It’s hard to deny that there’s a rising tide of emotionally-driven conversation spilling over into the general public right now around how we, the NGOs and aid practitioners, represent our work externally. The whole discussion around Kiva (www.kiva.org) is about as good an example as any (although it’s not the only good example out there). The “Executive Summary” here will bring you up to speed on that conversation, in case you missed it before.
What I find most interesting about the Kiva discussion, though, is that most micro-finance technicians (or at least those that I talk to) seem to agree: Kiva supports sound, properly planned and implemented micro-credit in the field. Very few are questioning that Kiva-supported credit programs help the poor. Or at least no one that I’ve come across thus far is choosing to grind that axe. Instead, it would be fair to say that the recent blogosphere fervor around Kiva is almost exclusively focused on the way that they market their product to donors online. The issue boils down to, “is Kiva dishonest? Did they withhold facts from their donors?”
I won’t answer for Kiva. But I will answer for the entire aid industry:
We do not tell the whole truth to the general public about what we do with their money.
We don’t. We just don’t.
And it’s not just one or two of us. It’s not the odd, outlier NGO who does a bit of wordsmithing in it’s “Gift Catalogue” (or whatever it’s called). There’s no point in calling out by name the one or two NGOs who bury the “truth” in fine print or withhold it entirely… because it really is industry-wide. In nearly twenty years in the business, I have yet to see a convincing example of an NGO anywhere that was utterly and totally transparent with it’s constituent donor base about how funds were used.
And while, if you were to ask the fundraising and marketing a PR staff of NGOs around the world about why, exactly, we are not totally transparent, you’d hear a very wide range of explanations for why this is the case. Some of them are very sound explanations, in my opinion. There are some very good reasons why we aren’t and probably can’t implement policies of total transparency, but if you think about it, they all boil down to this:
We don’t really trust them.
Re-read Part 1.5. You can kind of see why we’re (all) a bit reticent about sharing raw descriptions of methodology, strategies based on years of accumulated specialized data, or lessons-learned documents – unfiltered and in a contextual vacuum – with non-aid insiders. The potential, not merely for simple misunderstanding, but for wildly inaccurate conclusions about… aid.
We’re afraid that if we were really transparent – really transparent, but without the chance to explain fully – people would misunderstand stop supporting our work. We’re afraid that if we were straight up with our constituent donor bases about how we do community development and relief programming, and how we use donor dollars – really use them – how we really decide on budget categories, how we make the decisions about “why here and not there?”… that those donations – our lifeblood – would dry up. I trust I don’t really need to explain why this would be a bad thing…
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The hubbub in recent months around Kiva illustrates the power of a “personal connection” as a fundraising tool in aid. It puts us in a challenging position. Person to person (P2P) giving gets closer to being a real, feasible possibility each day. Yet it remains horribly problematic: can you imagine the Facebook commentors highlighted in the previous post in a situation where they were donating directly to a specific other “needy” person in another country? That thought makes me cringe… and yet this is what various respected voices (last link to The Kristof for a while, promise!) on the subject of aid are suggesting.
As I wrote in Part 1, the general public seems to fundamentally misunderstand how the aid world works. We need to step up our game on the public information and education side. We need to do it because the more people who understand what we do and the issues we deal with, the more potential there will be for positive change in the world.
We have to take seriously the changing role of the public – that Third Audience – in our work. We have to recognize that, just like our more traditional donors, our Third Audience has an array of “rights” and perhaps also obligations in their relationships with us, the deliverers of aid.
Maybe we need something like a “donor’s ‘Bill or Rights’” – a code of conduct that outlines our obligations (and also the limits of those obligations) to Third Audience donors: our obligation to eventually come clean with the public about what we do and how we do it, not because we have anything to hide, but because many of those who help foot the bill just don’t know.
We also need to do it because like it or not our Third Audience really are increasingly stakeholders in what we do.
We need to be able to tell them what we do.
And we need to be able to trust them…