I’m reminded of this nearly every time I talk about my work to an aid non-insider:
Despite more Developed World interest in international issues, aid, and philanthropy now than at any time prior, there remains massive, general disparity between what individual citizens who support our work think we do, and what NGOs and aid agencies actually do.
I’ve written before that aid is simple, and while I don’t recant that (at least not just yet), I think it could be said better: aid is based on some very simple, basic concepts. But understanding how the industry works and what that means in terms of what eventually happens specifically to dollars donated by a single individual is complicated and takes time to get a handle on.
It’s not that we think donors are somehow stupid or incapable of “getting it” necessarily (more on this in a future post). But understanding aid, how it works, why it has to be done the way it has to be done takes time and concentration. There is a lot to know – mountains of books and documents to read just as basic context, a great many facts to be in possession of, trends to follow, crosscutting issues to stay abreast of. Whether we call it “study” or not, just staying current as an aid professional for whom this is a full-time job requires an immense amount of more or less constant education… to the point that, depending on one’s actual role, just staying current can be it’s own full-time job.
Aid is not rocket science. But for as much as the general public really knows about how it all works and what we actually do, it might as well be. Technical MCH assessment results, quarterly financial statements for a large food security program, or even the narrative monitoring report of a visit to a relief zone, to varying degrees, might just as well be NASA ballistics data in the eyes of someone not trained to read it.
And why would we think that it is or even could be any other way? Why would we ever expect random citizens with full-time jobs to have a nuanced understanding of this incredibly complicated machine on the basis of what we tell them? For goodness sake, I have in the past supervised interns with Masters Degrees in international aid or international development. Interns. With Masters Degrees in the subject matter… And then we get frustrated with our fellow citizens for not understanding in the space of maybe a 15-minute conversation what we spend entire careers figuring out.
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I think that as an industry we have basically neglected our “third audience” (the first two being recipients of aid and our institutional donors). We have all fallen down on the side of communicating to our private citizen constituent donors about what we do, and how, and all of the “whys” that invariably follow the “whats” and the “hows.” By default, we seem to be operating on the basis of some very unrealistic expectations about the extent to which the general public in our constituent donor countries can consume and assimilate large quantities of raw information, and grasp concepts and principles in a very short time and with the most cursory of explanations. And we make enormous assumptions – both positive and negative – about how the generally uninformed public will react when and if they do learn the facts about what it is that we actually do.
Of course there are many and varied reasons for and causes of this. Some are internal: in my own personal experience, NGO marketing/communications/fundraising/PR staff typically do not really understand what aid is, what their own employers actually do on the ground in country X, or how the very programs that they promote work in fact. And I’d see this primarily as a failing of NGO program staff who see themselves as too busy to be bothered to explain to their own colleagues what they do, or who roll their eyes and throw up roadblocks when marketing staff want to visit “their” field programs. So, there’s some onus on us, the programs people, the implementers, to be a little more patient and understanding and proactive in talking about aid to our non-programs colleagues.
There’s obviously an external dimension as well. Aid has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, but the way we talk about it externally has not changed nearly as much. The fact that 2010 is upon us and there are still not just people, but whole charity rating websites who use overhead as a key indicator of organizational goodness is a very apt example. Painting with some broad strokes here, I know, but in general we need to move past the “teach a man to fish…” mode of explanation. We need to move past the three-fold pamphlet, the 2-paragraph marketing blurb, the 30-second spot. We need to think beyond fundraising, and take donor and general public education about aid more seriously.
I have real reservations about total and utter transparency. There are limits, in my opinion, to we as aid organizations can be reasonably expected to voluntarily share with the general public about our inner workings, the details of our internal structural and political debates, details of our budgets. But we need to do better.
We need better thinking about to manage the precarious sets of balances between packaging and content, communication for the sake of simply informing the public and communication for the sake of fundraising. For heaven’s sake, in an age where the dead-serious best advice of a respected voice goes against known industry best practice, where a random undergrad can name a “movement” after himself and have a website about helping the poor, or where a few otherwise indigent surfers can become a “development NGO” that will (of course) accept your donations, we need to assert our place as the subject matter experts in the actual delivery of aid. We need to be a little less bashful about calling out those obvious bad ideas, and more savvy about championing the good ones.
More than anything else we need more, new and better ways of telling the public what we do… because right now they don’t know.