Tag Archives: Donors

Dear Supporter: We’re sorry, the project you supported failed…

In honour of World Humanitarian Day, the WhyDev team wants to recognize an unfortunate truth: humanitarian projects often fail. We believe NGOs need to confront their mistakes, talk about them and learn from them – it’s the only way aid will get better.
Continue reading Dear Supporter: We’re sorry, the project you supported failed…

Building better relationships with donors

WhyDev recently caught up with Lorea Russell, from Alanna Shaikh’s International Development Careers List, to discuss the effective methods of fostering positive relationships with funders. This article is based on that discussion.

Approaching and forming relationships with donors can often be a very intimidating process. However, it need not be so! Whether they are big structured UN type donors or more foundation-type donors, there are some basic approaches you can take to improve your chances of fostering a strong, productive relationship.

It’s all about people.

First of all, the biggest mistake people make with fundraising is that they forget donors are people before they are donors. Fundraising is more than just making a pitch and getting money, it’s a relationship, and like any relationship it takes time to build. Donors resent just being treated like check books – most want to be partners in the project. So when you dive in with the “this is the gap and we need money” approach without anything else, it’s likely to put a donor off. This is especially the case if you take the “cold email” tactic; that is, sending an email to a donor identified through research with your self-introduction and pitch, without any prior introduction or connection to them.

Finding out a donor’s purpose, goals and restrictions is a cornerstone of a strong donor relationship. Don’t be afraid to hide the weakness of a project – brainstorm a solution together! However, you’re unlikely to get this far if you immediately pitch them for money.

Asking a donor for coffee or for advice (donors loved to asked for advice!) to discuss their priorities, interests, and values isn’t beating around the bush; it’s building a relationship. Donors are looking for relationships built on trust, good communication and mutual benefit. Honest communication is critical in this regard. This starts with asking yourself if you truly are a good fit, and if your relationship will be mutually beneficial.

Another thing to keep in mind is what other information you are including in your initial email with donors. Other than the direct pitch, are you attaching information about the organization itself (annual report, one pager, beneficiary stories, etc.) or already sending concept notes to review? As discussed earlier, without a relationship, or at least the initial foundation of one, sending a concept note right off the bat is unlikely to work as a first communication.

Fundraising, unless you’re in disaster response context, doesn’t happen quickly. It takes months to development relationships and ideas that appeal to both parties.  Some of the best fundraising advice I’ve been given is “it’s not about what you want to sell; it’s about what they want to buy”. 

Keys to building strong relationships with donors

Building strong and sustainable approaches with donors is time consuming, but four key lessons can be drawn out.

1. Get their attention

Donors usually have lots of people vying for their attention, including business, personal contacts, and other NGOs seeking support.  To start a relationship with a new potential donor, first of all your organization needs to get their attention.

The best way to do this is to have someone who knows the donor introduce your NGO.  If a board member, another donor, staff member or volunteer at your organization knows the potential donor and is willing to make the introduction and vouch for your NGO, you can kick-start a relationship in a way that few other tactics can.

Other ways to get the attention of prospective donors is to get them to come to an event, by connecting with employees, releasing a major report, launching a campaign in a program area that matches prospective donors interests, and so on … the possibilities are endless! But no matter which approach you choose to take, the most important thing to remember is that you must first get the donor’s attention before they will focus on your organization.

2. Build the relationship

Once you have the donor’s attention, don’t just jump straight to the pitch! You first need to cultivate the donor and build a relationship between him/her and your organization.  There really aren’t any ways to effectively circumvent this step.

Get them to attend events.  Ask them for advice and suggestions on your programs.  Involve them in volunteer work and on committees.  Make them feel like part of your team (and this should be authentic).

3. Explain the investment

Prior to making your pitch, first explain the investment you are asking them to make.  My choice of words here is intentional… many big donors feel that their charitable giving is really an “investment” in a better community. They want to invest in NGOs that are going to deliver the best outcomes for the largest number of people in the donor’s chosen giving areas.

Through your cultivation process, you should know what program areas are most important to the donor.  Explain to them exactly what your plans for the future are, what you are hoping to raise, and why you need the money.  What outcomes are you predicting?  How many people will you serve?  What is the return on their social investment?

As a part of this, understanding how to use the data your organization is already collecting is critical. Data and “proof” is becoming increasingly important to donors. Something that NGOs aren’t as great at is knowing how to present all the data they’re already collecting in a compelling way for an external audience that isn’t just a narrative report.

4. Emotion still trumps

No matter how great an investment your program may seem, most donors still give primarily to organizations they feel an emotional connection with.  Therefore, the best way to raise major funds is to present your organization as both an emotionally compelling, mission-driven organization as well as a wise investment.

Tell the donor stories.  Get them to go to your program sites if it makes sense, and they have a regional office in your area of operations. The most important thing is to give the donor an emotional connection to your work.

While there isn’t a magic bullet to fundraising, organizations can maximise their chances of securing funding, and moreover, fostering a strong, sustainable relationship with a donor that will ideally lead to a long-term partnership benefiting both entities, but most importantly the beneficiaries you’re striving to help.

Lorea has over a decade of experience working in disaster response and international development, and is now giving social entrepreneurship a try. She has written and supported proposals for domestic and international programming for international NGOs and USG contractors including CARE, International Medical Corps, and DAI. Lorea has lived and worked in Kenya, Somalia, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, Uganda, Indonesia, and Haiti. For more information on Lorea’s work, see Samasource.

Where does the money come from?

One of the first things I do when starting a new project is to ask the team a very important question: “Where does the money for this project come from?” I usually get a range of surprised looks. Surely I must know that the money comes from “donor X”.

“Yes, but where does donor X get their money from?” Now people start to look a bit more stumped. After a few minutes sitting in silence someone usually jumps in with “taxes” or “governments.” So I ask it again, “And where do they get their money from?” “From people!”

“That’s right, the money for this project comes from people.” All kinds of people. Rich people, poor people, people who paid taxes, people who made donations, people who think their money is being used to help people in other countries. The USAID tag line “From the American people” is quite literally true. It works a bit like this:

If most aid money actually comes from people, why did my team not know this? Perhaps because they’re all local staff from the recipient country. They had never donated their money to an NGO. Their taxes were not used to fund aid programs. So why would they know? They had no experience of what it’s like to be on the other end of the chain and nobody bothered to tell them.

Of course, if you don’t know that aid money is donated by people then it might as well be magic money dropped out of the sky by donors. This misconception can be seriously damaging. If the donors have magic money then why not waste it on unnecessary per diems? Why not use it for parties? Or a new car? Or extravagant staff retreats?

This was exactly the problem I faced before I realised that most of my team didn’t know where the money was coming from. Every time I would cut a meal allowance or say no to a staff party there would be eye rolling and complaints. Clearly I was just a party pooper. Of course, it’s not just local staff that have this problem. While expats may know where the money comes from it’s easy to forget or disregard this when thinking about salary and benefits.

I normally find that a frank discussion about the source of aid money is followed by a marked change in how people spend the money. It also allows me to ask an important question every time I receive a budget request – “If you donated your own money to this project, would you be happy for it to be spent this way?” Quite often the answer is no. So in that case we should treat other people’s money the way we expect our own money to be treated.

This was originally posted on tools4dev.org

The key to reducing poverty is… fewer armchair experts

Certain sectors seem to attract more armchair experts than others. We all think we know what is needed to fix the Australian Cricket Team’s woes. Sack the selectors and cut down the playing schedule to eliminate burnout. Bring back Warney.

We all think we know what is needed to produce better classrooms for our children. We need to reduce class numbers, get the teachers back to teaching basics, study more of the classics in their original form, not after they have been put through a blender by Baz Luhrman.

Development is no different. I recently took a flight from Singapore to Cambodia, and had a lovely, chatty couple in their 50s sit next to me. They were instantly interested in hearing about my work in disability in Cambodia. After asking the usual questions about what I do, they  told me that they were active donors in Cambodia.

They had a local guy who found good, sustainable projects for them to fund. Of course, good and sustainable are entirely subjective.

“We believe that the key to getting people out of poverty is giving the chance to start their own business,” he said to me earnestly. “You need to let them tap into their inner entrepreneur. We don’t believe in providing welfare, because it makes people lazy. We think that starting small businesses are key for poor people.”

I feel like MLK Jr may disagree.

As such, the couple only gave to projects that supported this ideal. For instance, they bought a tuk-tuk for a driver, so that he could earn a living for himself and his family. They provided funds for a soy bean drink machine, imported from Singapore of course, so that another family could sell drinks in their village.

For the next 20 minutes, I listened without interrupting as they explained their views on what constitutes good development, and how the projects they had funded were creating a sustainable future in Cambodia. At the end of this spiel, they turned to face me front on and ask, “So, in your work in Cambodia, what do you see as the major challenges you face?”

I paused for a moment, and replied: “One of the biggest problems we face is donors from outside Cambodia, who have no experience in development, let alone in Cambodia, dictating what they think constitutes good development, rather than listening to what people in Cambodia actually want. It forces the NGO to change their activities to suit the needs of the donors, and ignore the needs of people.”

(I’ll be the first to admit that this is a somewhat pompous response, but really, I had bitten my tongue for 20 whole minutes!)

In a recent interview, Founder and CEO of Global Poverty Project, Hugh Evans, was asked by MSNBC journalists about what Americans could do that would “translate into action” for people living in extreme poverty. For example, the suit-clad men in MSNBC’s studio wondered, should WE teach THEM “better techniques in terms of harvesting rice and grain”? I think Hugh handled this absurd question very well, though his visceral reaction was pretty obvious.

What food did they serve Hugh in the MSNBC green room?

We have great conversations about development online and offline. Although we need to consciously make effort to escape the bubble of developmentcentrism, we are always exploring how to get development right.

Many of us are working in development, consumed by it, and are constantly reflecting on it. Even these people are constantly searching and debating about how to get development right, without a clear answer. If this is the case, what makes those in the general public so sure that they know the answers?

How many times have you heard the phrase “I think the key to getting people out of poverty is X”? You can replace X with education, small business, focusing on women and girls, used yoga mats.

You would be very hard pressed to find anyone saying something similar about other sectors.

Thank you, Wikipedia.

Yet, similar opinions in relation to poverty abound.

It is pretty common knowledge in the development sector that overheads are in no way a good measure of an organisation’s effectiveness. Yet, as many of as aware from numerous conversations, people in the general public don’t seem to realise this. How many times have you heard the opinion “I give to so and so charity because they use volunteers and most of the money goes to the people who need it?”

Why is there such a gap between conversations within our development bubble, and those outside?

I’m going to put forward one possible reason, though I am very interested to hear what others think in the comments section below.

One reason could be marketing. There is often a huge gap between how NGOs market themselves and how the programs themselves work. As long as NGOs continue to propagate the myth that overheads matter, in a bid to get more donations, the public is going to believe them. This could be why, in terms of overheads, the conversation is lagging far behind.

We’ve spoken before on WhyDev about the race-to-the-bottom tactics that NGOs can use to get funding, and how this can ultimately affect the scope of work that program staff are able to do. This is another example of how negative fundraising tactics can hurt development – by stifling knowledge of good development in the public.

What do you think? Why do many people opine baselessly about the key to ending poverty? Why do conversations around development lag so far behind in the public sphere?

Postscript: A few people have asked, here and elsewhere, how the couple responded to my response. The couple had a glazed look over their eyes, then the food service came, then the man started snoring. End of story.

The changing landscape of advertising on Aid & Africa: Oxfam’s new campaigns

Oxfam GB began a new ad campaign for Africa this month that has immediately come under scrutiny. At the same, time Oxfam America is launching a new campaign that is also centred largely on Africa, but not entirely. Only a few days younger than its British counterpart, the American campaign has yet to draw the ire of anyone, while the British has required justification from Oxfam GB’s CEO, Dame Stocking.

Dame Stocking, Chief Executive of Oxfam UK
Dame Stocking, Chief Executive of Oxfam UK

Sharpening the same old rusty tools

Times have changed, and the audience along with it. They are a more savvy consumer of advertising, but also more globally aware. To compare an ad from today, and the message it’s attempting to purport, is to deny not only the use and effects of previous campaigns, but also the changes that have occurred within society at large.

The situation in Africa or Central America, Asia and elsewhere for that matter, is different from that of 20, 30, 40 years ago. The means of communication have changed, but then so have the organisations (especially the communications staff). Advertising and advocacy campaigns have grown rusty amid the changing global environment. Advertising is a tool that needs to be sharpened constantly – particularly as it’s a tool that’s been inherited. If your grandfather gave you an old spade you’d simply hone the edge or maybe replace the handle rather than tossing it aside.

Newly honed: there’s a definite edge

Both the British and American Oxfam campaigns for Africa are a fresh take on an old issue. Vibrant colours, stunning photographs and a funky font make for eye-catching yet clean material. The differences though are immediately apparent. The British have gone in for landscapes, showcasing the verdant and varied biosphere, while the Americans have gone for the individuals, encapsulating the personal side to Africa.

Oxfam GB's new ad campaign
Oxfam GB’s new ad campaign

Oxfam Africa campaign

Oxfam Africa campaign

Each is a distinctly different approach. Yet through both of them you can see the unifying essence that is Oxfam and their mission. How each campaign is being wielded does more than simply identify the nascent development of the campaigns’ consumers, who want more than the blatant messages of conflict and famines of the 80s and 90s. It shows a great understanding on the part of all stakeholders that advertising is a tool that all should have a share in.

A committee need not be convened to approve every message from every stakeholders’ standpoint – the gods know there are already too many committees involved in aid and development. The mere fact that organisations like Oxfam are taking into account the wider cultural effects shows they’ve graduated from swinging a machete to pulling out the pruning shears. It doesn’t mean they’re as deft as they could be, but you cannot grow and nurture a bonsai overnight even with tiny tools.

Calling a spade… something with a handle

Oxfam GB and Oxfam America target different audiences with their respective campaigns. There are similarities between the target audiences, but there are enough differences that varied campaigns are a prerequisite. Each campaign is also focused on different issues; for GB it’s about reimagining Africa, for the US it’s about not cutting foreign aid for the sake of the national budget. Both campaigns want to see aid to continue to flow to Africa (particularly through Oxfam GB; Oxfam America doesn’t take USAID funding), though the issues each organisation faces differ drastically.

Oxfam GB is focused on an issue that they personally have been a part of and responsible for. There’s no denial. And, there’s no apology – this isn’t a debate on poverty porn, but recognition that it has been used in the past – good or bad, Oxfam and others must move on. Consumers are equally complicit in the previous ad campaigns, as they needed such crass images to get involved. Oxfam GB calls the consumer on this fact with one word ‘Let’s’. It is a social contract.

The acknowledgement of all parties’ share in a stereotyped perception of Africa as a continent of starvation is a step towards dialogue and the change of that image. However, the changing of an image or even a person’s view is not done through one medium alone, which is why Oxfam GB’s campaign needs to be seen in the wider context, not just next to that of Oxfam America’s.

The message from Oxfam America’s campaign is one that is intrinsically tied to the political culture of the US. Oxfam America is discussing American politics and how they shape the world, but it’s doing so through a prism that many Americans would understand. Foreign aid, slightly more than 1% of the US budget, is being shown not as a hand-out but a means to support self-starters – those very same people which the US prides itself upon for making it what it is today – and not something that should be cut.

Oxfam America's new ad campaign
Oxfam America’s new ad campaign


Manuel Dominguez no click

Oxfam America is asking the American taxpayer and their elected representatives to allow Oxfam and its partners to do its job. In highlighting the similarities between individuals in Africa and the US, Oxfam America is attempting to engage people on a level they can understand, on the same issues they’re feeling at home. Because the issue of foreign aid is a personal one for Oxfam America, the organisation appear to have made its campaign personal for everyone.

The immediacy of Oxfam America’s goal can’t be underscored enough. Given that the US government only managed to put off issues relating to the ‘fiscal cliff’ by a further two months, and that the Congress and Senate will be meeting once again to decide the future of the American national budget, the timing of the new campaign is apt. But, it isn’t so much a campaign for Africa or even Oxfam as it is an attempt at lobbying. Just look at where some of the ads are placed: within Reagan National Airport and the metro system in Washington DC.

However, from a design perspective, the font is a sore point. The font, as bright and cheerful with that African edge as it tries to be, comes across a little callous. Oxfam should keep in mind the thoughts of Jonathan Barnbrook, “A good typeface creates an emotional response in relation to the message it is conveying. You’re trying to get that tone of voice right – you can shout or whisper. And you want to sum up the spirit of the age, because they do date quite quickly”. The playfulness of it undermines the impassioned and serious plea that both organisations are broadcasting and could in the end be detrimental to their overall message.

It is about generating discussions, rather than impressions

Each of these campaigns has been crafted by professionals who are well aware of the limits of the mediums they are working in and what they hope to achieve. They are also keenly aware of how messages, images and memes are itinerant between mediums. Social media, whether explicitly expressed or not, is a large part of spreading the messages of both organisations and is being utilised to do so very effectively.

Both Oxfam GB and Oxfam America have, in effect, not merely provided the campaigns’ consumers with the very tools they use – they’ve invited the audience into the tool shed. Showing how these tools are shaped to the task spurs the discussion of each campaign. Both organisations are involving you in the discussion by getting you to hold the discussion.

They’re not asking you to have it, or even demanding that such discussions take place. The enticement comes from the ideas they present so that the audience stops and looks at what each organisation is doing and how. Dame Stocking’s comment of, “We want to make sure people have a really better balanced picture of what’s happening in Africa. Of course we have to show what the reality is in the situations in those countries. But we also need to show the other places where things are actually changing, where things are different”, and concise feedback from Tolu Ogunlesi is nothing more than presenting a different perspective of Africa and aid, but with a caveat – the audience is forced to determine what that picture is.

Oxfam GB is not purporting to be the final or even an authoritarian voice on aid and Africa. The offer to make a cultural change within the UK with the audience by saying ‘Let’s’ allows for the differing views and constructive suggestions of others. It opens the tool shed to everyone to discuss not just the work to be done but how. Much of what is done today in terms of advertising, particular on complex issues, is about generating discussions rather than impressions.

Oxfam America’s discussion includes the tool shed and those in it, but never to the same degree. Their concern is being able to keep the shed and the tools in it. It seeks a far more tangible effect, but one that can only be determined in the future – not by impressions, Likes or click-throughs. The success of Oxfam America’s campaign rests in the hands of the American taxpayer and their elected representative.


Whatever you’re feeling about these ads isn’t wrong or right. They probably elicited a response, which they’re supposed to. They’re generating a discussion, but for them to be really successful it needs to be elsewhere. Take your comments and your feelings to your personal blogs, to Facebook, Twitter and any other medium that connects to those who aren’t in the aid and development community.

Talk to those who are not inside the ‘Aid Beltway’. Share with them and see what they have to say.


Games in International Development: Fad or Innovation?

People have been playing more games these days in Washington D.C. And I don’t mean the strategies of the Obama and Romney spin teams.

Two recent events suggest games’ growing popularity in D.C. aid circles: this one I attended at the World Wildlife Fund earlier this month and this Tuesday’s upcoming event hosted by the Society for International Development.

Games in international development is a pedagogical approach intended to provide experiential learning opportunities that break down complex topics into easier-to-understand parts for adults, thereby serving as more effective “thought and dialogue stimulators.” In my experience with games, they have been used in place of or alongside more conventional training to help people affected by climate change to understand it, especially the concepts of risk management and adaptation.

There are many reasons to like games: 1) those of us in aid work have had to sit through too many horrible trainings and workshops to count, 2) games are a step closer to putting the “right” people in the driver’s seat of change because they are built on an assumption of agency and rational choice, and 3) they are fun! (Not to diminish anyone’s suffering in the world, but we aid workers might stand to benefit from taking ourselves a little less seriously.)

The natural comparison with games for me is participatory rural appraisal (PRA) or participatory learning and action (PLA). The key differentiation is that PRA/PLA tools can end up as a mechanism to only derive information from communities, whereas in a game, people are engaged and they “gain” the experience of having played and can relate what they learned to their own lives, regardless of what happens next in a project or program.

Skilled and experienced facilitators are needed to ensure the success of both approaches and in the context of a project or program, both PRA/PLA and games must to be supported by sound management to ensure that they are linked to action and support an overall process of development. Both approaches must also be wary of slipping into a lazy (and ignorant) perspective that uneducated people are considered “simple.”

There remain some key assumptions that need to be tested when using games within programming, namely 1) that games are a quicker and/or more effective way for organizations to engage communities, 2) that the resulting dialogue is more productive than with traditional community engagement processes, and 3) that this can “trigger” more and/or independent actions/activities at the community or individual level.

As needed in all development programs, it is vital that game designers ground themselves in the local gaming culture. We cannot only be developing and playing games from our ivory towers in D.C., but also (and perhaps more importantly) developing means to share key concepts of game design widely that would enable local nonprofits to develop games to match local contexts and purposes.

The true measure of the aid world’s success in unleashing the potential of games and sports will not be seen simply in their proliferation, but when we determine the extent of their contribution to improving community engagement and ownership within the projects and programs we support.

How would you make aid and development better?

This post is in response to a call out from AidSpeak, the blog of the Humanitarian Social Network known as AidSource. The guys recently asked writers to talk about how they would improve aid and development. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list (that would involve a word limit longer than Tolstoy’s War and Peace), but just a few key areas in which we might move aid and development forward.

Let’s make aid and development truly about “beneficiaries”, once and for all.

Aid and development, as it stands, involves a triangular relationship between the donor, the NGO and, for lack of a better word, beneficiaries. Although the word beneficiary sounds a little too passive for my liking, getting to the core of aid and development is about improving the lives of people in communities that are impoverished or vulnerable. However, too often, aid and development does not revolve around them.

The donor often determines what programs get funded and therefore what kind of development work gets done. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) announced in 2000, contain no specific mention of disability. Since then, there has been anecdotal evidence that some programs developed by disability NGOs, in consultation with communities, have been refused funding.

Some agencies and funding bodies refuse to fund programs that target people with disabilities simply because disability is not explicitly mentioned in the MDGs. For the 15% of the world who live with disabilities at least, rather than foster collective action, the MDGs have promoted inaction.

We need to create an environment where communities determine for themselves what issues need improvement. This in itself is complex, because simply asking communities often ignores those who are not already in positions of power. It is up to NGOs to reach those who are typically the least heard. Women, children, ethnic minorities, LGBT, migrants, and people with disabilities would help. Let’s get NGOs to do the listening, and then spend time and energy talking to donors about what communities really need.

Put more trust in poor people.

In Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the Global South, the authors take a step back from looking at what reduces poverty, and investigate our own attitudes towards poor people. They ask the question: “Who is to blame for poor people being poor: society as a whole, or poor people themselves?” The variation across countries is fascinating.

Who is to blame for poverty – poor people or society? Adapted from Just Give Money to the Poor.

The data shows that the majority of people in the United States tend to blame poor people for their level of poverty, rather than society. At the opposite end of the spectrum, only 13% of people in Germany blame poor people, with 87% blaming an unfair society. Our own attitudes about who is to blame for poverty are crucial in how we attack the problem.

If we continue to see poor people as the architects of their own predicament, then “poverty eradication” will continue to be done for them, not by them. Programs will continue to be paternalistic, and poor people themselves will have little to no agency in creating a better future for themselves.

Microcredit, or the giving of small loans to people in poverty has, at best, tenuous evidence in lifting people out of poverty across the board. As economist David Roodman says, “microfinance is rarely transformational”. Yet currently, microcredit is incredibly popular. This is despite strong evidence that suggests that unconditional cash transfers (just “giving money to the poor”) may be more effective in reducing poverty, particularly amongst vulnerable groups.

Why do we favour microcredit? One reason may be that behind all of this is the unspoken belief that poor people cannot be trusted. In fact, advocates of microfinance often point to loan repayment rates as a sign that microcredit is working. One of Grameen Bank’s greatest brags is that 97% of their loans are repaid.

However, this figure is only a distraction. Surely, the success of microcredit should be measured by the effect on reducing poverty, rather than the ability of people to pay loans back. People often baulk at the idea of giving money away with no strings attached, because they feel that poor people cannot be trusted. Yet the overwhelming body of evidence suggests that cash transfers work better than microcredit. In asking why we still prefer microcredit, we have to ask ourselves the simple question: “Do we trust poor people?”

Do more to reach the most vulnerable.

In his book, Due Diligence: An Impertinent Inquiry into Microfinance, David Roodman notes that while microcredit can change the lives of some people who are poor, there is one group that microcredit almost universally does not reach: the poorest of the poor.

To boil a very complex situation down to its simplest form, microcredit is run like a business, and the ability to reach the poorest in any community has a high opportunity cost associated with it. You may be able to reach the one ultra-poor family in the remote hills away from the village, but this will come at the expense of reaching four less poor families within the village.

Similarly, aid and development as it stands today does not do enough for people with disabilities, often the most poor and vulnerable within any community.

Poverty and disability are inextricably linked. The lack of access to decent employment, the higher costs of living, the opportunity costs of caring for those with disabilities – all of these factors combine to make families of people with disabilities multiply disadvantaged. Children with disabilities are far less likely to attend school than their non-disabled peers.

Although this trend is starting to be reversed, too few mainstream development organisations and agencies include people with disabilities into their programs. I have personally met with many development NGOs who do great work across a wide range of areas. However, when asked specifically how they address the needs of people with disabilities (often 15% or more of their target group), I’m faced with blank stares.

How can we truly claim that we are working towards improving the lives of poor and vulnerable people, if we continue to ignore those at the most vulnerable end of the spectrum?

Often, organisations resist including people with disabilities because it is perceived as too difficult or intimidating. Fortunately though, there is a wealth of information available to help mainstream the specific needs of people with disabilities. Here is a fantastic guide, produced by the disability organisation CBM, to get the ball rolling.

A Rising Tide: The Invisible Grassroots “Movement” for Children in Africa

The author, with her great grandmother, in the U.S. state of Nebraska in 1977.

Growing up, my family life was not easy. My father drank and it weighed heavily on my mother, who did her best to maintain as much normalcy for me and my brothers as possible. Looking back, our home’s “culture of silence” was often the most difficult part for me to bear, more than the yelling or the financial stresses or the unpredictability of my father’s behaviour. As a child I had so many overwhelming feelings inside of me that simply had no place to go.

Since the 1990s, the crisis of millions of children infected and affected by HIV in sub-Saharan Africa became well documented. It was during this period that I traveled abroad to Zimbabwe at the age of 19, hoping to get as far away from home as possible. I then went on to become an aid worker, and it is no wonder that I was drawn to children’s programming in sub-Saharan Africa. Even though I was from middle America, from another culture and upbringing, I knew what it was to feel that loneliness, shame, burden, and vulnerability.

Both scholarly literature and policy papers told us at the time that the extended family – the traditional source of support for African children without parental care – was the primary safety net of care for children infected and affected by HIV. It was understood, at least by some observers, that most children were getting by not because of sweeping national-level policy protections or major international programs. Rather, those who survived and thrived did so because of the local efforts of people who organised their communities to keep children in school, mobilise and assist foster parents, and provide psychosocial support for children grieving or caring for ill parents.

Building on Tradition

Assistance to children and families affected by AIDS and poverty within their immediate communities builds on long-standing African traditions of community-level sharing of agricultural labour, assistance in times of drought and other calamities, and shared child care, much like the rural, farming area where I grew up. In fact, across Africa, the poorest and most vulnerable people set up indigenous, resilient, and often informal coping mechanisms such as self-help groups, church groups, burial associations, grain loan schemes, and rotating credit and loan clubs. Most of these community initiatives grow out of the concern of a few motivated individuals who work together to support vulnerable children. They spring from a sense of people’s obligation and desire to care for those in need.

I know intimately that it is this sense of obligation that can give children the care they need to become healthy and happy adults. My own family did not exist in isolation either. The proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” was no cliché, but my lived experience. Even when things were hard, I now realise how much that love, care and protection existed around me and strengthened me.

Communities ARE “Turning the Tide”

According to a 2004 survey by the University of Kwazulu-Natal, there are at least 50,000 community-based organisations (CBOs) in the South African non-profit sector alone, which contradicts the dominant image in the aid and philanthropic sectors that services are mainly provided by formal and professionally-run NGOs. In Malawi, a CBO mapping exercise identified over 1,800 CBOs focused on orphans and child protection. A Ugandan study for the Joint Learning Initiative on Children in AIDS in 2007 revealed that the prevalence of community-level initiatives for children affected by HIV was one per 1,300 people. Most were independent groups or linked to local churches, schools, or clinics. While these figures may vary in other countries, there is evidence that many CBOs are assisting children needing protection by extending emotional support and social services into areas and communities that are often not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies.

Today with the support and love of family members, friends, and trained professionals, my family has done a lot of healing and I am so grateful for it. In its ten years since its founding, REPSSI has worked with over 100 non-profit organisations and government agencies in almost 2,000 projects across southern and east Africa so that every child has this same chance. There are 5 million children and their families and communities who I know are also grateful.

REPSSI (The Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative) will be celebrating its 10th anniversary throughout Africa this year and at the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. on July 21st.  The theme this year is “Turning the Tide Together.”  To enhance the social and emotional well-being of children in southern and eastern Africa, REPSSI develops easy-to-use and culturally appropriate capacity training, tools, and technical advice, including a distance-learning Certificate Course in Community-Based Work with Children and Youth©. An African-initiated and -led organisation, REPSSI works to place psychosocial support firmly on national and international social development agendas.

This is a cross-post here with REPSSI’s blog.


Why donating to disaster relief is short-sighted with WhyDev’s Allison Smith | AidWorks

On June 6, the good folks at AidWorks had Allison Smith on the show to talk about some of the problems associated with donating to disaster relief efforts, and what NGOs can do to address the problems.

Listen to the interview and let us know what you think – is Allison off-base? Do non-profits need to do better at clearly communicating with donors, particularly in the context of disaster relief?

Don’t change the message. Change the messenger.

Everything that we do in development is about selling a message. Whether it’s conveying an organisation’s work to a corporate donor, convincing the public that foreign aid actually works, or recruiting people for a local HIV-testing program in Zimbabwe, we all need to convince people of what we ourselves believe.

Despite all his, discussion in development rarely revolves around the most effective ways in which we can influence other people. Previously, on whydev.org, we talked about the tendency to hold onto existing biases more strongly whenever views are challenged. When a message goes against the grain of what people already believe, convincing them of this message is complex, and requires effective strategies.

Courtesy of a recent study cited in New Scientist, here is one strategy that may work better: change the messenger, not the message.

Around the middle of last year, Republican politicians in the United States claimed that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was a potential cause of intellectual disability, despite a lack of strong scientific evidence. Unsurprisingly, whether or not people believed them was highly correlated to their political stance. In one study, subjects were questioned on their beliefs across a wide range of issues, and then classified as liberals or conservatives. Scientists then examined their attitudes towards the HPV vaccine. When presented with balanced arguments for and against administering the vaccine, 70% of the liberals and 56% of the conservatives thought it was safe to do so.

The experimenters then created fictional experts who portrayed themselves as liberals or conservatives. With the more “natural” pairing of the liberal expert arguing in favour of the vaccine and the conservative expert arguing against it, the number of liberals who supported the HPV vaccine increased, and the conservatives who disagreed decreased. No surprises there.

The interesting result occurred when they swapped the messengers around, so that the liberal expert argued against the vaccine and the conservative expert argued for it. Under this scenario, 58% of liberals and 61% of conservatives supported the HPV vaccine. In other words, simply swapping the messenger around resulted in more conservatives than liberals being convinced by the safety of the vaccine, a complete reversal to initial findings.

This seems to suggest that it’s not so much the message that is crucial, but instead, the messenger. Recent calls from British PM David Cameron to end foreign aid to African governments who do not uphold gay rights do not acknowledge this research. Apart from the futility of such a threat, the British leader is only likely to bring up not-too-distant memories of Western imperialism and aid conditionality.

Who then, is the best messenger to convey the message we want to give? Let’s go back to the three examples that I opened with individually.

Conveying an organisation’s work to a corporate donor

Often, it is the fundraising department, sometimes coupled with someone who works “in the field”, that tells corporate donors how money donated impacts people’s lives. However, a more ideal messenger could be someone who doesn’t even work for the NGO – perhaps someone who works within the corporate sector itself. Apart from speaking about the good work of the NGO to colleagues, this person is also able to discuss the tax benefits of regular workplace giving.

Convincing the public of the merits of foreign aid

Again, having someone outside of the aid sector could be the best messenger. A trusted public figure with an average income (i.e. not Bill Gates) might be best able to explain how he or she saw the impact of aid work on a recent trip overseas. It is crucial that this figure is someone the public can relate to. Recently, Jet Li was criticised for encouraging people in China to donate more willingly to good causes, as they believed it was his responsibility, as someone wealthy, to do more of the donating himself.

Recruiting people for an HIV testing program in Zimbabwe

Rather than foreign NGO workers, a local Zimbabwean who was diagnosed with HIV and successfully treated for tuberculosis may be a more effective person to convince local people of the need for testing. Having a voice that local people can relate to could lead to the message being more influential and believable.

In life, there are many other instances where we also need to sell a certain message. It could be telling friends about the value of caring for the environment, eating foods that we think are healthy, or why watching back-to-back episodes of Glee on a Saturday night is not only bad for your social life, but also your general health and wellbeing. In development, we need to give serious thought about how the issue is being framed. But, before we even do that, we need to be selective about who it is that is doing the framing.


This post originally appeared on How Matters, a site that explores the “how” of doing development work, in all it’s shapes and forms. I highly recommend you add it to your list of regular reading.

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