Archive for June 2013
I’ve been reflecting a couple of interesting discussions lately on aid communication and fundraising. In the first, Kurante organized a Google Hangout on “Poverty Porn” i.e. the use of negative, shocking images in aid campaigns (the recording and the twitter storify of the discussion can be found on Tom Murphy’s blog here). During the discussion @meowtree shared a link to this rather discouraging blog post by a fundraising guru here that suggests that those who criticize the use of negative images are undermining the organizations they work for and should be fired!
A second twitter discussion concerned a new “buy one, give one” programme and whether or not it is harmful or helpful and on what basis this type of programme might be judged.
What comes out of both of these is the potential conflict between what makes good aid versus what makes good fundraising. It’s quite possible to raise money, a lot of money, if one is willing to do whatever it takes, use any kind of images and words and tactics in order to open their wallets. Marketers and fundraisers, to give them their due, make extensive use research and evidence in their work, perhaps more so than programme people, and much research backs up the claim that negative imagery is often more successful than positive imagery in evoking a response and getting out checkbooks.
If you were a private company then “maximizing shareholder value” by going where the money is might well be a great strategy. But aid agencies and civil society organizations are generally in place to serve a mission. The mission of the organization is a huge asset both in motivating staff and in generating support – but it’s also an important constraint in that in places limits around what you will be prepared to do to raise funds or attention. Essentially, if you exist to pursue a mission then all your activities need to be consistent with it. Generally an aid mission is not simply to raise as much money as possible, it’s to achieve a purpose such as reducing poverty or protecting children from harm. And it’s often more complicated to pursue this goal than to maximize the amount of positive impact on your beneficiaries – you also need to do this in a principled way informed by your organization’s values such as in respecting the human dignity of the people of the people you aim to help and not exploiting them (even if with the aim of helping them).
I recall a conversation from when I worked on communication in UNICEF with our fundraisers about a similar topic (from more than 10 years ago so I’m not spilling any secrets). At that stage the organization was looking to move more into “upstream policy work” and on scaling back on “service delivery”, especially in middle-income countries. Programmatically this made a lot of sense, but the fundraisers were naturally concerned about the impact on their ability to talk about this shift in fundraising campaigns. It’s much easier to fundraise using images of nicely branded supplies coming in on trucks being handed out by aid workers to poor people than it is to “show” work on, or the results of influencing government policy, improving data collection and building capacity of civil servants. But at the end of the discussion we were ready to say that while it might be harder to raise money for upstream work, and we might be able to raise less money as a result – if this is the work that needs to be done, then the task was to fund better ways of fundraising about this work, rather than changing the nature of the work to make it easier to raise funds.
Of course aid organizations rely on external funding (whether government, corporate or individual) and they need professional fundraisers to be able to get the resources they need to do their work. Professional fundraisers and communicators know better than programme staff, from their experience and research, how to put together effective fundraising communications in terms of who to approach, what approaches to use and what information is needed from programme staff to support it. That can include coming up with novel approaches to raising funds for something that is already a priority, even if these appear gimmicky to aid workers on the ground (such as sending a quarter coin to people to get them to send in donations or getting them to buy something to give something).
But it’s important to ensure that the fundraising is in service of the organization’s goals rather than the reverse. It can be easy to be tempted to do something because it’s popular with donors even if it isn’t fully consistent with your mission and values, and hard to forswear potential opportunities when aid funding is tight. In particular it can be tempting to agree to programmes which are appealing to donors but for which there isn’t a demand, or worse that do unintended harm. But if the organization exists to serve a mission – then it’s important to keep that front and centre in decision-making on what opportunities to pursue or what tactics to use to pursue them – in fundraising just as much as in programmes.
In fact in an age of increasing aid transparency it becomes ever more important to focus on your mission and values since it’s much more obvious if your communications, partnerships and programmes are not consistent with each other or with your mission, and your reputation will suffer as a result –as will the cause you are pursuing.
Greater transparency is also an opportunity to bring donors and beneficiaries closer together so that donors can see and hear the results of aid work directly from those being helped rather than via a “story” whether positive or negative constructed by the aid agency for the benefit of donors. Similarly donors can also hear more from those they are helping about what they want and need, seeing them more as individuals with dignity, aspirations and agency to improve their lives aided by donors rather than as passive objects of pity and charity. This way instead of going where donors give most now, you can change the discussion to educate and encourage them to give money to where it is really needed, and to understand better what their support really does and can do.
“I don’t work here because if of the way it is, but rather because of what I believe it can be” – A wise former colleague.
A lot of people join the UN and are motivated in their work here by the ideals and mission of the UN. However in our day-to-day work it can be all too easy to lose touch with our higher purpose and get bogged down with bureaucracy, compliance, reporting, process and the rough and tumble of our every day work. In talking to people one thing I often hear, that also seems to apply to the rest of the aid/development world is that while we can see that the world is rapidly changing, we are frustrated and lack confidence that the current system is sufficiently nimble to modernize the way it works and adapt to the changing circumstances, or even overcome some of the internal challenges we face in getting things done efficiently. (Here’s a previous blog post I wrote about this in a moment of frustration – “Working with one hand tied behind your back”).
So what can be done about this? – how can we reconnect with the values of the UN in our everyday work, and how can we transform the UN, or the aid world to be more relevant, adaptable and fulfilling – and of course with the ultimate goal of being more effective?
As it happens there are many UN staffers who both share some of the above frustrations, but believe in the UN and themselves enough to be trying in their own areas of work to change UN for the better. Last year at the social innovation summit I found out about the “UN Transformation Network” which is essentially an informal community of like-minded UN employees and consultants whose aim is to connect people and have them learn from and support one another in transformational change. I’m now one of the co-facilitators of this group (if you are a UN staffer looking to bring about change then join us!).
But what can we do to help support this kind of change from within, especially given that most members are not senior power brokers within the UN system? As a group we identified two needs and two avenues of action to support them:
1. There is a need for peer support among the network to help share advice and experience, or at least to provide a source of moral support to those struggling to bring about change. To help facilitate this the network has a LinkedIn page for online discussions, organizes regular lunches for New York based members, and also participates in events such as the Social Innovation Summit which this year had a “UN Track” focused on discussions about how to make the UN system more innovative.
2. A common need expressed by members of the group was to develop their skills in leadership, but not in the typical way that management/leadership development programmes do, but one that is more focused around how to bring about change and how to lead at all levels. The aim is to help people maximize what they can achieve from where they sit rather than focusing on developing a standardized set of skills relating to your current level, specific UN organization or expected career path. In response to this a group of us have created and launched a leadership course “Developing Transformative UN Leaders” which has been developed “bottom up” bringing together the leadership learning needs expressed by people in the network and some of the latest thinking in leadership development and innovation from outside the UN.
We had the first few sessions of the course a fortnight ago and the next session will be at the end of this week. In good innovation fashion, the curriculum was developed collaboratively through a series of call as meetings with potential and actual participants. We’re also considering this first version of the course to be a prototype which, if successful, will be further adapted, based on what we learned from doing this the first time around. Our hope is that this experience will create a buzz and an appetite for more of this kind of training, and also that it will get the notice and support of “the powers that be” in the UN (right now various UN agencies have kindly agreed to send people to the course – but we are not at the stage where what we are doing is actively supported by the system).
I’ll write more about the programme, and what I’m learning on the blog as the course unfolds, but a few quick impressions from the start are that:
i) There is a strong appetite for a different kind of leadership training than is currently on offer within the UN, in particular one focused on change management and which fosters leadership at all levels and parts of the organization (not just in “senior” leadership tracks).
ii) The cross agency nature of the course is very valuable in reinforcing the common values which unite the UN system but which we sometimes forget in our agency specific work, and also in learning how different parts of the system have shared challenges but are experimenting with different ways of addressing them
iii) That the most important leadership skills we need to develop are inter-personal in nature rather than technical managerial ones whether in terms of improving communication, or increasing our empathy, or dealing better with office politics, to finding out how to better motivate others – and perhaps most importantly how to better manage ourselves.
iv) There are many highly talented, motivated people within the UN who are trying to do their best to achieve results and to change the way the UN works – the key will be to see how the UN can better tap into that potential (or how we can get the UN to recognize and make better use of it though our own efforts).
A final thought is that one of the greatest potential benefits of these efforts will be in combining the two. As part of the course we will be encouraged to set up change projects within the UN system and to make use of both what we have learned and the network we are building to help bring them about to support and advise one another. For me this will be the most challenging and the most exciting part of the whole enterprise.
[I’ve been terrible at keeping up to regular blogging over the past few months so I’m going to try to blog shorter pieces, straight from the hip, but more frequently – here’s the first in the new format, let’s see how it goes]
One of the latest crazes in learning that everyone is talking about is MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). These are web-based training courses that are usually run according to a specific timetable or schedule, but which are open to participation by anyone and are free to join and can potentially host an unlimited number of participants as their design allows them to be scaled to support large numbers. They are usually asynchronous meaning that although they may follow a specific timetable, participants can carry out their learning activities at any time of day. Common features that allow MOOCs to work are standardized instruction that can be accessed at any time such as pre-recorded presentations, standardized course readings, and use of standard self-completion quizzes and tests to assess progress.
But what makes them different from say standard self-completion courses on CD-ROM (or courses such as online driver’s education courses) is the interactivity between course participants in the form of individual or team based assignments, online discussions and with participants “marking” or giving feedback to each other on their coursework and progress. The peer-to-peer elements means that participants can learn from each other as well as from the official course material and this keeps the need for interaction and support by official tutors to a minimum which allows the courses to be scaled to large numbers.
As with any new technological innovation MOOCs are currently making their way through the hype cycle, with people gushing about how they will revolutionize learning and make traditional college based learning obsolete. This is balanced by a number of skeptics, and perhaps a growing number of realists who see through experience that while promising the benefits have probably also been over-hyped. Here are a few personal observations on MOOCs and their potential in aid/development work from a non-expert, but someone who has participated in a number of them and has contributed to developing at least one of them:
1. MOOCs offer open access to educational content that was previously unavailable to most. A large number of renowned colleges and schools have made content available for free online that could normally only be accessed by enrolled, paying students who could attend the classes in person. You still need a computer and internet, and the course material itself may require a certain level of education and experience in order to benefit from it, but it is a huge step forward in opening up knowledge. This means that they have a great potential for broadening education and outreach to new and global audiences – including on topics relevant to development. On a more selfish note, they are also a great potential learning resource for development workers.
2. Participating in a MOOC is nothing like being on a real college course. Following pre-recorded lectures online does not give the nuance and flavour of sitting in a lecture hall with a great teacher, and being able to interact with the professors and with other students in person. With online learning what you get out of it is also even more dependent on what you put into it than for in person courses. With a course that is free and online it is easy to be distractedly reading your e-mails while listening to the videos, or to not take the time to do the readings or assignments or to drop out altogether. But if you put in the effort you can get a lot out of it, even if it’s not as good as a face to face event.
3. The design of MOOCs for optimal online learning is probably in its early stages. Quality varies widely and many have somewhat uninspiring online videos of talking heads and somewhat simplistic online discussion questions where the quality of discussion is very dependent on who the organizers were able to attract to the course in the first place. The majority of courses are also run as online analogues of existing college courses rather than something adapted more to the audience, medium and external demand. Some of the more promising aspects of the methodology are the work on group projects and peer feedback and other tools to connect participants together – in particular the chance to work on group assignments with people who are much more diverse that you normally find on a typical college course or workplace – an experience which is both challenging and very educational. I expect that over time we will see more experimentation with formats, and as a result, some improvements in teaching methodology to make them more interesting and their content more memorable. I also expect that the content of courses will evolve away from simply repurposing of college material into material more adapted to the interests, aptitudes and schedules of different audiences.
4. Who pays for MOOCs? From a user perspective they are free, but someone still needs to pay for adapting all that content, hosting it online and marketing it. For now, many people are keen to get into this new business and so are making content available without necessarily having a clear idea about the sustainability of the approach. That will not last. If content providers can’t see a clear benefit such improved demand for their in person courses then their incentive to keep working in this area will be limited. So a sustainable funding model will be needed, and one that doesn’t cannibalize existing learning opportunities and that maintains openness. But I can also see a possibility for MOOCs to be used for publicly funded learning either as a public good e.g. entrepreneurship training for the unemployed or for small business owners; or as a combination of advocacy and learning such as a course on human rights that would be both educational but also try to change hearts and minds in the process. I can also see possibilities for commercial sponsorship for courses – which could help fund courses but would also introduce its own challenges in terms of how impartial the content provided will actually be.
In summary – I can see great potential for MOOCs in the world of development (although not quite as much as their backers proclaim), especially given the global nature of our work and our diverse and dispersed networks of partners and stakeholders. The methodology for organizing them and their sustainability still has some way to go, but I think it is worth development organizations to be experimenting with them in at least a couple of ways:
i) Developing pilot courses in the MOOC format for areas where there is a need or demand for large-scale learning on development issues and where the UN has expertise (an example would be the MyMandE initiative for e-learning on evaluation of development work aimed at aid practitioners and national government staff). This could be courses developed specifically for a mass audience, or adaptation of existing training materials to make them open, and also taking steps to maker them more interactive.
ii) Working with MOOC providers to encourage them to offer courses relevant to development practitioners, and internally in organizations to make staff better aware of the opportunities that are out there. This would involve identifying relevant offerings, but also reviewing content and delivery for relevance and quality as MOOC offerings vary widely.
There’s probably also some lessons to be learned through the participatory approaches used in the courses both to enhance our own (closed) learning events but also in terms of how we can get diverse and dispersed groups of people to collaborate online more broadly.