Part 2 of 3: “You Can’t Handle the Truth”

16 Dec

It’s hard to deny that there’s a rising tide of emotionally-driven conversation spilling over into the general public right now around how we, the NGOs and aid practitioners, represent our work externally. The whole discussion around Kiva ( is about as good an example as any (although it’s not the only good example out there). The “Executive Summary” here will bring you up to speed on that conversation, in case you missed it before.

What I find most interesting about the Kiva discussion, though, is that most micro-finance technicians (or at least those that I talk to) seem to agree: Kiva supports sound, properly planned and implemented micro-credit in the field. Very few are questioning that Kiva-supported credit programs help the poor. Or at least no one that I’ve come across thus far is choosing to grind that axe. Instead, it would be fair to say that the recent blogosphere fervor around Kiva is almost exclusively focused on the way that they market their product to donors online. The issue boils down to, “is Kiva dishonest? Did they withhold facts from their donors?”

I won’t answer for Kiva. But I will answer for the entire aid industry:

We do not tell the whole truth to the general public about what we do with their money.

We don’t. We just don’t.

And it’s not just one or two of us. It’s not the odd, outlier NGO who does a bit of wordsmithing in it’s “Gift Catalogue” (or whatever it’s called). There’s no point in calling out by name the one or two NGOs who bury the “truth” in fine print or withhold it entirely… because it really is industry-wide. In nearly twenty years in the business, I have yet to see a convincing example of an NGO anywhere that was utterly and totally transparent with it’s constituent donor base about how funds were used.

And while, if you were to ask the fundraising and marketing a PR staff of NGOs around the world about why, exactly, we are not totally transparent, you’d hear a very wide range of explanations for why this is the case. Some of them are very sound explanations, in my opinion. There are some very good reasons why we aren’t and probably can’t implement policies of total transparency, but if you think about it, they all boil down to this:

We don’t really trust them.

Re-read Part 1.5. You can kind of see why we’re (all) a bit reticent about sharing raw descriptions of methodology, strategies based on years of accumulated specialized data, or lessons-learned documents – unfiltered and in a contextual vacuum – with non-aid insiders. The potential, not merely for simple misunderstanding, but for wildly inaccurate conclusions about… aid.

We’re afraid that if we were really transparent – really transparent, but without the chance to explain fully – people would misunderstand stop supporting our work. We’re afraid that if we were straight up with our constituent donor bases about how we do community development and relief programming, and how we use donor dollars – really use them – how we really decide on budget categories, how we make the decisions about “why here and not there?”… that those donations – our lifeblood – would dry up. I trust I don’t really need to explain why this would be a bad thing…

* * *

The hubbub in recent months around Kiva illustrates the power of a “personal connection” as a fundraising tool in aid. It puts us in a challenging position. Person to person (P2P) giving gets closer to being a real, feasible possibility each day. Yet it remains horribly problematic: can you imagine the Facebook commentors highlighted in the previous post in a situation where they were donating directly to a specific other “needy” person in another country? That thought makes me cringe… and yet this is what various respected voices (last link to The Kristof for a while, promise!) on the subject of aid are suggesting.

As I wrote in Part 1, the general public seems to fundamentally misunderstand how the aid world works. We need to step up our game on the public information and education side. We need to do it because the more people who understand what we do and the issues we deal with, the more potential there will be for positive change in the world.

We have to take seriously the changing role of the public – that Third Audience – in our work. We have to recognize that, just like our more traditional donors, our Third Audience has an array of “rights” and perhaps also obligations in their relationships with us, the deliverers of aid.

Maybe we need something like a “donor’s ‘Bill or Rights’” – a code of conduct that outlines our obligations (and also the limits of those obligations) to Third Audience donors: our obligation to eventually come clean with the public about what we do and how we do it, not because we have anything to hide, but because many of those who help foot the bill just don’t know.

We also need to do it because like it or not our Third Audience really are increasingly stakeholders in what we do.

We need to be able to tell them what we do.

And we need to be able to trust them…

8 Responses to “Part 2 of 3: “You Can’t Handle the Truth””

  1. Daniel O'Neil 17 December, 2009 at 9:23 am #

    This series seems to dovetail nicely with Seth’s post about non-profits needing to change ( I agree that we need a new way to talk with our Third Audience–to tell them an honest, engaging story that helps them to understand the value of their donation and the impact that we have without overwhelming them with minor details.

    • J. 17 December, 2009 at 9:47 am #

      Thanks for reading, Daniel. In fact Seth’s post was one of several things that planted the seed for this series in my head (Kristof’s inane recommendations in Outside and that horrible Facebook thread being two others…).

  2. transitionland 21 December, 2009 at 5:04 pm #

    I think the logic behind the “gift” catalogues is simple and genius — people need to know what their donation is worth to the organization. If some individuals are too dim to understand that no, their money won’t go directly to purchase a an adorable goat for an even more adorable Ethiopian village child, I say, oh well, fools and their money…

    Cripes I’ve become a cynic.

    • J. 21 December, 2009 at 5:21 pm #

      I cannot tell you how many times, out in the field, I have had to respond to inquiries from gift catalogue donors wanting to know the status of “their” cow or duck or whatever the hell it was they’d purchased online for a program in “my” country..

  3. Daniela Papi 23 December, 2009 at 1:20 am #

    Not trying to be a stickler on this point which you have pointed out is “besides the point”, but you said:

    “Kiva is running basically sound, properly planned and implemented micro-credit in the field.”

    The point, that both Kiva and those outside have made, is that Kiva is not “running” any micro-credit programs “in the field”. They are giving interest-free loans to MFIs. Some of the complaints are that the partner MFIs have a range of impacts. Kiva started their Kiva Fellow program in part to check up on these MFIs as well as other measures.

    Point being, if you, a development professional, are still confused about Kiva “running” micro-finance programs, then it is clearly not an easy concept for people to wrap there head around.

    I see that you think that doesn’t matter, and sometimes it doesn’t.


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