Tag Archives: marketing

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.


The most dangerous place…

So, this ad by anti-abortion group Life Always is pissing people off in New York City. And I mean really pissing them off.

Apparently there’s so much controversy that the ad is coming down. I like that. Score one for public pressure over an offensive media campaign.

What I found really interesting is the story that Tricia Fraser, the mother of the girl featured in the billboard, is demanding that her daughter’s image not be used. (HT ColorLines – News for Action) (Disclaimer: this story is from Fox News so there’s always a chance that it’s not actually true…)

Ms Fraser says she didn’t even know about the billboard until a friend told her about it a couple days after it was up.

I would never endorse something like that, especially with my child’s image,” she says. She did sign a release with a modeling agency, but never thought her daughter’s image would be used in an anti-abortion campaign focusing on African Americans, she says. “I want them to take it down.”

I applaud Ms Fraser for her reaction. I’m glad that she had access to the image and that she had the wherewithal, the courage and the strength to stand up and say “take it down.” I’m glad that the context in the US was such that she was able to do that.

It made me think about all the children’s photos taken in “developing” countries and then used externally (eg., not in that country) in various campaigns by INGOs and advocacy agencies. What if this child was from rural Uganda and her image was being used in a campaign around AIDS or child trafficking or another issue that can be stigmatizing? Would her mother have a real choice in how her image was used? Would she even know how the image was being used? Would she have the power to get the image removed if she didn’t agree with the campaign’s message or if she didn’t want her child associated with it? And how would she be viewed by the INGO or advocacy agency if she made a fuss about it?

How many aid agencies and their PR or marketing firms can say that they share their messaging and the use of children’s images with parents and communities to ensure that parents are OK with it? The images are likely taken with no remuneration for the children and families. When people ask to be paid, they are probably told that “we are a non-profit, we won’t be making any money from the image” or that the family should be grateful that they are able to give back to the INGO in this way (the INGO has been helping them a lot after all…), and that their image will allow the agency to raise money do some more good work.

I understand, in a way, how this all works and why it is how it is. And there is a lot of complicated stuff inherent there. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling uncomfortable about it.

People are not Props

The Great Divide

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.

How can one organization house such opposing views? Tales from the Hood explains in the first couple paragraphs of his post “Viral“:

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.

I couldn’t agree more with him. I wrote about this in one of my very first posts called Spitting in the Wind and also in the This is for my Corporates Series.

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.

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.

Spitting into the Wind

What is the problem with aid and development?

Well, if you ask me, one of the main problems is that even if for years, as the good program manager (or whatever title you have in the area of programs) that you are, you have naturally, in your own small way, been doing something like this… eg., you’ve been listening to people in communities and to local staff…

The Listening Project - listening to aid recipients since 2005

Note: Image respectfully pulled from The Listening Project’s report.

And you’ve been hearing from community members and local partners that:

  • staff don’t spend enough time in the community
  • staff show up late for community meetings
  • staff don’t take the time to sit with us
  • staff are late with materials or funding for projects we are implementing
  • we’d like staff to accompany us more, to train us more
  • we’d like some cash benefits for participation in training
  • we’d like some material benefits for ourselves like some t-shirts and maybe some school supplies

And you’ve been hearing from local community outreach staff that:

  • the nicest vehicles are kept at the head office for higher management, when it’s we who need them for our field work
  • they keep cutting our administration budget and giving us more paperwork to do
  • the central office is slow in approving things for us to do our work on the ground
  • the time we should be spending in communities is taken up by paperwork to fulfill audit requirements
  • processes are too bureaucratic, they just keep adding more layers and rules
  • we don’t have the equipment we need to do our jobs
  • they keep cutting community outreach staff in order to reduce overhead
  • people are used to hand outs because other organizations come around and give free things
  • it’s hard to get people to participate in some programs because other organizations in the past always paid them to participate
  • our biggest challenge is to change mindsets, to help communities see that we will not be here forever, that we do not do handouts

And yes, granted, you are doing this listening informally… but still you are doing it… And you are reporting the difficulties upwards to higher management… and you are having meetings where field staff can share their issues with higher management… and you are sticking your neck out at global management meetings to relay what communities and community outreach staff are telling you… and you are adapting your own proposals and modes of working and doing your best to support your overworked field staff so that you are not the bottleneck… and those higher management folks you are relaying these things to profess to be in this for all the right reasons, eg., they say they want to make an impact… (though you often doubt that they are really listening to you….)

And you can see the impact that’s being made when you and your team have the time and the space do things right, when you work hand in hand with local people for them to manage their own development….

…Even if you’ve been doing that, there is still an issue:  there are still a billion things that are outside of your control.

For example:

You still have to deal with the pyramid of micromanagement:

Dr Alden Kurtz Pyramid of Micromanagement

And the pyramid of blame:

Dr Alden Kurtz' Pyramid of Blame

Note: Images above shamelessly skimmed from Dr. Alden Kurtz’s excellent explanation of the virtues of micromanagement.

Not to mention the hubris of the captains of industry that your organization hires at the top and philanthrocapitalists that influence your organization’s direction, and who think you and everyone working in your organization is an imbecile (because these folks have never actually had to implement any aid or development projects before) (well, and until they realize after a year or 2 that they are hitting up against the same walls you have been….):

Hedge Funds for Development and Philanthrocapitalists

Note: Image nicked from Duncan Greene’s blog

And 1 million stupid ideas by wannabe do gooders sent for your consideration via the head office, taking your time away from the real work (no, we don’t need 10,000 used pencils collected by that grade school):

The doomed 1 Million Shirts Campaign

Note: Image stolen with pleasure from Project Diaspora’s site.

And the Badvocacy and Poverty Porn that certain teams in your office are promoting, and that messes around with the image and dignity of the people you are supporting, and stirs up misguided ideas, and you have to either waste your time fighting them or just give up and participate against your gut feelings of aversion:

Poverty porn and Badvocacy

Note: Image heartlessly torn from AidThoughts.

And the fundraising, marketing and communications department at the head office trying to get the most shocking stories out of you in order to score airtime in the media and get in the game early with donors and the public, because if they don’t you won’t actually have any funds to support those good programs that your team and the communities implement when you have the time and resources:

INGO Fundraising, Marketing and Communication Teams Jostling for Position

Note: Image from a hotly disputed article in the Lancet.

And cowboys like Sean Penn giving the impression that you’re all a bunch of idiots and that they can do it way better than you can (because they have a huge budget, ready-made media attention, and less of the aforementioned constraints because they are just getting started, and are not held particularly accountable):

Sean, Wyclef, Angelina, Madonna, and the like

And your Whites in Shining Armor telling the public that there are no capable people locally, and giving the impression that everyone is waiting for an American or a European with some business savvy, good intentions and no real applicable skills or experience to fly in to save the day, and this tends to resonate with your head office, because they are still jostling for media attention and corporate funding, and because you were slow to respond to Stupid Idea from Wannabe Do Gooder #999,997, which confirmed to the head office that you and your team are incapable of getting the work done (plus some Whites will get them local media coverage):

Whites in Shining Armour

Image: Taken from Good Intentions blog.

And all the other INGO marketers and fundraisers in the world telling the public that the capable, intelligent, solid people you are working with in the local office and in communities are pathetic helpless victims, because no one will donate if they don’t, and your head office has to keep doing that too, or they will lose out on fundraising and media and branding opportunities:

NGO marketing: donors don't respond to smiling people....

Note: Image from the fabulous Perspectives of Poverty project over at Water Wellness blog.

And the academics and aid critics looking at all the above, and reading books by elite Africans who don’t live in Africa, and thinking that aid and development don’t ever work, and should be abolished in favor of capitalism and making everyone and their mother an entrepreneur… and yeah, considering some of the giant aid and development programs you’ve seen, and some of the terrible initiatives started by outsiders with no experience, and some of the crafty government bureaucrats you’ve worked with, and the way that aid is politicized for gain by those political parties, you agree that some kinds of aid and development (the kinds that you also have no control over) have negative effects and should be abolished….

"Africans don't want aid"

Image from Aid Watch’s “just asking that aid benefit the poor” blog.

And the…. well yeah, you get the point.

You feel like you are spitting into the wind, but you plug along with the conviction that what you are doing really does matter, because when you listen to staff and community members, they are telling you what the obstacles are, but they are also saying that they don’t want you to leave.

So, the thing is, I love the Listening Project. Their findings resonate fully. I’ve been listening and hearing those things for years myself. But how do we fix it when the shit storm is coming at us from all sides and no one single person or organization or sector has the power to make it all better?

…and when we figure that out, maybe we can fix government and business and healthcare too and end all the wars.

Oh, wow, update: just read this ODI report called the Humanitarian’s Dilemma which gives a lot of insight, in a more eloquent and academic way than what I wrote above….