There is a better way

So I’m going to say what I think and get something off my chest for my first blog of the year. You’re wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Yes you’ll get a better response but does the means justify the ends?

What am I ranting about?

What image does fundraising portray of Africa?

Africa. It’s amazing. People living in poverty are incredible. But look at our fundraising wrappers and the way we market Africa. It is full of pity and guilt, sad music and serious voice overs. Yet everytime I visit Africa I come back inspired, and humbled, by what I see.

No doubt if you find the worse possible scenario and the direst situation you can say the message behind the needy marketing is true. But its portrayed as the norm not the exception. On the occasions I have visited countries in Africa I have come to appreciate how amazing people tackling and living in poverty are. Yet we, especially us fundraisers, portray Africa like a “bottomless pit”. Check out the Finding Frames research which concludes the UK public think that too. And what message is this approach re-enforcing? That Africa is just a hopeless case. All this amazing work taking place isn’t having any impact. The Finding Frames report concludes the UK public is “stuck in roughly the same place as they were in 1985” and levels of support for international aid and development has remained static.

“The most widespread model for public engagement has been labelled as the ‘Live Aid Legacy’, which casts the UK public in the role of ‘dominant giver’, and Southern publics in the role of ‘grateful receiver’. In this model, the causes of poverty are internal to poor countries, and nothing to do with global politics. All the UK public can do is give money, and invariably they believe that some, if not most of the money does not get through to those in need; hence Africa in particular is described as “a bottomless pit”. In the UK public’s mind Africa is stuck, but at the same time the UK public is stuck in this transaction frame for development”.

Finding Frames Report 2011

And how do Africans feel? When I was in Kenya & Tanzania recently I asked. Those aware of the marketing messages used feel its the wrong Africa that’s protrayed – one that’s totally dependent on handouts and aid – not the enterprising one working hard to lift itself out of poverty.

And I can see the panic amongst fundraisers. Response rates for donor recruitment is dropping so what do organisations do? They ramp up the volume on needy marketing even more! “But it get’s a better response” I hear fundraisers cry. Here is where I challenge even the business basis for such a short term approach.

Say you can run a hypothetical test to try out the two approaches and pack a room of 100 people. You market a hard hitting needy approach – you get two new donors (2% not bad in direct marketing terms). Then let’s say you try a more inspiring, more engaging, approach and your get one donor. So the inspiring approach gets 100% poorer results, so its worse right? Wrong on two accounts. First that one person is likely to be far more engaged. Not only will they give but they will tell others and advocate on your behalf. Believe me its like having an expanding fundraising team made up of passionate volunteers (the best advocates you could ask for). They become amplifiers.

Secondly in that room you turned off 30 people completely with the hard hitting approach. And the evidence suggests it’s a real turn off to attract a new generation of donors. I’ve increasingly come across this when meeting ‘young people’, that generation of 20-30 year olds who are the “least likely to give to charity”. I’ve been surprised at how aggresive and angry they are about the negative portral of people as objects of pity. They find it a big turn off. And why? Because they know better. They know Africa is not like that. They know they are being marketed to. You wonder why we are not engaging a new generation of donors – this is why. With the more inspiring and engaging way you will have made more of an impression. They might not give there and then using shock tactics but they will remember and think about your cause and when the time comes they will find you and give. And they will stick with you, AND tell others too.

See Africa Differently

No doubt turning up the volume will increase the immediate short term take up – but it doesn’t solve the problem and response rates will continue to decline with the ‘broadcast’ marketing approach (see blog post “It’s not about asking for money”).

I’m not saying don’t communicate the injustice or the hardship of poverty. It’s the portrayal of people I’m on about.

There are glimmers. Along with some pioneering causes that push the positive there are websites like See Africa Differently developed by Comic Relief aimed at the 18-35 year old audience that invites you to “Come on the journey with us and discover an Africa you may not have seen. Isn’t it time we started to See Africa Differently?”. I fear its a side project that ticks the box whilst the fundraising continues with its hard hitting approach.

And it’s not just the principle. Think about it – those guilt driven messages get a response because people want to get rid of a bad feeling full stop. But now more than ever you want people to go much further than just give. Now you need them to advocate on your behalf – it’s far stronger coming from them to get others to support your cause. People will share being inspired. They will keep any bad feelings you give them to themselves.

Win Win

What do you want? Someone to give you money or someone to give and do far more.

So I am putting my hand up. I don’t believe in all this hard hitting – guilt driven – flies in the eyes – marketing. “Ah but people give to need I hear some cry”. Absolutely. But what sort of need? Fundraising must be about communicating a need but that doesn’t mean portraying people as needy. We all have to raise funds and we have to explain why we need someone’s donation. There is a better way.

I know there are plenty of fundraisers and direct marketers who think I’m wrong. Fine. Do what you do. It’s short term.

For others then please join me. There are plenty of people, particularly ‘young people’, seeking causes that inspire them that provides them a purpose. We need to engage them not turn them off. It’s harder work but in the long term it will make a bigger difference. It will raise more funds and truly engage more people both ‘here’ and in Africa.

On BBC radio I heard the singer and would be politician Youssou n’Dour  say “Africa doesn’t need charity. It needs partnership. Win Win”. So my advice to you is think how can us fundraisers communicate this two way partnership. You will think differently. You will ask different questions and you will connect people. After all we all know people give to people.

There – I feel better already.

6 thoughts on “There is a better way

  1. The key to this is balance. We know (from testing over time) that urgent, solvable need drives the greatest front-end fundraising performance. No amount of happy, things are great messaging will beat true need.

    However, the positive impact messaging is critical to long-term donor retention and is an essential part of the mix. Donors must see that their giving created positive change, or they’ll never give again.

    But the bottom line is that you can’t use philanthropy to solve a problem if you aren’t honest with the donors about the problem.

    There really are people starving and dying in Africa. Children die every day from preventable diseases. Entire nations are torn apart by civil war and ethnic conflict. Access to clean water is sparse. I could go on and on.

    We can all wish it were different, but wishing won’t make it so. Solving these problems requires action. And triggering people to act is an incredibly complex task that does in fact rely on human emotion. Need – and the donor’s ability to meet the need – inspire philanthropic action. Without showcasing need, fewer donors will give, and those that do will give less (again, tested and proven).

    If showing a starving child helps portray the need in a way that delivers more funds for people in need, that’s a win.

    Political correctness won’t feed a hungry family, vaccinate a child or dig a well for a village. Donor dollars will. And our responsibility as fundraisers is to deliver the most dollars possible for the cause.

    • Thanks for sharing Andrew. I agree you will get a better front end response but I’m not convinced using that message from the outset will help that retention you refer to for long term for repeat and committed donors and generating proactive advocates for your cause from the outset (which is what you need in today’s marketing). And it won’t engage younger donors who know better (who despite the perception do want to make a difference).

      I find Africa an amazing buzzing place. It’s an emerging market where even the “bottom of the pyramid” can play a critical and active, rather than passive, part. And everyday amazing things are being done to save lives and reduce poverty. The danger is if the starving pity image prevails the perception is nothing has changed. Check out the work of Afrikids http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20762278. It’s really inspiring. Or the approach which I’m sure you ar familiar with by Charity:Water. Their messages is not about extracting dollars out of donors (i.e. front end response) – it’s inspiring people to raise funds from their peers – their growth has been extraordinary and they are one of the most talked about causes at fundraising conferences (even in the UK).

      If a charity/non-profit has a need for funds then there is a need. The challenge is to tell a compelling and emotional story that reflects what organisations are really doing and how lives are changing – and not grab at the most stark image that can be found to front marketing and making false promises about what their £3 or $5 actually achieves. Such stories are there – they just need to be told well.

      I’m not saying its happy messaging. It’s really tough for millions of families in Africa. I just think the “brand” image of Africa is not the true Africa. Fundraising is the “truth well told”. I’m not convinced in the context of Africa we are getting it right.

  2. Pingback: The story of Africa - Sylwia Korsak

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