Viral

4 Dec

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.

* * *

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.

21 Responses to “Viral”

  1. Giant Panda 4 December, 2010 at 6:02 am #

    A colleague of mine brought some amazing visual examples of the promiscuity between CSR campaigns and non-profit campaigns. (Marketing – the same logic applies to both.)

    Which bring me to the point that there are dissidents in the “other half” of our NGOs. Not all designers and communicators have succumbed to the hype. Many would love to go deeper and understand development better. We need to cultivate links with them and do the hard work together of inventing more authentic, positive forms of communicating the change we are promoting in “the field”.

    • J. 4 December, 2010 at 6:14 am #

      I completely agree. How, exactly, to cultivate those links is the specific “more pressing problem” that I was referring to near the end.🙂

      • Giant Panda 4 December, 2010 at 6:23 am #

        I found it was as a simple as sending an email. Making an invitation. In order to not “incriminate myself” further, I will not go into specifics.

  2. Joe Turner 4 December, 2010 at 6:17 am #

    seems to me like the nature of viral campaigns is that they’re either based on shit or oversimplified or just stupid.

  3. Don Stoll 4 December, 2010 at 8:53 am #

    Point taken about the breach between fundraisers and implementers, which one can see even in very small NGOs like my own where the same person must wear both the fundraiser and the implementer hat. Consider that one of the most crucial things we do in the Tanzanian village where we work, at least according to the villagers themselves who set our agenda, is build modest living quarters for teachers. The villagers see this as important because they know that educated people will not want to live in the mud huts which dominate the local housing inventory. Thus someone forced to live in a mud hut in order to teach at a rural school is likely to refuse or quickly leave—or work half-heartedly at—such a posting. But our fundraising downplays the teachers’ living quarters since experience has taught us that when we start talking about them, our audience’s eyes will glaze over.

    In development work, implementation and fundraising serve different constituencies, after all: the poor and donors, respectively.

  4. RA 4 December, 2010 at 9:24 am #

    From the fundraising side, it can start with an email (from either direction) but it takes a lot of consistent work, ability to listen, flexibility to listen when, where, and how it works best for field based staff (in the field), a welcome from the field, and the time to build trust. Not easy, worth it.

  5. Sarah J 4 December, 2010 at 2:10 pm #

    So I come from the other side of the NGO divide – comms and marketing. I think there is a valid point in stating that there is a cultural divide between comms/marketing and programmes. I just want to make two points:

    1) I’d ask programme people not to assume that we don’t ‘get’ what you are striving for, programmatically. We’re interested (otherwise why would we work for a development organisation?), we’re informed and ethically we (should be) committed to portraying the truth of what our organisations do. We don’t have the depth of your knowledge, but we are professionals in our own field.

    2) Without using comms and marketing to raise money from general audiences, there would be very little independent funding for your projects – it would be mostly grant-funded, so you’d be tied into what others want you to do, rather than what you want to achieve. Programmes are complex to communicate to your average joe – try explaining rights-based approaches, for example. Some NGOs do it much better than others, and we can all learn from that. A simple message doesn’t mean it’s a stupid message, but it may well work a lot better and raise a lot of dosh for your work.

  6. Brigid 4 December, 2010 at 3:05 pm #

    I see part of the problem as a tension between short-term and long-term.

    As a fundraiser, we use a lot of data and do “market testing” to work out what communications get the most donations. I’m not in the aid field but understand from colleagues that it’s the “poverty porn” that gets the most money through the door. To get rid of these horrid pictures (which should happen, I agree) will mean a short-term reduction in fundraising. Over the long term, the fundraisers can educate the donor base about the complexity of the beneficiaries and hopefully get donation levels back up. But the pressure from the programmatic side (or the leadership or board) is to have as many resources as possible as quickly as possible.

    One helpful thing: have someone from the beneficiary community on the board. Surprising how many paths this can forge, as board members will listen to their peer when it comes to the problems you identify.

    • Sarah J 4 December, 2010 at 5:19 pm #

      Actually, I kinda think that ‘poverty porn’ doesn’t work with general donors any more. Thanks in large part to the internet, donors are much better educated about the reality of development work.

      For example if, like me, you’re the “Band Aid” generation (and apols if that’s UK specific), then you’ll know from experience that raising vast sums of money doesn’t necessarily lead to change. There are still droughts and famines in Africa.

      What works are connections on a human level – telling stories of individual lives. Donors like to see/understand the change their money is going to make for people they can relate to (and yes, there’s lots of pros and cons of that too).

      And I’d absolutely agree about getting reps from those communities involved with how you are representing them, but practically, it’s a little more difficult if you’re working in 48 different countries (cf. Plan).

      Maybe the divide/tension is more between the leaders of an organisation – often distant from the field – who want to grow their income quickly to play with the big boys AND show their programme impact (effectiveness), and the comms/marketing/fundraising staff and programme staff, who are then forced to deliver to their timetable. That’s a royal pain in the a**e.

  7. David Henderson 4 December, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    Thanks for this excellent post. You have clearly articulated something that has been rattling around in my brain for a while. I’d say this internal dichotomy you refer to within organizations can be extrapolated sector wide.

    People will talk about the social sector with some expectation of homogeneity where there is none. Instead I think the sector is more accurately is interpreted in so many ways to the point where something like the Mashable awards you mention really has nothing to do with my understanding of the social sector or effecting positive change.

    To that end, I think the Mashable case above is less offensive in itself, instead we are offended because we wrongly assume they are referring to social value the same way we think about it. Really, what their award about is getting the attention of people on social media. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing, but as one focused on poverty interventions, I’m with you in not really caring.

  8. J. 4 December, 2010 at 5:13 pm #

    @Giant Pandinha & RA: Yeah, absolutely, those personal connections between programs and fundraising people are vitally important. And in many cases the success or failure of those relationships comes down to small things – an email message reaching out to the other side of the shop. It should be everyone’s job to reach out and understand where their colleagues in other teams are coming from.

    But it has to be much more than that, too. In my opinion, there really needs to be a paradigm shift within the aid and philanthropy industry overall, such that quality really does matter more than quanitity – even in fundraising. That will be far from simple.

    • Sarah J 4 December, 2010 at 5:37 pm #

      yes, absolutely like you said – it’s everyone’s job to reach out – and that should be an ethos that comes from the leadership in the organisation as well as the workers.

      And I agree that quality matters more than quantity. The biggie is how do you show/talk about/communicate/market quality when the programmatic achievement that’s top quality could be a tiny seed implanted in a community that takes a generation or more to bear fruit?

      I work for an INGO that has a rights-based approach, and in our communications, say about a WATSAN programme, we try to include all the elements that make it a quality programme under this approach. But by that time our two paragraphs have turned into an essay, and we’ve lost our audience.

      I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to show quality, but it’s a damn sight easier on the eye to throw together a couple of paras of output statistics to show what we’ve achieved. Fact is, we need programme people to help us translate quality programming into normal, everyday, succinct language.

      • Sarah J 4 December, 2010 at 5:39 pm #

        Meant to say, J – great post btw :o) Thanks! Really got my brain going after an evening of X Factor and I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!

    • RA 4 December, 2010 at 5:38 pm #

      I cannot recall a time when I have been evaluated on the basis of the quality of funds raised! The exclusive focus on the financial bottom line (as important as it is) sometimes leaves me feeling like I am grabbing at the tatters of my ethics. As a successful fundraiser I can begin to evaluate my work in terms of quality. I would like to hear what others think are good indicators

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