Wag the dog – the perils of fundraising
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.