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5 reasons why effective marketing and good development work are incompatible

5 reasons why effective marketing and good development work are incompatible

I finally watched Kony 2012. From a pure marketing perspective, the video itself is absolutely flawless. They manage to take a very complex situation, and not only make the audience understand it, but also care. But herein lies the problem. Critics of Invisible Children say that Kony 2012’s simple message of “catch the bad guy” is a distraction from the real issues that exist in Central African Republic. The message doesn’t reflect the complexity of the work needed.

Effective marketing brings attention and donations. Good development work should improve the lives of poor people. Does the latter limit the ability of good marketing folk to tell that simple story which the public seeks? Here are the 5 reasons why effective marketing cannot co-exist with effective development work.

1.     We have short attention spans

Research shows that when we read web pages, we actually don’t. In fact, we typically read 28% of the text that is on a web page. Similarly, only 12% of readers read all the way to the bottom of a page. (I’ll be accessing NSA records to check if you make it all the way down in a few minutes).

Knowing this, people who work in communications for non-profits boil down the complexities of the program so that it hardly represents the actual work done. Then they stick it in the slow cooker for another 12 hours until it is reduced even further.

In the push and pull of what needs to be done versus what people consume, clever communications folk know that they have to cater to the amount of effort that people are willing to give.

web pages


2.     There is no incentive to translate complexity.

Even if an organisation truly values the work they do, and talks endlessly about how good this work is to other people in the sector, or even institutional donors such as government agencies, this matters little to the public.

Think about selling a product like Coca-Cola. In this transaction, the person buying the product is also the same person as the one receiving the benefit. In global development, the people paying and the person receiving the benefit are completely different. In the case of public donations, the payer is the general public and the people receiving services or programs are those in poor countries.

This creates a power imbalance because the person paying becomes the boss, not the person receiving benefits. Communication and marketing that oversimplify the message is another way of pandering to the needs of potential donors.

3.     Even if it offends some, on balance, dumb simple is better

When an organisation produces some marketing material that is offensive, such as Save the Children Australia did recently, they are likely to face some kind of backlash. In this case, the use of starving African children, often referred to as poverty porn, will offend some. Those in the know will be up in arms over what clearly negative tactics, and will write in to complain, post about it on social media and so forth.

Save the Children Australia's poverty porn, captured by WhyDev's Brendan Rigby who posted it to our Twitter account first. Video has since been taken down.
Save the Children Australia’s poverty porn, captured by WhyDev’s Brendan Rigby who posted it to our Twitter account first. Video has since been taken down.

But at the end of the day, poverty porn and other negative marketing tactics work, at least in the short term. They raise funds from the public because they tell a simple message about the “other.”

The conversation that occurs within organisations is then around the costs versus benefits of running a campaign that uses poverty porn. And on balance, despite criticisms which I personally think are valid, those tactics remain. The prevailing attitude is still that the end justify the means. The proof in the pudding is that weeks after this backlash, Save the Children Australia were at it again. Same poverty porn angle, different ad.

4. Money drives the work, not the need.

I touched on this earlier, but the vast majority of aid and development still revolves around what the donor wants to do, not what the people need. The debate around overheads, which reflects the administrative costs of an organisation’s work, is an old one within the development sector, but knowledge of how irrelevant this metric is for the general public is still low.

Why? Because organisations don’t want to talk about it. In fact, if you go to pretty much any large non­profit’s website, somewhere, they’ll be boasting about how low their overheads are.

A large and internationally recognised non-profit bragging about low overheads. Based on this, who in the public would think this was irrelevant?


As long as we have donor-driven marketing, we cannot have needs-driven development.

5. Effective marketing draws on herd mentality

Interlinked with the need of non­profits to focus on fundraising is the realisation that good marketing is very much infectious. Everybody in non­profit communications wants to create that viral piece of campaigning.

charity: water are great exponents of this. More than 20,000 people have held birthday campaigns to raise funds for them, simply by sharing their desire to help out through social media and email. It’s been incredibly effective. charity: water have raised over $27 million in 2012. Not a bad effort for an organisation with less than 50 staff.

Forgetting for one moment criticisms about the actual impact that they make, charity: water are able to leverage off herd mentality and the bandwagon effect. These social pressures exist often because we want to be seen as being on the “winner’s side”. If the goal is getting a campaign to go viral, it’s not the effectiveness of what the organisation does that matters, it’s how much other people are sharing the same material.


We all know the power of communications to drive awareness and as importantly, donations. But the reality is, unless we change the way we consume communications as human beings, overly simplistic marketing tactics will always butt heads with good development work. Don’t agree? Please restore my faith in humanity and prove me wrong in the comments.

We’ll be posting a rebuttal to this post by Rachel Kurzyp, freelance writer and communications professional, in a few days.

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Weh Yeoh

Co-Founder & Board Member at WhyDev
Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived, volunteered and worked in Cambodia for the past 3 years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed an MA in Development Studies. He has a diverse background, having travelled through remote parts of Asia, volunteered in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India, and studied Mandarin in Beijing. He is an obsessed barefoot runner and connoisseur of durian.

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  7. rtm

    Here is an example of a good marketing campaign by save the children that is clear, smart, and does not undermine development work:

    It can be read on multiple levels, including a satirical challenge to the usual marketing campaigns in the private sector and our 1st world affinities.

    1. That is a good example rtm. Thanks. Which makes we wonder why, if STC US can produce such great stuff, why does STC UK and Australia rely on poverty porn?

      1. I can’t get past STC’s name. It’s a symptom and an active reproduction of the savior/victim/savage metaphor that I think is another tension between marketing and development work. Everyone likes a simple narrative – they provide psychological and moral relief, like watching a blockbuster movie. Maybe that’s why poverty porn works/sells. Thoughts?

        1. I can’t say I’m the biggest fan Zoe. And yep, I agree on your blockbuster comparison.

  8. Interesting read, and it pains me to admit that this is the state of current marketing for development. However, I don’t think it has to be that way. I understand, even though I don’t agree with it at all, that NGOs feel the need draw attention through sensationalism and “awareness-raising” (starting to really hate that oh-so-ambiguous term), but my bigger problem is that rarely do they go beyond the awareness raising into educating their donors. Doesn’t research show that it’s more beneficial to invest in long-term rather than the one-time donors? I know some really awesome smaller NGOs that have spent years building up their donor base and now have a support community that are incredibly knowledgeable about the issues and projects these NGOs deal with. I guess the question is, is this possible for big “brand name” NGOs to do? I think yes. But maybe I’m too idealistic some days. Other days, like when a new poverty porn campaign comes cross my Facebook feed, I just think the world sucks. Looking forward to the rebuttal!

    1. I think that’s a really interesting point Julia, about longer term donors who feel part of the NGO’s family. The question is though, what type of campaigns result in this kind of relationship? And secondly, is it about the NGO bringing in donors and then educating them, or more about finding donors who are likely to agree with them from the outset?

    2. v good point re investing in donor education

  9. Lewis Best

    Hey Weh! Loving the post, but I think I still fundamentally disagree. Tmin my mind, there is definately a intersection between advocacy/policy work, good development and “effective marketing” or what I would more correctly call a well presented, executed and truthful storytelling.

    Accepting more rebuttals? 🙂

    1. Definitely Lewis – check out our submission guidelines and get in touch!

  10. […] I finally watched Kony 2012. From a pure marketing perspective, the video itself is absolutely flawless. They manage to take a very complex situation, and not only make the audience understand it, but also care.  […]

    1. Jumping here from Twitter… 240 characters just aren’t enough.

      I’m not sure if anyone could disagree that the five items listed in this article aren’t happening. However claiming that these are 5 reasons why effective marketing and good development work are incompatible is quite misleading.

      First, it’s important to pay attention to what is the goal of the marketing in order to know if it is being effective. In most examples given the goal is simply, raise money. The act of raising money is not development work in and of itself. Yes we need it to do the work, but the marketing goal isn’t the work, it’s the money.

      If Coke had a marketing campaign who’s goal was to sell more Coke, could you call it effective if it caused people to stop drinking Coke and drink water instead? Of course not, it wouldn’t be effective at all. It would however be effective marketing if the goal was to get people to drink more water.

      Design a marketing campaign which has the goal of getting people to wash their hands… or wear a condom, or sleep under a bed net. If the outcome was that people didn’t do those things, but instead raised money for organizations that work on those projects, would it be an effective marketing campaign? No. It failed to reach it’s goal. Even if it did however raised a bunch of money, it wasn’t an effective marketing campaign.

      Many of the other points, while real issues, have little to do with weather an (actually) effective marketing campaign is good or bad for development projects. Short attention spans, herd mentality? Fact of life, and two things that effective marketing takes in to consideration when trying to reach it’s goal.

      Other’s are not unavoidable problems that plague effective marketing. Nothing about marketing hinges it’s effectiveness on whether it’s offensive. Plenty of examples of effective marketing that is not offensive.

      As for an incentive to translate complexity, or that simple is better? Marketing, if it’s goal is to tranlate a complex issue then it certianly has an incentive, other wise it won’t be effective. And when is a simple approach to start talking about a complex issue a bad thing? And why should a single marketing campaign be expected to convey the entirety of a complex issue? It would be like expecting one high school science class to convey the complete complexity of the universe in one class.

      Maybe it would be better if this article talked about how good organizations do bad marketing, instead the idea implied in this article which is that marketing has no place in good development work, as it’s simply not true. It is a valuable tool to effect change often at the population level. If it is Effective marketing it is better than good, it’s great!

      1. Great comment. I agree that you’ve brought up a really important distinction between marketing for behaviour change and marketing for fundraising. Two different things for sure.

        By the way, the point isn’t that marketing has no place in good development work. The point is that marketing (especially for fundraising) is often at loggerheads with good development work. There’s a constant tension between program people and marketing folk – and hopefully these reasons illustrate why.

  11. I’ve often thought the ‘ends’ of communications in third sector work are taken for granted too often. Donations/fund-raising is the most obvious and quantifiable end, and the other one is usually ‘awareness-raising’. But what does this mean exactly? Awareness-raising how/why? Drawing attention to an issue is only a part of the chain of events that I think is ideally supposed to happen in theory. And the thing with ‘awareness’ is that it might be quantifiable in some senses (number of website hits, media interviews given etc) but the qualitative effects and side effects (audience knowledge/attitude/engagement on an issue, dis/empowement, self-perception, empathy/other-ising) are the main thing and yet they’re rarely addressed or analysed in a systematic way.

    Maybe a post on awareness-raising is in order hmmm… Btw good job Weh 🙂

    1. Thanks Zoe for your comment. I’ve often wondered that too. BTW Allison wrote a good post on awareness raising a while back. Check it out:

      1. Tx Weh I remember reading this one – the public health campaign example is useful in that it covers behavior change as on of the ends of A-R, and touches on some of the potentially damaging un/intended consequences of ‘drawing (funding?) attention to an issue’ in general. It is maybe not the best one to use to cover the issues in third sector communications that you raised though.

        1. Alongside Kony, the Save the Children billboards out there at the moment probably stronger as a more generally applicable example – I nearly gagged on the tube when I saw one with the tagline “the worst period of her life” the other day!

  12. Interesting post! I agree there’s definitely tension between effective marketing and development but I’m not sure it’s impossible to market with integrity and also be effective. It’s just much harder. Yes ideas have to be communicated fairly simply but that doesn’t actually mean we have to be reductive. The cleverest campaigns represent complex ideas but they do so in a striking and accessible manner, rather than ignoring the complexity of a particular issue.

    I don’t work in fundraising so my perspective here is probably different, but so far I’ve been lucky enough to find that needs driven development can be compatible with communications work. If anything promoting that approach actually works as an effective marketing tool. The response from stakeholders is positive. It might be that for effective marketing and effective development to be compatible we need more faith in the public’s ability to relate (without the trigger of shock tactics like Save the Children’s) and reflect this with braver and cleverer marketing strategies.

  13. Hey Weh, unfortunate for me that you already have a rebuttal lined up!

    I agree that communications can be simplistic, even ‘distasteful’ at times. But we forget that the role of communications is not to explain every minor technical detail. The role is to raise awareness and gain the attention of people who may only have a few minutes to spare, and who are bombarded with a gamut of other competing causes.

    The handful of people who care enough to react to the communications and find out more about the issue are the ones we want to reach. Then by all means explain to them the long-winded details. But if you can’t even gain your donors’ interest, they won’t open their wallets for you.

    And without funding, every programme is dead. I’d rather compromise my programme with populist but effective marketing than compromise my programme by denying it funding opportunities.

  14. Interesting article Weh, although I’d disagree with you on a few points – particularly that the problem lies in the simplicity of the ideas. The best ads/campaigns in the world are simple ideas, masterfully executed. In my experience, what lets down marketing in the development sector is the ability to translate the organisation’s content into a message that resonates authentically with the viewer, and often (and this is across the board – from the big agencies to tiny one-room NGOs) the block comes from within the organisation itself; from an absence of bravery in making interesting, memorable campaigns, as well as the lack of knowledge of how to pull something like that off. Naturally there are very talented people working in marketing in development, but I have found time and time again (after being bought into work on such campaigns) that any vestige of creativity and originality ends up squashed by the chain of command, leaving a watered-down version of what may have been a fantastic idea originally.

    1. Yes I agree that simplicity is good- but that might apply more for the actual packaging rather than the content. One of the biggest dangers for sustainable fundraising is sensationalism-it compromises the message and the dignity of people we are advocating for/with, and often, in long run-proves to harm the people we are aiming to help.. I really think, from what I’m observing, that finding/choosing a good donor that actually aligns with our values is absolutely crucial and sometimes takes some time.. I know- easier said than done..

  15. Completely disagree.

    Most public donations are unconstrained. There is little reason I know of or given here why ‘flagship’ marketing campaigns can’t be used to support needs-driven development work.

    1. Thanks Gerry! Can you give me any examples of where this has already happened?

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