This is for my Corporates. Lesson 4: People are not props

This is Lesson 4 in the This is for my Corporates Series.

Click for Lesson 1: Watch your Language, Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t? and Lesson 3: What’s “The Field” got to do with it?

If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series is for you!

Lesson 4: People are not props.

The work we are doing is about the real-live people featured in the glossy photos in the donor brochure, not about the dollars or euros or pounds or yen that the brochure brings in. It’s about the real-live people whose stories are used to grab attention in that catchy advocacy campaign, not about the number of addresses you are going to add to the email solicitation list. It’s about the kids who are going to be able to stay in school, and the fact that their children’s health and education will probably improve because their parents attended school, not about the fact that you are going to get a ton of PR because a big celebrity is giving a big donation for those children.

So don’t lose sight of that. This is about people. About Real. Live. People. They are as real as your husband. As real as your wife. As real as your children. As real as the neighbor you don’t get along with. They are just as complex and imperfect as people who you know personally. Just as intelligent. Just as irritable and even irritating sometimes, like all people. And those of us who work on the ground work personally with them on a daily or weekly basis.

So when you get push back from us on how you want to portray people in your marketing campaigns, on how you want to simultaneously simplify and exaggerate (or make up) their stories to get a bigger “lift” in your direct mail piece, try to understand. We are picturing our friends, our neighbors, people in communities that we work with regularly, our own children in those campaigns. In those advocacy photos. On those TV commercials.

Imagine if it were your child on a billboard.

No, I mean really, stop and imagine.

Your kid was playing outside last night, went to bed without a bath. They come around with a camera in the morning. You say wait, let me tidy him up first. They say no, this is more realistic. You don’t want say no because you’re afraid it will seem rude. They go ahead with the photo shoot. You sign some consent forms in legalese, and next thing you know, there’s your un-bathed child up there on a billboard, maybe smiling or laughing, maybe not. Possibly his nose is running a little or he has sleep in his eyes. His hair is messy. The label next to him says “POOR and NEEDY”. Feels great, huh?

Or someone photographs your beautiful daughter. They put her face on a direct mail piece. Sure her name is changed, but there’s her face. It’s next to big red letters saying “desperate” or “trafficked” or “abused” or “HIV positive”. It tells a story about how you and your community are incapable of protecting and caring for your children and need outside help. Depending on the imagination of the creative director of the marketing piece, you as a parent are either a villain or a martyr or an uplifting hero. No one actually asks you for your real story, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is the story that the target demographic wants to hear. The story that moves them to donate. Now your daughter’s photo and this made-up story get mailed out to hundreds of thousands of people in another country, and emailed to another huge number of people. Maybe it even goes up on the home page of a big organization’s website.

Since you’re good at this imagination thing, turn back into yourself in your current job at your INGO or imagine that you are a community outreach staff person.

Picture yourself going out to the community where you’ve taken photos and film recently. Arrange a community assembly. Stand yourself in front of the whole community and show them what you’ve done with their pictures and their stories. Translate it all into their language so that they can read or listen to every word that you’ve said about them. See what they think of it.

Uncomfortable much?

Yes, yes, you’ll say, but we need to raise money! But this is what works! This is what people respond to!

And I will say back to you:  Find another way. Stop marketing to the lowest common denominator because it makes you the lowest common denominator. If you can’t get people to support the real work you do on the ground, you are not doing your job. The real work is way better than those stupid commercials and those pathetic direct mail pieces. Figure out how to get people to understand it.

People in communities are not props.


More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates Series!

Lesson 1: Watch your language

Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?

Lesson 5: How to kill what your non-profit had going for it

Lesson 6: Win-win or forced marriage?

Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings (often with the helpful prodding of my assistant Al Cohol). In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over the span of a 15 year period. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.


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

9 responses to “This is for my Corporates. Lesson 4: People are not props

  • Rachel

    Wonderful post…

    I can’t stand the elitist implication made in those commercials that (a) as you said, people in communities “in the field” are just props and (b) people in communities targeted by those commercials, people who are potential donors, are too stupid? thoughtless? unempathetic? to understand something of the actual work done on the ground if they were given more of a truthful explanation.

    People back home (not in the aid world) are not too stupid to understand the real true not-poverty-porn-romanticized work being done on the ground, if they are given the chance to hear about it…

  • theaccidentalhumanitarian

    First, I love the series, and I say that as a budding corporate convert.

    I’m not going to comment on the ethics of using ‘positive’ images instead of ‘realistic’ ones, largely because I see both sides of the argument, and have difficulties with both perspectives.

    What I will comment on however, is the last paragraph, where you suggest that we ‘find another way’, and that we’re not doing our jobs if we’re not getting people to support the ‘real’ work that’s being done on the ground.

    Really? Is aid work on the ground (the ‘real’ work you refer to) not imperfect? Is the system not broken? Essentially, do you not operate as best you can in a flawed reality?

    You’re asking the ‘big corporates’ to not only generate funds, but also to change the reason people give. To subscribe to a higher standard. Should you not be held to the same standard? Don’t just help people in conflict situations – change the situation. Don’t accept that some officials are corrupt – eradicate the corruption.

    Your answer will most likely be “we’re working on that, but we need to help these people now”.

    Can the same not be true for the people raising the funds that support your work? That we recognize the need to change perceptions at home, but we need to drive donations now, that we recognize that it’s not the best way in the bigger picture, but it is the best way for today.

    Or put differently, in another post you encourage the big corporates to see first-hand the reality on the ground. To experience it first hand. To not sequester themselves but to get their hands dirty.

    Now you’re asking them not to use that experience – the reality you encouraged them to see – because it uses people as props.

    Isn’t that exactly what you did to the ‘corporate’ to help him/her understand?

    I’m not trying to be insulting – I’m trying to see the distinction between your suggested path to ‘the corporate’ understanding and their subsequent path to helping potential donors understand.

    • shotgunshack

      Thanks for your thoughts Accidental. I’m not taking them as insulting.

      1) positive vs realistic: how about respectful and realistic. poverty is not a beautiful thing, but you can see past poverty to the beauty in people and respect them, not treat them as objects. going to “the field” helps with that.

      2) Ref: the aid system is broken and imperfect. Yes. It is. But from the program side, a good emergency or disaster relief program takes into consideration disaster risk reduction. A good development program looks at the root causes and tries to address them. I’d like to know what marketers and fund raisers are doing in an on-going way to change the perceptions of the public so that this type of advertising can be ended. What are they doing to educate donors? Fundraising and donors are one major reason that the aid system is broken, but since they hold all the power in the relationship, they normally win all the arguments. I suppose this gets down to one of those fundamental differences in opinion which it’s difficult to get past – should you get to decide everything if you are paying for it? I would emphatically say no. But others would disagree.

      3) There is a difference between using people as props and in involving and engaging people as people and seeing people as subjects in their own right in their own development. In seeing this as a partnership in development rather than haves and have nots, and using guilt to fuel the giving. The majority of advertising shows people as objects, as props. I haven’t seen a big improvement over the past 15 years in this regard, INGOs talk about changing this, INGOs even sign agreements about truth in advertising, but when push comes to shove, they will always go back to disrespectful commercials. What is the equivalent of a disaster risk reduction plan, or a long term public education plan for changing this? Often within organizations it’s the program team pushing for this and the marketers continue to talk about “what works” regardless of how it portrays people. Where is the long term investment in finding a different way? What is the media doing to help broaden the public’s understanding of aid and development work?

      4) What I “did” to the corporate to help him/her understand was to try to connect him/her to real people so that he/she saw them as real people. I don’t see how any standard INGO commercial or direct mail piece does that. There are some new attempts out there using social media to involve and engage the public in new ways of donating and being involved. Those really need to be explored more.

      5) The stated visions of many INGOs and of much development work is to change systems, for people to “help themselves”, for long-term sustainable developments and improvements, for systemic changes, for improved local economies and more stable political systems. Yet donors, large and small, continue to fund things that do the opposite, to fund models that don’t contribute to that, and INGOs continue to shape the public’s views in ways that go against their very visions. It seems like a vicious circle that will never get anywhere. Until donors change, it will be hard for aid to change.

      And really thanks again for your comment.

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