Aid marketing I’d love to see…

29 Aug

Aid marketing I’d love to see in real life:

“Your $20 won’t end hunger. Heck, you know what? You could give even a million dollars and it wouldn’t end hunger. You know why? Because the causes of hunger are systemic and structural, not financial. There is enough food in the world right now for everyone, but unfortunately most of it is owned by people who won’t share with the rest. Will they ever share? No one knows. But your $20 helps us continue to try to take care of those with too little. Until those with too much decide to share (if they ever do).”

“You don’t have to like talking about condoms. They’re not really our favorite topic either. But talking about condoms is a whole hell of a lot better than talking about a lot of dead people who died of HIV/AIDS. It’s been proven time and again that the most effective means of preventing HIV transmission is consistent, correct condom use. Nope – promoting abstinence doesn’t work. We’ve tried it. It doesn’t work (seriously, did it work in your high school? No? Didn’t think so. Don’t know why you’d think it would work anywhere else). No, you don’t have to like talking about condoms, but you’d better understand that condoms save lives. Simple as that. What more reason do you need to get behind this program?”

“We seriously messed up. More than once, actually. All the time, actually. Disaster response is impossible to get 100% right 100% of the time. You know how it is from watching TV: it’s a disaster. We go in, the power doesn’t work, we can’t communicate, it’s chaotic, logistics are impossible… Sometimes it’s dangerous. Sometimes our own people get sick. There’s never enough of the right information for making good decisions. Sometimes we get it wrong. So why should you keep supporting us? Because no matter how bad the situation is, we will still go there and help as many people as we possibly can. And we will always be straight with you about how we’ve messed up. And we will learn from our mistakes so that we don’t repeat them next time.”

“Your donation may go towards helping terrorists. That is a reality that we live with out in the field every single day. How? Maybe they’ll steal it from us. Maybe they’ll steal it from ‘our beneficiaries’. Maybe the host government will confiscate it from us and then give it to them. Or maybe we’ll just give it to them because they might just be legitimate beneficiaries, too. Just because someone thinks they hate you doesn’t mean you can’t help them if you’re able and they need it.”

“No, you won’t get your name on a plaque in the entrance to the clinic. You won’t get a picture of ‘your’ cow or goat or duck or whatever. You won’t get a heart-warming letter from a kid in an impoverished third-world village. Your name won’t be called at a fancy gala. We won’t have a special fundraising rep assigned just to you, who has you on speed-dial and who will scramble to find answers to your random, off-the-wall questions. Sorry. That’s not what we’re about.”

“Three years from now this place is still gonna suck. It sucked before the disaster, and it’s gonna suck even more for a very long time after. Honest-to-god, if we could change that reality we would. But we can’t. It takes a long time to recover from a big disaster. And during that long time that it takes to recover, people are going to need shelter, water, sanitation, health care, food. Yep, we know: it looks really bad. It looks like nothing’s changed in the six months since the disaster. And while we can’t exactly measure the number of people who didn’t die of dysentery or cholera or the number of people who didn’t starve to death or become malnourished, we can tell you that things would be a lot worse had we not been here doing our job with your generous support. Thank you for that. And just so that you know, three years from now it’ll still suck, and we’ll still be here.

“Only about half of your donation goes ‘directly to beneficiaries.’ Maybe even less than that if you only count our cash transfer programs. Why so little? Well, first, just so you know, 50% is a pretty average actual overhead rate. And second, we’d love to give more, but we can’t. Did you donate online? It costs us money to maintain a website and the bank charges us for electronic transactions. Did you send a check? Yep, costs us money to receive those, too. You say you chose us because we provided the best information about our programs? You would not believe how much work it is to put those reports together (we had to pay someone to do it!). Costs a lot to publish them, too. Love those photographs? They cost extra. You say you like us because we work in the most difficult places? Hard to find people to work there (even the locals are dying to leave), and you know the saying, ‘Pay peanuts, get monkeys…’ Or you like us because we ‘build local capacity’? Our own local staff need salaries, too.”

“There’s no happy ending here. If we told you otherwise we’d be lying. These people were suffering before we came, and they’ll be suffering long after we’re gone. The causes of their suffering – the real, big picture causes – are beyond most anyone’s control. Certainly beyond our control. All we can do, really, is bring a little humanity into a situation that should never have existed in the first place. We can make things a little better, a little more bearable for a few of them for a short period. Is it enough? No. The need is far beyond what we can address. Will our help last? No. By next week or next month we’ll be back to square one. Or maybe they’ll all be dead by then. We sure hope not. But either way, our relief effort is still worth doing because they are our fellow humans and they’re suffering and we have the ability to do something about it. Even if it’s only a little.”

* * * * * * * * *

See also: #epicFail

51 Responses to “Aid marketing I’d love to see…”

  1. Michael Kirkpatrick 29 August, 2011 at 10:18 pm #


    • Joe Lowry 31 August, 2011 at 5:28 am #

      Not brilliant. At all. You don’t mention a thing about how communities help themselves. You assume it’s all to be done by the aid agencies. Not true. Not even close to true. In fact so far wrong as to be almost dangerous.

      • J. 31 August, 2011 at 9:09 am #

        You’re making assumptions about my assumptions. Don’t.

      • Anonymous 31 August, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

        damn. clever

  2. Jon Custer 29 August, 2011 at 10:42 pm #

    By far the best post I’ve seen about this topic. I’ve made fun of ‘Badvocacy’ complaints in the past because, really, what ad campaign accurately represents the product they’re trying to sell? But ANY decent ad agency could, with little work, make at least half of these suggestions into totally viable campaigns (that would get a lot of free press to boot). Wonder when someone will try it?

  3. maria 30 August, 2011 at 2:52 am #

    yep, brilliant and true.

    I was analizing MSF (can we cite names here? hum ) adverts around town the other day in Barcelona and they have a current campaign where they seem to be going away from the classic Brown Babies approach. They picture “normal” people smiling ( watering plants at home, going about their “normal” lives here) and thank them, calling them by their names “lidia just saved 30 kids form cholera”. OK its far from what you propose (which I’d love to see that around advertise, see what happens, owuld really be ground) but at least they try to leave apart classic poverty porn .

    • Elle 30 August, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

      Does MSF use any fat people in those photos you’re talking about? Or might that be too close to reality? Wishful thinking I guess.

      • 31 August, 2011 at 6:21 am #

        The people are just regular people the population here can identify to: white, middle-aged, at the office or watering plants. they smile.

        they are photographied in their daily environment (from 60 years old housewife to 30 yrs old career woman, even a couple of older 60 something men posing together). MSF thanks each of them by their name for having just saved/operated, X kids from disease X.

        The message is quite clear:

        “anyone can contribute to making a better world. You too”,
        “you dont need to be anything other than you are to be good”
        “your little contribution will make a big impact (becasue we know how to spend it weel, unlike others”
        “we are clelar about our finances, you’re ourequal partner so we inform you of where your money will go”
        “we know you’re fed up of catastrophoies and your feeling impotent is counterproductive”
        “injustice is complex but you dont need to worry because we make it easy for you to find your place in the big picture. ITs a nice place to be”
        “you are valuable and unique”
        “you don’t need to feel guilty”
        “we wont show you any more Brown-starving-Babies because we know you had enough of that and its actually counterproductive for you being a donor”

        I guess MSF has made some thinking. Its light years away from J’s proposals above, but better than Caritas little girl standing alone int the desert, whose shadow is a cross.

      • J. 31 August, 2011 at 9:18 am #

        If you can confirm for me that you actually do work for and are writing on behalf of Elle magazine, I will share my thoughts on your question.

    • Anonymous 6 September, 2011 at 8:00 am #

      cue interesting article about MSF

  4. Douig 30 August, 2011 at 4:59 am #

    Particularly liked the comment on structural and systemic causes of poverty and that it’s not the financial bit. Seems people are happy to out source care instead of doing it themselves, or changing the system that comforts and benefits themselves.

  5. james 30 August, 2011 at 6:24 am #

    Yeap! very realistic description. I hope it gets into everyone’s head. May I however, make a suggestion? the paragraph: “Only about half of your donation goes ‘directly to beneficiaries” is a bit discouraging. A big heart, compassion and altruism, doesn’t need all this overhead. Check out Matthieu Ricard’s Karuna-Shechen foundation in the Himalayan region; I heard him talk about a 3-5% overhead only. Almost all of the donations go to the deeds.

    • J. 30 August, 2011 at 6:59 am #

      Yep – you can make the suggestion. And I’ll push back.🙂

      We’ve been down that road. I’ve been down that road (myself as a country director, arguing that “not one single dime of my budget goes to overhead… it’s all direct program costs..”). And you know what? I doesn’t work. “Overhead” gets defined differently by everyone who uses the term.

      Moreover, I think that it’s just the wrong thing to think about. Aid is expensive. It costs a LOT to implement relief and, yes, even development programs. In my opinion it’s far past time to disabuse donors of the notions that aid is cheap and that low overhead = efficiency. Neither are true.

      See also:

    • Amanda Makulec 30 August, 2011 at 7:02 am #

      I would back J. up on his comments on overhead. I volunteer in a leadership role with a nonprofit supporting OVC work in Kenya, and while we continue to say “100% of your donation goes directly to our work on the ground,” we can only say that because we have other donors who have allowed us to earmark their funds to cover our operating expenses, and we don’t consider the local salaries paid to staffers as “overhead” for some reason.

      People like feeling like they’re directly supporting field programs though, so I haven’t been successful in changing the messaging.

    • Emily Tanner (@emilyrtanner) 30 August, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

      Organizations can say that of your donation, only X% goes to overhead because they have other organizations paying for their overhead costs, as Amanda says. Others can say that because they include in-kind donations as “program costs.” So when World Vision gets 100,000 superbowl tshirts donated, and values those at $20 each, they can say that their programmatic costs were $2 million – even though they didn’t spend a dime – which reduces their percentage of costs that are considered “overhead.”

      But all that misses the most important point, which is: overhead is not at all an indicator of good or bad aid. Different organizations have different needs. An org that, for example, ships medical supplies elsewhere has low overhead because all they need to do is ship stuff. An org that does governance work and has to have a large staff will have higher overhead. Comparing the two based on overhead is useless; we should be looking at what their interventions achieved in order to determine if its good or bad aid.

  6. Amanda Makulec 30 August, 2011 at 6:55 am #

    I hope this one goes on the home page as one of the classic must reads, because it should be required for every aid/development marketing department. Though I don’t think it’s enough to convince them to change their ways…happy pictures of brown babies are still what seem to bring in the donor dollars.

  7. Stephanie White 30 August, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    ….and eventually, the idealistic language comes back to bite the aid agency in the bum, anyhow. They create unrealistic expectations and when the obfuscation becomes apparent, it probably creates a sense of discouragement from the money sources, who have had their unrealistic expectations dashed.

    Re the condom thing…I so wish that there was more comfort on the part of people in development (including donors) to treat sex as a normal, fun thing and to recognize that lots of people are doing it all the time. There is so much pathologizing of sex (and sexuality)…and treating it in medical-ized terms…that I’ll bet lots of opportunities for interventions/messages have been missed.

  8. Moi 30 August, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    Really funny. I very much enjoyed this post.

    I have a question. Seriously, I’m really wondering about this one. In some positions, I know you have to pay a very competitive salary to get great people. I know that. But in some positions, entry-level, or where it’s going to be people’s first time in a disaster context (I’m specifically thinking of engineers wanting to work abroad), there is often a TON of competition to get jobs abroad. I have seen personally that sometimes, despite competition for what are perceived as interesting, challenging, career-advancing position, people get huge paychecks, bonuses, fly first class, and get pretty damn nice digs and holidays.

    Does that seem right to you? I really can’t reconcile it for myself… huge competition for positions, and then people get big salaries on top of the interesting job. (And in some cases, bonuses and perks aren’t known until after the hiring decision. So someone who felt great about getting a cool/interesting position, on top of getting the job, now gets tons of extra money to work in a poor-as-dirt country).

    I’m really interested to know if you have any thoughts on that or if you have another posting regarding similar ideas. This is something that really bothered me in Haiti… tons of people willing to work for a lower salary then getting loaded with more “goodies” for landing a coveted job. (And I know for certain in many of those cases, the salary wasn’t initially one of the draws to the job… it was just a chance to work abroad, be challenged and “give back”. Then suddenly, it was also a little gold-mine job…)

    • J. 31 August, 2011 at 9:33 am #

      It’s one of the main paradoxes of the aid industry: everyone wants to be an aid worker; and we never seem to find anyone to do the aid work that needs doing.

      I think that part of the answer is that every disaster response location (as well as many settings where the ‘development’ sector is large/vibrant/highly visible) essentially mutates its own very local economy of scale. Aceh, right after The Tsunami is a great example: Things that were totally unavailable prior were suddenly everywhere (e.g. pirated DVDs), whereas finding a teamhouse sufficient for 5 people for less than $5,000 USD/month was all but impossible. Supply and demand goes wild. Add to this the simple fact that aid workers are people, too – and so will look for the best possible deal for themselves, just like anyone else – and we have the problem you’ve described here.

  9. Karen 30 August, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    It is a slow, uphill battle to get this to be the norm in a competitive environment. Be honest about your limits, and other organizations may point to them as proof that supporting you is a bad idea. If you are making a difference and need to expand, you either hire support staff or everyone gets diverted from their original work. Of course if you start out embracing transparency and honesty it’s easier to say “See, we told you so!” when other organizations fall apart, but that can be a long time coming and people may be harmed in the process.

  10. 31 August, 2011 at 5:08 am #

    there are a ton of small local charities making a difference without taking 50% of donations away for overheads and expenses. they have volunteers and they keep crap to a minimum – 95% easily for those in need. for some reason, I choose to support them rather than people who make a comfortable living jetting around and throwing gala dinners from my hard-earned cash.

    • Michael Kirkpatrick 31 August, 2011 at 6:57 am #

      I have found that partnering with grassroots organizations that are led by community stakeholders are the most effective. I feature many of these type or organizations on my website.

      Independent Global Citizen

      • MB 31 August, 2011 at 7:54 am #

        Hi Michael. That is often effective – but often “grassroots” organizations don’t have the immediate capacity and therefore those types of programs often need a higher level of staffing on the ground to support, mentor and work with those organizations. I think it’s the best thing in the long run, but in the short-term it could mean even higher staff costs than doing it “ourselves”

      • Anonymous 1 September, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

        yes michael. when will you understand that ‘local’ people can’t really do anything for themselves. sigh.

    • MB 31 August, 2011 at 7:51 am #

      I agree with Emily – posted above – there’s a lot that goes into the factor of overhead and a big part of that is the type of program (and how the organization calculates overhead). You might be able to do a “cheap” (in terms of overhead) type of program, but you have to look at if that’s what’s most important or if what they’re doing is more important. Having worked on a lot of local governance programs, if you include all staff salaries I’m sure the overhead was very high — but you can’t do capacity building programs without that sort of thing (or at least not in many post-conflict environments). So, it’s more important to figure out what they’re doing and if it’s valuable than to focus on this figure – all the “95%” is is a marketing tool, not a reflection of anyone’s reality.

    • J. 31 August, 2011 at 9:21 am #

      What Emily said (

      The whole “overhead” thing is marketing. Plain and simple. By choosing ‘for some reason’ to support local charities who make the claim of 95% going to those in need you’re simply choosing one form of aid marketing over another. Wake up.

  11. Anonymous 31 August, 2011 at 10:32 am #

    I think this is brilliant. One more I’d add:
    “Please don’t give us money for this specific disaster. We don’t need more. We have enough money to be here for the next twenty years. Let us use your money to help people that need it just as much or more elsewhere. They are equally in need, even though you may have never heard of them or their plight.”

  12. Anonymous 31 August, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    um, what? don’t make comments? not much point in blogging then is there?

  13. Joe Lowry 1 September, 2011 at 12:31 am #

    The way you italicise that “Don’t”… is that a threat? Or are you asking me not to make an honest comment on your blog? Not much ppoint in blogging if you can’t tolerate different views.I do think, though, that you need to be clearer in how you express yourself. If my assumpitons about your assumptions are fallacious, I am ready to be enlightened. Please also be careful about sentences like “Even the locals are dying (sic) to leave, and you know the saying, ‘Pay peanuts, get monkeys’.Clever folk may understand, but not everyone will…

    • J. 1 September, 2011 at 7:18 am #

      I can and do tolerate different points of view. Read through the comments threads on other posts. People share different points of view all the time, including you (I did approve your comment, after all). Your point that “local” charities, organizations, people all are under-recognized and appreciated in the broader aid discussion is well-taken. But it’s not a particularly relevant point in the context of this post. International NGOs exist. They advertise. That is not going to change, regardless of your or my perspective. That’s what this post is about. There’s nothing in this post to suggest that I assume that internationals are the only ones in the game. But you assumed that I assumed…

      By the way, I did spell and use “dying” correctly – You need to look up the proper use of “(sic).” And maybe you could let me worry about whether or not non-clever readers understand my meaning.

  14. Joe Lowry 1 September, 2011 at 7:53 am #

    Thanks for that. Let’s hope we can meet in real life sometime and see what common ground there may be. You know who I am, so feel free to introduce yourself. I will say this – your preachiness is very annoying on your blog, but maybe you are different in real life. Yet Stuff Aid Workers Like is very funny. On balance, I think we’d agree much more than we disagree.

    • J. 1 September, 2011 at 8:22 am #

      I gonna go out on a limb and guess that you’re IFRC Joe Lowry, and not Rev. Joe Lowry, or Joe Lowry of “The Final Countdown” (movie), or Professor of near Eastern languages at U. Penn…

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on my “preachy” tone. I guess. There are plenty of aid blogs out there that you’re welcome to read if this one doesn’t meet your needs. See also the comments thread here: Some people like what you call “preachy.”

      • Anonymous 1 September, 2011 at 11:09 am #

        yep. you’re on the right limb. and blogging from the heart out loud at come on over

      • joe lowry 1 September, 2011 at 1:01 pm #

        sorry. that’s

  15. Condooms 6 September, 2011 at 3:57 am #

    Thanks for the post! I enjoyed it!

  16. Lazaro Maisler (@LaloMaisler) 6 September, 2011 at 7:06 am #

    My name is Lazaro Maisler and years ago I work in the area of ​​fund development for social organizations, non-profit, I liked both the text and I am much in agreement that I took the audacity to translate it into Spanish and upload it to my blog lazaromaisler . assumed that the source is acknowledged.

    Thanks for putting into words what many think!. Greetings.

  17. mngreenall 6 September, 2011 at 8:39 am #

    this just came up at the Guardian:

    Be great to see you weigh in there.

  18. Anonymous 7 September, 2011 at 6:55 am #

    MSF International President pretty much just went with #1, regarding Somalia. (

    Followed by a brief but hilarious quote from Oxfam saying that MSF should say things like that.

  19. David Newman 9 September, 2011 at 6:07 pm #

    These messages seem to all be about disaster relief, not long-term poverty reduction, or business or technology development (e.g. energy-efficient stoves). Over 20 years, some things no longer suck. Over the 50 years since African countries became independent, a lot of things have got better.

  20. Sean Hawkey 26 September, 2011 at 8:54 am #

    This is an excellent overview for this discussion. Tens of thousands of aid and development communicators should take part in it.

    The truth about aid and development is much less attractive than the simplified, dumbed-down, gloss that we purvey. Some communicators hold, though normally this is unspoken assumption, that the public that can’t cope with the truth, or that the truth wouldn’t be good for us, and it may also be that many of us don’t know the truth ourselves. But it bothers me in principle that we abandon our responsibility to educate, in favour of advertising, which isn’t always enlightening, and we do this as organisations of principles and values, we abandon the truth, that’s problematic.

    It is interesting to imagine what would happen if we started telling the truth all the time… we put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage from those who continue to spin, and we lose market share and go out of business? We turn ourselves into a more effective lobbying group with a smaller but educated and aware donor base?

    Very interesting piece, thank you, I look forward to more.

  21. Erin Green 26 September, 2011 at 9:02 am #

    Thanks for this! I like honesty and plain speech. Not enough of it kicking around the “aid industry” or any other industry. I appreciated this.

  22. Anonymous 26 September, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    These are truths! Unfortunately I don’t think they will generate many as many donations as sob and success stories…

  23. R 8 October, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    Sorry for the possible double-post, but here’s something I wrote a while back for Somalia — let me know what you think.

    Dear Facebook Friend,

    You may not know me. Yes, I know we’re facebook friends. But let’s get real here, we’re probably not best buds. I didn’t call you this weekend. You didn’t ask yourself what I was up to either. I’m cool with that. We’re comfortable with “us”.

    But I want your money. Give it to me. Now please.

    Well, technically, I want you to give it to UNICEF. See, my friend is climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro (yes, that Mt. Kilimanjaro) and is raising money for the famine in Somalia to motivate her climb.

    Now, I don’t need to explain to you why you should help those dying of hunger-related diseases in the worst drought in 60 years, do I? Seriously? Okay, just one factoid: 13 in every 10,000 kids are dying each day from the famine, meaning 10% of kids are going to die every 11 weeks, unless we do something about it. AND THIS DROUGHT IS GOING TO LAST THE REST OF THE YEAR. Nuff said.

    But, you ask, ” What do I get from saving dozens of lives with a few bucks? What’s in it for me? Give me one reason.”

    Well, first off, I’m offended you would ask that.

    But how about a Top 10, babydoll?

    (10) When your friends ask you what you did this weekend, you can say “put food in the mouths of starving kids in Somalia. And you?” Prepare for a blank stare.

    (9) You’ll make me happy.

    (8) I gave 50 bucks. Give 51 and you can think you’re better than me.

    (7) Just give one buck and you can think you’re better than your friends.

    (6) It takes 2 minutes to put your credit card down. Then you can treat everyone like crap the rest of the week and still have good karma.

    (5) It’s gonna make you feel good. All over.

    (4) You’ll feel like a big man/woman, just tossing money away like it’s nothing. Makin it rain like Lil’ Wayne.

    (3) You’ll have less money to buy cigarettes/alcohol/fast food/other stuff that is killing you.

    (2) “If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another.” –The 14th Dalai Lama

    (1) You read all the way to the number one reason cause you thought it would be good. Well there is no number one reason. Now you feel empty. Kinda like the stomach of a dying kid in Somalia. YOUR MIND IS BLOWN.

    Remember that time this summer when you walked into The Keg, or McDonalds, or wherever, and you couldn’t help but exclaim “I’m SO hungry!” How hungry were you really? Not nearly as hungry as these kids, I promise you. Put the fork down and pick up your credit card.

    Here’s the website to donate:

    And here’s the general donation page:

    Oh wait, still feel you can’t do it? It’s all good. Just repost this message as a note, so all your facebook “friends” will know what’s going on and can donate.

    Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those super scary chain letters. If you don’t repost this message, nothing bad will happen. Okay, some kids may die of hunger, but nothing bad will happen to you.


    p.s. here’s some inspiration:


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