Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Aid, Nonprofit, Public: Who Defines the Rules of the Game?

I am a big supporter of the view that nonprofits should be run like businesses. Because aid has to be sustainable. In every sense of the word. However, through my experience in the field I have started to notice that some practices of many aid and international development organizations remind me of the corporate world. But not in a good way.

When nonprofit leaders are striving to streamline day-to-day communications and management within their organizations - it is excellent. When CEOs promote transparency and accountability within their companies, it is great. When nonprofits look for social investors instead of grant-makers to find their way to financial sustainability, it is superb! However, when nonprofits start paying more attention to their PR campaigns and fundraising, forgetting their original goals in the process, it is not aid anymore. A nonprofit is a business with mission. When mission is lost, nonprofit turns into a traditional business with a donate button on its homepage.

One of the articles that really inspired this post was tweeted by the mysterious @TalesFromthHood. AlertNews Can aid agencies afford to be honest? is talking about nonprofits' fundraising & PR practices that too often take general public (a.k.a. potential donors) for simplistic and narrow-minded people, pushing simple messages such as "a starving child" and forgetting to tell the not-so-pretty truth from the ground.

The article quotes OCHA's Mark Turner: "I still get the impression that the simple tale of 'give a pound save a life, here's a child with a begging bowl' is still by far and away the most effective fundraising exercise and I'd be interested see if there's any research to be done in terms of complicated messages and fundraising -- whether this public that supposedly wants a greater, more complex understanding of the situation gives money when you present it in that complicated way."
The question I want to ask is: Who started this myth that the public does not want the "messy truth"? Who defined the rules of the game that the nonprofit world is running by?
Correct me if I am wrong, but aren't the most educated people - traditionally the biggest donors? Then why do nonprofits need to simplify their messages so much? Why can't they afford to be honest? Since when fundraising and PR are more important than work on the ground? Since when is it acceptable for aid agencies to claim to "do good" without knowing their original mission or end results?

Is it because admitting failure is so hard in practice? Is it because we venerate success so much, but prefer to omit the "dirty details"? Or is it because monitoring & evaluation are legging behind, while PR machine is always on its high horse? When did nonprofit industry switched gears from need-based solutions to corporate-like, huge but unaccountable programs?

Now, I am not saying that fundraising and PR are not important. Many big nonprofits are able to receive grants namely because of the successes of their PR and fundraising departments. Working for more than 2 years for a nonprofit run by volunteers, I KNOW how important they are. However, I take comfort in that my organization is mission-driven, that it exists simply because it truly helps the people in need. THEY are our main focus, their needs is the base of our existence. Because aid is about helping others, not about my professional success, a CEO's self-promotion, or organization's ratings. Aid is about doing good, honestly, effectively, selflessly. A very idealistic view, I agree. But aid itself is by definition idealistic.

I look forward to your comments! Do you agree with me or not? Can nonprofits really combine idealistic and altruistic motives with business operations? Can aid agencies be grassroots-oriented and still financially sustainable?


  1. Hey,

    I appreciated reading your post; I found it very thought-provoking.

    I have a few ideas.

    So, there are two distinct issues here that I think you don't totally separate out: one is what motivates donors and the other is what motivates volunteers/leadership within an organization. It's obviously a problem when the latter become focused on finding PR-friendly moments in their work moreso than their mission. But even if every member of an organization does aid "honestly, effectively, selflessly" with a focus on "doing good," it's still an open question as to whether or not donors will respond most to the messy truth or to slick marketing.

    So, my gut reaction is that it's important to treat the topics separately.

    As to the other issue - what will donors respond to - I'll spare you my thoughts and link to some folks who are smarter than me.

    First, Marc Bellemare had a very interesting post today about whether admitting failure was, in fact, a form of marketing for NGOs (which seems to align with your perspective that NGOs need not rely on simplistic stuff):

    Second, Ed Carr recently had a post about some of the risks associated with the AdmitFailure mantra...

    By the way, I'm curious - what was the organization you work(ed) with for 2 years?


  2. Hi Lithaca, I think a lot depends upon what kind of donor you're talking about. For the ordinary joe I think we should be realistic (see Institutional donors are still, unfortunately, susceptible to marketing and PR (possibly cos it makes it easy to recycle into their own PR), but it really ought to be possible to have an honest conversation with them. In practice, tho, I think their performance is pretty abysmal on some many different dimensions that I don't hold out much hope their either. MJ

  3. Thank you for the comment, Nathan! I agree with you on that it's still an open question what donors better respond to, slick marketing or actual results and "messy truth". The truth is that current reality is that nonprofits tend to omit the details, instead creating beautiful (and thus powerful) stories. It's called storytelling. As a social media person I do understand the importance of it, I just don't want nonprofits to shift their focus from actually "doing good" to just telling stories about "doing good". Although, the latter is important, the results have to be at the core of aid. That's my main point and conviction.

    Unfortunately, through some of my work experience I realized that not everything is perfect even within nonprofits, organizations I naively thought to be full of only idealistic altruists :) It was sad to me to see an organization, whose leadership could not correctly define the end-results of the whole enterprise, but had to put a happy face for fundraising's sake. I am all for a mega-successful nonprofit PR machine, when it is supported by the results on the ground.

    About your point on separation what motivates donors and what motivates nonprofit workers. Actually, I would like it to be the same: helping people in need :)

    Thanks for directing me to Marc Bellamare's post, will check it out. I actually read Ed Carr's post and was going to link to it, but didn't find the right place to do so.

    The organization I am working with is Color Me In! , I wrote about them here . We are just about to launch their website to public, you're welcome to check it out!

  4. @bottomupthinking Thanks for the comment and, yep, I think you're right. Foundations and corporate donors differ a lot from individual donors. And I think it's corporate donors who can knowingly change the way they disperse grant money. NGOs cannot expect individual donors to be knowledgable and/or spend time on researching the best organizations and aid practices. This state of things is actually good for nonprofits, isn't it? This way they can continue pushing their simplistic PR messages instead of stressing about getting the job done, talking about problems on the ground, admitting failure... Because nonprofits benefit from public's lack of knowledge it is either up to the public to educate themselves about aid, (which is unlikely to happen because people have their own jobs to do and lives to live) or up to nonprofits to change their practices (but would they do so, risking to loose their own short-term benefits?). I sure hope to see some innovative nonprofits do this! If you know any good examples, please share them with me!

  5. Hi Lithaca,

    Some input on what you are writing about can be found on, and some others via

    Most of it, is important stuff for NGOs to ponder!


  6. @dochasnetwork Thank you very much for the comment and for the links! This is actually something that my organization, Color Me In! is very specific about: we respect our clients (as we are a microfinance organization) and do not want to knowingly misrepresent them as extremely poor and always unhappy people. They might be poor - especially by Western standards - but they are happy: But will donors donate more or less money if they see happy pics instead of traditional tear-jerking ones?