What's wrong with international relief and development fundraising?
According to many in the international relief and development sector, the fundraising is too "negative." And "simplistic."
To hear the international development professionals tell it, we'd raise a ton more money if we'd educate donors with how well-thought-out and effective poverty-reduction programs are, and if we'd stay away from those nasty stories of people facing starvation and images of "flies-in-the-eyes" children.
Meanwhile, people who actually have to raise funds will tell you: educating donors, explaining how programs work, showcasing success stories, and photos that fail to show a problem to solve are all quick paths to fundraising failure.
The problem is, many development professionals confuse what motivates them to be involved professionally in the cause with what motivates non-professionals (donors) to make donations.
Two completely different things.
If you want to move donors to action you just have to speak into their level of connection and understanding. Insisting that they must get more educated before they take action is crazy. Failing to show a problem that they can help solve simply doesn't work.
The UK version of this debate is well displayed by my friend and colleague Stephen Butler, who posted Why BOND have got it wrong on how the public views overseas poverty on LinkedIn. (Bond is a UK professional association for the International Development sector.)
Bond really wants fundraising to be different. Their idea of what the problem is:
Frequent exposure to guilt-inducing messages and images of "starving children with flies in their eyes" is making more and more people feel cynical about aid, distant from people in the global south, and that efforts to alleviate poverty are futile.
Bond's entire premise is based on ignoring the fundamental truths about fundraising. Here's how Butler puts it:
While BOND try and figure out why people are not better educated and more informed on poverty issues, the charities in the meantime need to raise money. BOND may not like it, but the charities know that it is the 'flies in the eyes' approach that raises money. It may not be development. It may not be how we would like to talk about poverty issues. But it is how the public, for the moment, seem to respond to the need.
Don't get the idea that I think fundraising is perfect. Or even especially good. In fact, most of it is pretty bad. Because it's vague, full of jargon, and doesn't really try to involve donors in changing the world.
But making it work for the development professionals at Bond and other places will make it even worse.
If you want to get it right, keep these principles in mind:
- Fundraising that makes nonprofit insiders happy doesn't work.
- When you're raising funds, your audience is never "the public." It's donors -- a distinct subset of the public. And usually, your audience is a small subset of donors.
- If you want to know what works in fundraising, talk to someone who is held responsible for raising funds. Not armchair critics who want to reshape your message to be aimed at themselves.