing, however. I would like to see research on the opinions of local and international staff managing programs on the ground. Most organizations have fierce internal discussions on how marketing and fundraising is done, as program staff often feel that some marketing and fundraising approaches are demeaning, disrespectful and undignified in their portrayal of program participants.  (For more on this, ask Talesfromthhood to share some of his blog posts with you, join some of the discussions on AidSource, or follow the #smartaid hash tag on Twitter). Some program staff worry that the long-term impact of media and fundraising shock tactics and overly simplistic messaging ‘cancels out’ the short-term gains achieved through program or emergency aid funding – a point that is raised in some of the research above – and that this contributes to two-dimensional views on aid and development and to the negative stereotypes about certain countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia that deter longer-term development and self-determination. It would be interesting to know more from this perspective.

What do donors want? Image captured from page 9 of the report.

At the same time, INGOs are hard-pressed to come up with different and viable ways of funding their work, so this type of campaigning and fundraising continues. Although I’m familiar with some of the challenges my marketing colleagues face, I was struck seeing the kinds of donor demands that INGOs are expected to meet listed in the report. I was reminded of something a marketing colleague once said: ‘Poverty porn. That’s a good term. It is a lot like real porn. People don’t like to publicly admit to watching and responding to it, but in private it’s another story. People say they don’t like poverty porn and sad, desperate stories, but when you look at the numbers, it’s what makes them reach into their pockets and give.’

I would also like to see some research with the subjects (unfortunately often presented as ‘objects’) of INGO aid and marketing materials.  How do program participants feel about how they are portrayed? What impact does it have on them and their own perspectives and self-determination, if any? Strong voices on this come from diaspora communities and from blogs such as Africa is a Country, Uganda 2012: Trending Our Own Stories, and great projects like My Africa Is; but I’d also like to see some in-depth research and objective focus groups that talk with those who are most often shown in INGO marketing. Are people aware of how they are being represented? Do they care? Many of us speculate about this when we bash ‘poverty porn’ but I’ve yet to see published research that involves actual ‘beneficiaries’ of INGO programs or people and communities appearing in INGO marketing and fundraising pieces in this discussion. (Maybe I’ve missed it – if you know of  any, please share!)

The ‘Who Cares’ report notes in the conclusion that:

  • transparency, accountability, ‘value for money,’ and impact are becoming more important to the donor public
  • public trust is a central concern for NGOs in their work and their communications
  • the sector needs to assume more collective responsibility for ethically appropriate portrayal of disaster victims (eg, in compliance with Article 10 of the Red Cross Red Crescent Code of Conduct)
  • new technologies and competition mean that fundraisers are seeking supporters outside of their traditional constituencies
  • traditional gatekeepers of aid are being challenged by new media’s ability to put donors and ‘beneficiaries’ in more direct contact

As INGO institutional leadership space opens up to more people from ‘the global South’, diaspora communities grow, social media allows for commercials and fundraising appeals to reach global audiences (including people in the countries where INGOs implement their programs), attention is paid to the ‘new bottom billion‘ and new fundraising mechanisms arise (for example, INGOs raising funds within countries where they are implementing programs), it will be interesting to see how the conversations and approaches shift and change — or if they remain the same with new actors taking on the same challenges.

Stay tuned for further research and reporting over the next couple of years from Polis and download the report here.

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