Love the way you lie

I’m pleased to feature the fabulous “J,” (retired formerly of Tales from the Hood blogger blog) guest posting here on Shotgun Shack….

I used to think it was up to INGOs to voluntarily be more truthful and accurate in their marketing, more forthcoming with information about program challenges and even failures, and less prone to simplistic, dumbed-down public messaging. It used to really annoy me every time a marketer would go on about how if we don’t “hook” the donor in the first 15 seconds we lose them, or how donors don’t want to hear that aid is complex and difficult, that aid successes are nowhere near as cut-and-dried as our glossy direct mail and interactive websites make it all seem.

But now, I dunno.

Maybe I’m just jaded. Or cynical. But I seriously doubt that the aid industry is going to voluntarily make fundamental changes to the way it talks about what it does. I hate to say it, but I’m starting to think that maybe this kind of change will have to be driven by donors themselves.

* * * * *

Eminem’s controversial 2010 duet with Rihanna, and even more controversial music video captures a theme with which many of us are familiar: the smart, beautiful woman who, against all apparent logic, just cannot bring herself to walk away from an abusive, violent, perhaps deadbeat partner.

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn

Well that’s alright because I like the way it hurts

Just gonna stand there and hear me cry

Well that’s alright because I love the way you lie

I love the way you lie

* * * * *

Throughout my own career in the aid industry, it has on many occasions been my job to take private donors to the field, either to see projects that they’d already supported or projects that my employer of the day hoped they would support. In every instance, without exception, I found myself in the field with people who had been mis-educated about relief and development work by marketers. I don’t mind admitting that I enjoyed removing the wool from their eyes, in some cases forcibly. I held back nothing about the context, likely impact, sustainability prospects, complexity, difficulty, and so on. I did my best to make sure that they had as clear and complete a picture of what was going on — the good, the bad and the ugly — as possible. In every case their time at the project site with me showed them a picture that contrasted starkly with what they’d been led to believe about how their money made or would make a difference. In some cases they were shocked to learn what we actually did with their money.

But in no instance, ever, did any one of them say, “I think you guys are a bunch of crooks. I’ll be donating elsewhere after this…”, or “This development thing is a lot of bullsh!t. I’m done as a donor.”

* * * * *

I’m not calling anyone person a liar. Not NGO marketing or comms or PR people. I think that the instances in which NGOs tell outright untruths are extremely rare. But I absolutely believe that the gravitational pull of the aid industry is towards painting a picture for its donors of what it does that is un-nuanced and incomplete enough to be untrue. And we continue to paint this picture because our private donors continue to insist on it.

Donors: you have the power to make this better. You have the power to insist that we tell you what we’re really doing. Based on my own experience, I believe that if we get the chance to tell you, you’ll still support us because good aid makes good sense and you’re smart people. But you seem to be addicted to a fake version. I don’t know why, but you love the way we lie.

About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

5 responses to “Love the way you lie

  • Joe Turner

    Seems to me all advertising is lies. Aid marketeers are just as much into spin as the corporate advertising gurus. They lie because they can, not even because they have to.

    On the other hand, I’ve been thinking recently that perhaps my main fault is being too honest. People don’t want the unvarnished truth (even when it is just me admitting that I’m a flawed human being that isn’t great at everything), they want me to ‘sell myself’, to ‘talk up’ a project, to oversell the highlights and to minimise the low-lights. I’m expected to do this without thinking for an employer, to get a job, to impress a donor even to keep family relations friendly. It is, I’m told, just life.

  • elle.

    I honestly think it’s less about “lying” and more about spinning the truth. Marketers don’t walk around with the intention of lying all the time. That would be far too unethical. Instead, let’s call it “spinning the truth”. That sounds much more “strategic”.

    I’ve been told by flashy marketers that good marketing strives to make consumers’ lives better, by giving them exactly what they (ahem, think) the consumer is looking for. Sounds nice, perhaps. But translated in my mind: So marketers give consumers easy to chew, watered down, taste like shit food. (There indeed is a serious problem when the consumer doesn’t even realize they are eating shit.)

    In the case of INGO marketers: they give donors easy to chew, pretty to look at, happy, successful sounding stats and a nice story of a child who’s life has truly been transformed thanks to their extraordinarily generous heart.

    It’s not a lie. Lives are changing, on some level. Nice stories are, well, nice. You’re never short of at least one successful sounding stat. Brown kids always take nice photos.

    But aren’t we missing something here? Is that the aid reality we live in?

    To J.’s final note in the post, “(donors), you love the way we lie” — I believe it’s because it’s far more convenient to live in a reality that is “transformative”, that allows the goodness of our hearts be enough to help other people, no matter the situation they are in.

    I confess: It’s easier for me to think that way, too.

  • poverty p0rn « The Theology of Joe

    [...] is a real issue at the heart of how any NGO should raise money.  J recently argued that INGOs lie in their publicity – and we all know they do, yet allow them to get away with it because we find the lie easier [...]

  • blog lately. « lindsey talerico.

    [...] got a point here (well, doesn’t he always?). And the song is quite catchy. // Love the way you lie — J.’s guest post on Shotgun Shack on the role donors can play in changing the INGO [...]

  • blog lately – v3, i2 » lindsey talerico.

    [...] got a point here (well, doesn’t he always?). And the song is quite catchy. // Love the way you lie — J.’s guest post on Shotgun Shack on the role donors can play in changing the INGO [...]

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