Beyond moralising about “poverty porn” and “profit”

by David Week on 25 June 2013


Over on “KM on a dollar a day” Ian Thorpe has posted an argument about The Perils of Fundraising. Though I agree with his arguments against poverty porn, I don’t agree with his solution: that fundraising “follow” mission. This is like companies who think that marketing follows product design, otherwise known as the myth of “build it and they will come.”

Products get built. No-one comes. Org goes broke.

Below is my critique of Ian’s proposal (which I recommend you read), and what I think could be done. Included, too, a critique of the old myth of NGOs = missionaries and private enterprise = mercenaries.

NGOs, like all organisations, need to satisfy multiple stakeholders: funders, beneficiaries, volunteers, workforce. If money stops coming in, they cease to function. To have fundraising “follow” mission is a single-stakeholder, simplistic strategy that doesn’t work. What every NGO has to do is design products that satisfy their mission, and at the same time satisfy the needs and perceptions of the funders.

Also, characterising private firms as purely focussed on “follow the money” and “shareholder value” is a cartoon image of private enterprise which doesn’t capture the complexity of these endeavours. The most valuable companies today pursue a social vision, and a social value proposition, as well as making money out of that pursuit. You can’t say that (for instance) the telecommunications industry, or the computer industry, haven’t delivered social value. They have arguably delivered far more than the entire NGO industry put together. Let’s get away from this antiquated dichotomy of missionaries vs mercenaries.

It used to be that civil society was voluntary associations of unpaid citizens collaborating to meet common needs. No NGO that I know of, today, follows that model. They are all corporations. They are all businesses. Other than in the way in which they raise capital, they have more in common their methods with private enterprises than they have differences.

With regard to “poverty porn”, I agree it’s stupid and sad: like lead in petrol But at the same time, I don’t think that the best way is to try and get every NGO to fix that. Not every NGO can fix everything, and when they try to, they often start failing at everything, because they lose focus.

Why not start an NGO whose sole role is to develop marketing means that are porn-free… and are proven to work… and then sell services and methods to other NGOs to help them shift? Otherwise, I fear that the poverty porn discussion will not move beyond moralising admonitions.

UPDATE: Ian and I have talked a bit through his comments section. Here’s my latest:

One chart I’d like to see is the ratio, over the last 40 years of the proportion of NGO revenue derived from public donations versus income derived from contracts with institutional donors. What NGOs do under competitive pressure do is also an emerging “moral hazard.”

Moral admonishing (as you may note, something that I too am fond of) can be more effective when accompanied by an alternative course of action. Right now both agencies and the market are conditioned by the traditional charity equation, which is “help the suffering and the poor”. In so far as that’s the appeal, poverty porn will persist. We need alternative equations.

One alternative is “invest in nascent success”. That’s the marketing appeal of micro-credit. It could be extended to many other sectors. One key difference, though, is good micro-credit is initiated by the borrower/beneficiary, not by the lender/NGO. That would require a change in operating model for some NGOs. And a more serious effort to shift from needs- and deficiency-based approaches to strength- and asset-based approaches.

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  • Ian Thorpe

    For completeness here was my response to David’s original comment on my blog:

    “Hi David – let me clarify what I meant about fundraising. Of course NGOs and other aid organizations need to fundraise, and to do that they need to so through means that satisfy the needs of donors – my point was only that they should do so in a way that is consistent with their mission and that doing so might well mean sometimes forgoing some potential donations, and that this is actually a good thing.

    You are right to point out that many businesses create social value and have a social mission beyond making profits. Those businesses that do this also face similar dilemmas to NGOs i.e. whether to go after greater revenue or to be true to their mission or to their brand. And often they will choose mission/brand over revenue gains because in the longer term it makes sense for them to do so. The difference for me with an NGO is that the centrality of the mission is greater and that NGOs aim (at least on paper) to serve their beneficiaries rather than just their donors whereas in a business the main beneficiaries and donors are the same i.e. their customers which makes alignment with core value more straightforward.

    On your suggestion to start my own NGO (or MONGO), I’m quite sure I’d be terrible at it, so am better off sticking with my day job, and with writing “moralizing admonitions” on my blog (after all what else is a blog for? ) but maybe there is a niche for someone else out there?”

    I’d also add that donor education, greater transparency including more use of direct beneficiary reporting as well as trying to mobilize a campaign against “poverty porn” are other strategies that might help.

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