In every aid NGO that I’ve worked for to-date there has come a moment when it dawned on me that our teams that raised resources (marketers, fundraisers, etc.) and our teams that ran programs in the field were very simply two separate organizations who happened to use the same letterhead. Saundra’s latest post on Good Intentions Are Not Enough illustrates this very well. With the exception of Plan UK, I am personally acquainted with people on the run-programs-in-the-field side of each of the organizations she mentions. And in each case they hang their heads and order another shot of something when the subject of these exact advertising campaigns comes up.
Yes, I’m hard on the media, but if you’ve been following this blog for very long you know that I’m hard us, the NGOs (and not just the marketers, but programs people, too) for painting for our consituents a picture of what we do that is absurdly simplistic, to the point of being plain inaccurate. And the reason for that absurdly simplistic portrayal, in my opinion, really boils down to the reality that even under the same roof, marketing and programs are two separate organizations. They may make a lot of noise about “working together”, about being “field driven”, and so on. But the reality is that they represent two vastly different worldviews about what needs to be done and how, and what success or failure look like.
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I am simultaneously bemused and dismayed at the top 5 nominees for the MASHABLE AWARDS: Most Influential Social Good Champion. You’ll note that not one – not one – of the nominees is an actual implementer of… anything, really. I’m not accusing anyone of being bad, but it has to be pointed out: for all of the talk and hype and web presence and massive Twitter followings and Facebook fanclubs, Mashable is asking you to vote for the “most influential social good champion” from among a group of contenders, not one of whom actually does anything. Certainly nothing that can be pinned down in terms of concrete, measurable impact. Say what you like about aid NGO transparency (and there’s a decent chance I’d agree with you), but none of the “social good champion” nominees make it easy to figure out how your interaction with them affects specific change in the real world. (As an interesting aside, I can’t find where Mashable defines what a “social good champion” is or what criteria are for being nominated.)
This seems very symptomatic of where the whole current hype around social media and aid is headed. What I’ve seen thus far is focused on making ordinary citizens feel good without having to really engage, and in this sense it’s all a bit like post-Gen-Y Chicken Soup For the Soul. It’s all about raising awarness and maybe money, retweeting, “like”ing, charity-auctioning something, something “going viral.” It’s all about stuff that is 3 or 4 or 5 steps removed from actual good being made to happen. There’s no real discussion about huge conceptual, not to mention logical and feasibility gaps between your YouTube clip “going viral” and a beneficiary, you know… benefitting. It is all basically marketing marketing.
I’m not against social media and aid (obviously). I see tremendous potential to focus the attention of the public on issues that really matter, and to engage them in truly meaningful ways that affect change. But what I’ve seen up to now – and Mashable’s “Social Good” pages are a prime example – is a whole lot of fluffy nothing. Worse, and more to the point it is simply recreating on a larger scale the divide that already exists inside aid organizations between those who raise awareness and money and those who run programs. Everyone wants to start a “movement” or champion a cause, to take credit for making the world a better place. Hardly anyone, on the other hand, wants to hunker down unsung and unacknowledged, and solve more pressing problems.
I’m guessing that if you find a way to really bridge the gap between the fundraisers and the implementers, going viral is not going to be a challenge. And more importantly, you’ll have made the world a better place.
= = = POST UPDATE: 3 December, 2010 = = =
Rather than respond in detail to some of the really great comments below, I’ll add the following thoughts to this post:
1) The point of this post was not to slam NGO marketers/marketing departments. It was/is rather to point out (and perhaps complain just a little about) some of the fallacy in the whole trendy current wave of “you can change the world for good by just using Facebook…” hype around social media. It’s basically another form of aid amateurism – one that in this case simply recreates an existing problem.
2) The way that funds are raised does matter when it comes to implementation. Every single financial gift or donation that we accept comes with it’s donor’s agenda, expectations and strings attached, regardless of the source (see also “Donor Driven“). And in the case of private donations those strings attached, those expectations are not communicated in a contractual agreement as public grants typically are, but rather are based on our marketing. Our private donors expect us to implement the kind of aid that we portray in our marketing. Which then means that if we market bad aid, we’re constrained to implement bad aid. It is no longer good enough for fundraising departments to rake in the private cash in whatever ways work best, and then expect the programs departments to magically transform it all into good aid out in the field.
More to the point of this post, the emphasis of the current hype around social media to promote aid is, at it’s shiney best, a lot of fluff that has practically no connection to something happening in the real world (in part because it all starts someplace other than with the needs of those it purports to want to help). As I said, it’s marketing marketing. Worse and more likely, it’s building the expectations of people – of donors – around utterly false notions of what “making a positive difference” actually entails. And those expectations built on false notions, as I’ve argued above, do matter.
3) The best marketing is not necessarily the best aid marketing. This will be a hard one for some to swallow. The kind of marketing needed in my opinion – the kind that is reality-based and that does go steps further by truly educating donors about what we do – is not the kind of marketing that will get us the most money. We need to move ourselves beyond income targets and bottom lines as the indicators of success in aid fundraising. It will be a painful switch. It may mean temporary losses in revenue for some, and those who make the switch poorly may find themselves out of the game entirely. But we have got to acknowlege and also act on the knowlege that it is nowhere nearly as simple as “more revenue = more aid.”
I’ll say it again: How the funds are raised matters. If aid marketing builds the wrong expectations inside the minds of donors, then implementing good aid in the field becomes practically impossible.