Over the weekend, Good Intents did a piece titled “Non Profit Advertisements: What Message Are We Sending” with examples of NGO advertising that reinforce the very stereotypes that many of the aid bloggers are railing against in their blogs and ridiculing on Twitter.
In every aid NGO that I’ve worked for to-date there has come a moment when it dawned on me that our teams that raised resources (marketers, fundraisers, etc.) and our teams that ran programs in the field were very simply two separate organizations who happened to use the same letterhead…. They may make a lot of noise about “working together”, about being “field driven”, and so on. But the reality is that they represent two vastly different world views about what needs to be done and how, and what success or failure look like.
Organizations have been discussing this issue since as long as I can remember yet the gap between marketing/ fundraising and program hasn’t been reduced. Many program staff, as one person commented on Twitter, still hang their heads in shame at the stuff their marketing departments put out.
I was working at an organization in Mexico more than a decade ago. Our marketers were marketing one thing and our programs were implementing something else. The programs were actually quite good – they followed many of the “SmartAid” principles that Good Intents and Company expound on. The marketing was also quite successful in terms of financial growth, but it was simplistic, focused on hand-out programs that we had phased out for lack of impact, and bordered on poverty porn. You could say the organization was successful in marketing (based on money raised), as well as in program implementation (based on results), but it was telling two completely different stories.
This eventually caught up with the organization. Donors started complaining when they realized that they were not funding hand-outs for individuals. So the marketing heads from the different offices addressed this issue at their yearly meeting. A memo was sent out to all the program implementation teams. It said something like: it has come to our attention that there is significant risk in continuing to implement programs that do not deliver on “the promise” being marketed to individual donors. The memo went on to say that each program implementation office must ensure that its programs are aligned with what is being marketed. This created an uproar among the program office staff and a huge back and forth inside the organization. Who is driving things here? Are you actually asking us to implement programs that we know don’t work? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t the marketers be ensuring that their messaging is aligned with the actual quality programs that we are implementing on the ground?
For a brief period of time I worked in fund raising at an organization in the US. They hired me because I would “bring passion from the field to fundraising efforts“. Unfortunately whenever I expressed reservations that what they were marketing was very far from reality, or what they were saying was not actually the whole story, they would say “Well, you’re not a marketer, so you don’t understand how we do things.” And they would carry on with what they were doing. I kind of wondered what their point was in hiring me to bring the reality from the field to them if they didn’t really want to hear it.
One time I worked in the head office of an organization whose marketing strategy was “get people with an emotional hook and educate them about what we really do once we have them in the door.” This sounds a little like Nick Kristof’s strategy of focusing on an individual sad story and bringing people along later to understand the bigger picture (except he never quite gets to the bigger picture point). It seems to “work”, because most every non-profit markets like that, but given the public’s enduring lack of understanding of development, it’s clear that the “then educate them about what we really do” part isn’t really happening.
At this particular organization, they really did try other types of marketing but they didn’t “work”. I’d hear the marketing team reporting on the numbers coming in from their “test packets” (randomized control trial mailing tests). The appeals that talked about people in dignified terms, that didn’t use sensationalist red type, that showed smiling people helping themselves and needing a hand-up not a hand-out bombed. And the appeals that I found most offensive, the ones with the most ridiculously pathetic images and mindless calls to action, the ones that placed the people we worked with in the most victimized positions, were the ones that “worked”. We’d argue with the marketing team all the time about it, but they had numbers to bring in. “You need money for programs, right?”
I was at a meeting many moons ago with several smart colleagues from different program teams. We were talking about how the biggest challenge with program implementation in communities was changing mindsets of the people we were working with to a “hand-up not hand-out” mentality. People had become so accustomed to hand-outs that any NGO that wanted to work on something long-term and sustainable had difficulties, because the next day, another NGO would come in offering some free stuff. The main reason that people and communities stopped cooperating with us was that they wanted free stuff and we were not giving it out. We knew this because as part of our work we had to track individuals who participated in our programs and we documented the reasons they gave for dropping out. The suggested solution was to work harder to help communities see the benefits of self-determination and community ownership. Many communities did still participate but it was a constant challenge. When given the choice of working hard to change something or sitting back and getting something for free, not everyone chooses the more difficult path.
My colleagues and I started wondering what was really the point. Why did we struggle so hard to change the mindset of both donors and communities if basically they both wanted the same thing — to give and to get cash and hand-outs. We joked that we should just switch over and became a hand-out organization and we’d make both ends of the equation happy. Donors would give more, beneficiaries would get more. We wouldn’t have any kind of sustainable long term impact, of course, but we’d have a lot fewer headaches, we’d work a lot fewer hours, and we’d have a much lower overhead….
I still have the deep conviction that hand-outs are not the way to go, and that marketing and fundraising should not lead programs. But some days I’m ready to just give up and say, Fine. You want people to feel pity? Do your marketing that way then. Raise a ton of money with simplistic or false or demeaning images and messaging. Everybody wants hand-outs? Fine, do hand-outs. See where that gets you!
Or maybe I need to simply get out of this line of work entirely.