KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Wag the dog – the perils of fundraising

with 12 comments


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.

Written by Ian Thorpe

June 20, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on Staying for Tea and commented:
    This is my first reblog ever. I won’t be making a habit of this, but Ian’s post today articulates so well this issue of mission integrity and the sometimes conflicted relationship between programming and fundraising.


    June 20, 2013 at 6:14 pm

  2. The other problem of doom-gloom “advertising” for aid money is that it convinces people that the world is in bad shape and pretty much hopeless. Good opportunity to link to Hans Rosling’s recent talk at UNICEF which starts out with people’s knowledge of the situation in developing countries.

  3. […] This is a cross-post from the always thoughtful and eloquent Ian Thorpe, who notes that fundraising is a means to help non-profit organizations fulfill their wider mission; it should not be mistaken as the end goal of non-profit organizations. Consistency in how we achieve our missions across all of our operations becomes ever more important in this age of growing transparency. Read the original post here. […]

  4. […] Here is the original post: Wag the dog – the perils of fundraising […]

  5. Okay, so of course there is a line, and consistency with mission is something I agree with.

    But …. if your mission is to alleviate poverty, and funding is a critical component of that (as it always is), then I think you are doing your beneficiaries a disservice if you don’t do ALL you can to raise money. You got into this line of work to help people. If you forgo a fundraising opportunity on the grounds of ‘brand’ or ‘consistency’, are your priorities in the right place?


    June 23, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    • I see it as a question of whether the ends justify the means. speaking for myself alone, there are limits to the means I’m prepared to use to achieve the ends of reducing poverty, not least because the ultimately undermine what you are trying to do. My guess is every person and organizations sets those limits in different places. Here are a few illustrative examples of limits for me:
      1. Taking money from a company with a bad human rights record – yes I might be able to do good with that money but I’d also helping that company to improve its public image without addressing the harm it does, as well as damaging our credibility.
      2. Misleading donors about what you actually do to give them something they like to fund (unfortunately more common than you might expect) – yes, it might get you more money, but it’s dishonest and if you get found out it would irreparably damage your reputation and future fundraising.
      3. Using fundraising methods that take away the dignity of the people you are trying to help. Again, speaking personally the aim of development work is to help people to be self-sufficient to be able to live their lives with dignity. If I take away their dignity by the imagery I use (or by not asking their permission) then I’m defeating the purpose of what I’m doing, even if I get more money.

      Ian Thorpe

      June 24, 2013 at 9:21 am

  6. […] I’ve written before that I think how we think and talk about aid matters. It matters how we portray it to those not part of it, whether donors or constituents or someone else. It is simply not acceptable to say that we’ll message a particular way because “donors want” the message a particular way. It is absolutely unacceptable to say that this or that kind of marketing is good because it makes lots of money. Of course everyone in the aid industry understands very well that the aid industry runs on money, and that that money has to come from somewhere, but making money is not the endgame. There are other, equally or more important considerations (as Ian Thorpe points out exceptionally well). […]

  7. Hi Ian. I think that the NGOs, like all organisations, need to satisfy multiple stakeholders: funders, beneficiaries, volunteers, workforce. If money stops coming in, they cease to function. To have fundraising “follow” mission is a single-stakeholder, simple strategy that doesn’t work. What every NGO has to do is design products that satisfy their mission, and at the same time satisfy the needs and perceptions of the funders.

    I also think that by characterising firms as purely focussed on “follow the money” and “shareholder value” is a cartoon image of private enterprise which doesn’t capture the complexity of these enterprises. The most valuable companies today pursue a social vision, and a social value proposition, as well as making money out of that pursuit. But you can’t say that (for instance) the telecommunications industry, or the computer industry, haven’t delivered social value. They have arguably delivered far more than the entire NGO industry put together. Let’s get away from this antiquated myth of missionaries vs mercenaries.

    It used to be that civil society was voluntary associations of unpaid citizens collaborating to meet common needs. No NGO that I know of, today, follows that model. They are all corporations. They are all businesses. Other than in the way in which they raise capital, they are more more in their methods with private enterprises than they are different.

    With regard to “poverty porn”, I agree it’s stupid and sad: like lead in petrol But at the same time, I don’t think that the best way is to try and get every NGO to fix that. Not every NGO can fix everything, and when they try to, they often start failing at everything, because they lose focus.

    Why not start an NGO whose sole role is to develop marketing means that are porn-free… and are proven to work… and then sell services and methods to other NGOs to help them shift? Otherwise, I fear that the poverty porn discussion will not move beyond moralising admonitions.

    David Week

    June 25, 2013 at 12:59 am

  8. Hi David – let me clarify what I meant about fundraising. Of course NGOs and other aid organizations need to fundraise, and to do that they need to so through means that satisfy the needs of donors – my point was only that they should do so in a way that is consistent with their mission and that doing so might well mean sometimes forgoing some potential donations, and that this is actually a good thing.

    You are right to point out that many businesses create social value and have a social mission beyond making profits. Those businesses that do this also face similar dilemmas to NGOs i.e. whether to go after greater revenue or to be true to their mission or to their brand. And often they will choose mission/brand over revenue gains because in the longer term it makes sense for them to do so. The difference for me with an NGO is that the centrality of the mission is greater and that NGOs aim (at least on paper) to serve their beneficiaries rather than just their donors whereas in a business the main beneficiaries and donors are the same i.e. their customers which makes alignment with core value more straightforward.

    On your suggestion to start my own NGO (or MONGO), I’m quite sure I’d be terrible at it, so am better off sticking with my day job, and with writing “moralizing admonitions” on my blog (after all what else is a blog for? :-)) but maybe there is a niche for someone else out there?

    Ian Thorpe

    June 25, 2013 at 1:54 am

    • Hi Ian. I didn’t mean “you” personally :-). I too have a full time+++ day job, and would be quite terrible at starting such a beast. BTW, rather than start a MONGO, I would imagine more a STRONGO, SUNGO or WONGO Or even a social enterprise that consults to NGOs and others.

      One chart I’d like to see is the ratio, over the last 40 years of the proportion of NGO revenue derived from public donations versus income derived from contracts with institutional donors. What NGOs do under competitive pressure do is also an emerging “moral hazard.”

      Moral admonishing (as you may note, something that I too am fond of) can be more effective when accompanied by an alternative course of action. Right now both agencies and the market are conditioned by the traditional charity equation, which is “help the suffering and the poor”. In so far as that’s the appeal, poverty porn will persist. We need alternative equations.

      One alternative is “invest in nascent success”. That’s the marketing appeal of micro-credit. It could be extended to many other sectors. One key difference, though, is good micro-credit is initiated by the borrower/beneficiary, not by the lender/NGO. That would require a change in operating model for some NGOs. And a more serious effort to shift from needs- and deficiency-based approaches to strength- and asset-based approaches.

      David Week

      June 25, 2013 at 2:49 am

  9. Hi Ian, Thanks for this post, I wonder how you would translate “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” into action?


    June 25, 2013 at 11:20 am

    • I think it’s a developing field but there are a few examples out there such as the real time reporting on programme progress via on the ground updates used by people like and Other examples would be things like using technology to connect together classrooms in developed and developing countries or to organize other town hall type online exchanges. You can also use approaches such as short video interviews/stories with beneficiaries – the idea here to do these moreauthentically but in much greater numbers than we tend to now. Feedback perception surveys (whether through interviews, questionnaires or sms based tools such as Ureport) can also be valuable to give organizations and their donors a sense of whether what they are providing is valued by beneficiaries (see “the joy of polls” from earlier this year).

      Ian Thorpe

      June 25, 2013 at 11:36 am

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