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?