KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Make learning part of your brand

with 6 comments

This week we have had colleagues in town from IDS who are working with UNICEF on an innovative approach to documenting and communicating lessons learned and good practice in social protection programmes, which combines use of video with more traditional approaches (more on this in a future post once the video and materials are available online).

One quite important reflection they brought us was about the use of communication tools for sharing knowledge with external partners. In particular the tension in communication between  promoting ourselves and our work, as against conveying the situation as it is. They suggested to us that we should try to find a way to make knowledge sharing and ongoing learning part of our organizational brand. This is possibly easier for a think-tank like IDS whose brand is built around knowledge than for an operational agency that requires public funding. Nevertheless it’s an intriguing idea worth exploring.

Much external communication in many development agencies and not for profits is dominated by fund-raising, brand building and advocacy. This leads to marketing that tends to follow two main approaches:

1. Emotional appeal  – Creating an emotional connection to a problem or issue, and then identifying the organization with this issue and support of the organization as a way for people to do something about the issue. Examples are this are messages such as “every day 22,000 children die from preventable causes”, or “here is the story of Stella and how getting married early affected her life” followed by an appeal to please support us to help make it better.

2. Competency appeal – using communication to convey the idea that we understand the problem and have the skills and knowledge to address it (if only we had the requisite resources). This leads to to talk about our long history, our global presence or our well known success stories. It also leads to communication such as “for $10 you can protect a family against malaria”, or “here is our best practice for public finance reform”.

Both of these approaches are valuable in raising awareness of issues and in gaining material or other support for an organization. They are widely used because they are successful (many not-for-profit organizations have collected the evidence to prove it even if much of it isn’t externally published). After all most people want to support a cause they care about and work through an organization that proven to be successful.

But there is a third type of communication that is less well used that I’d certainly like to see more of from development organizations which can be both more reflective and self-critical thus helping us improve development practice, but at the same time be used to help organizations market themselves and the issues they work on.

Imagine that we make ‘learning” a part of our brand, part of who we are as an organization and how we choose to talk about ourselves. This needn’t replace traditional forms of communication but rather  complement them.

Here the message would be along the lines of “we don’t know how to fix all problems in development but we are working with partners to try out new approaches so we can know better what works” or “we constantly reflect on and learn from our experience and the feedback of the people we work with so we can continually improve what we do”, or “whatever we discover about improving the lives of children we will share freely with others to help them multiply our own efforts”.

There are some tensions in that we would need to admit that sometimes we don’t (yet) know the best approach to a problem, or that whatever we are doing now, we might find a better way later and change our approach. But if we can find a way to do this in our communications with donors and have them still support us – then it will also make space and create incentives for us to be more reflective and self-critical about our work , be more willing to accept criticism internally and externally in the interests of continually improving ourselves and improving development work more broadly.

This way we would be communicating knowledge (from research and from experience) not to support our own agenda but to open ourselves up to examination and also to advance the greater good.

Am I dreaming, or can we do this?

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 15, 2011 at 3:06 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Very interesting, Ian! Thank you for sharing. I agree with you. I believe we should be always trying to be innovative in our communication. I agree we must go on using what is working, but we need to be leading new ways of sending messages. Everyone is so overwhelmed with information, that new ways of sending it is essential.
    I think you are not dreaming and that it is possible 🙂


    July 16, 2011 at 6:54 am

  2. Hi, Ian,
    again your posts stands firm on the ground of your experiences in development, but your thoughts went high and broad.
    Of course I wouldn’t want a service company to learn their standard off-the-shelf portfolio, while delivering to me; but many companies aim to have an innovative brand image, I guess there is not much innovation without learning. If you assume that you usually learn from someone (customer) or situation (customer situation)to innovate, then a learning brand is exactly that: combining customer focus with innovation.


    ps:re-use a inspiration for brand discussion

    Gerald Meinert

    July 18, 2011 at 9:00 am

  3. […] week I blogged about how aid organizations should do more to make learning a part of their brand (both their communication, but more importantly how they […]

  4. Great post Ian. At GAVI, learning and innovation is very much a part of our brand and it has served us well — our donors seem to welcome this aspect of our work and recognise that our results (thanks to all our allies including UNICEF) would not have been achieved without some risk taking. We take pride in saying that we don’t have all the answers but are trying to figure them out together with all partners. Our working culture encourages innovation and fresh ideas and is an approach reinforced quite often by senior management. There is no shame or criticism assigned if ideas don’t work out.
    After working at UNICEF I have found this approach very refreshing myself and have looked to innovate when it comes to communicating too.
    Keep up the good work!

    Dan Thomas

    August 8, 2011 at 5:49 am

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