Donor messaging: Balancing heart and mind

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We're bombarded with them: images of emaciated children with wide, empty eyes that stare back at us from our iPads and flat-screen TVs. Their pleas need no words. The message is simple, straightforward: donate, it beseeches us, with shock and guilt its beguiling companions.

Yet, despite our donations, the images and conflicts continue. In Sudan it's been going for 30 years, Congo for 13 and Afghanistan seems no closer to a solution. Evidently, difficult challenges demand more than dollar bills and band-aid solutions. But are organizations effectively communicating that reality?

More importantly, should they be? If organizations forego the emotional appeal and focus on messaging that delves into the complex issues they face each day, will it help or hinder the level of giving and their subsequent work on the ground? Is it possible to transcend the traditional discourse on band-aid fixes to a more comprehensive, intricate discussion on long-term solutions?

According to Penelope Burk, organizations struggling to attract donors with simplistic messaging while managing complicated issues present an interesting dilemma. President of Cygnus Applied Research, a firm devoted to conducting research that investigates philanthropic trends and donors' changing focus and interests, Burk admits there's no simple solution. "No two people are alike in how they receive information and what inspires them," she says. Sending one message that appeals to everyone isn't easy.

Telling it like it is

The quandary seems especially timely considering two compelling and honest accounts of the challenges facing humanitarian aid organizations recently in the media. Samantha Nutt, founder and executive director of War Child Canada, released a book in October entitled, Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies & Aid. In it, Nutt recounts her experiences in the field. "The stories just anchor the central premise which is the ways in which we are connected to violence and instability around the world and why our interventions rarely do more than maintain the status quo," she explains.

Meanwhile, Marilyn McHarg, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières, wrote an editorial in September in the Globe & Mail entitled "Shocking images aren't enough." Putting forth the oft-contentious argument that responsible fundraising must rely on more than guilt and superficial messages, the editorial is focused specifically on the 20-plus-year Somalian crisis. It was inspired by McHarg's growing frustration with the way the conflict is being portrayed, including its tendency toward images of starving children. "It just engenders this idea that if you throw a food at the situation, it will be resolved."

It's time for organizations, including MSF, to take a more reflective look at how they communicate, she says. The crisis in Somalia, for instance, is a result of patients not having access to aid, a horrible situation only exacerbated by the ongoing drought. Understanding the complexity is key to understanding MSF's limitations. But, as McHarg states in the piece, "Fundraising experts warn us that offering a more complex picture of the difficulties of delivering aid will lead to cynicism and donor fatigue: It's shock value that works."

In a bold move, and "at the risk of losing some donations," she proceeds to offer an honest, transparent assessment of the on-the-ground challenges. "We think it's important as a form of public awareness that we project the situation as we see it, from our teams on the ground, and if it's complex, let's talk about it."

Time and place

Burk appreciates the approach, pointing out not every fundraising consultant would decry evidence-based messaging. "Because you don't know how the recipient is going to react, the emotional and intellectual side of brain should be present in all messaging," she argues. You just have to know when to push one over the other.

During disaster relief, for example, dramatic, visible messaging has proven over and over again to produce modest, immediate fundraising revenue. "You do get a huge volume of people responding right away," she explains. What's more, you can't dismiss the research that demonstrates what inspires many to stay loyal and give is an organization's ability to translate their story into a human experience. "They will say, 'it's the emotional story that won me over'."

However, that appeal can't be sustained, cautions Burk. An increasing number of donors are choosing to give more money to fewer organizations — they're becoming more strategic. "These donors have a worldview, are highly educated, know there are no instant solutions to huge problems, and want to put their money where it's most effective."

Moreover, keep in mind organizations rely on larger gifts that are negotiated thoughtfully and that are solutions-based, says Burk. "These gifts can't happen overnight — but are by far more profitable." Organizations need to focus on intellectual messaging too. In between crisis situations is when the approach is most effective, Burk asserts. "Donors always say it's the communication in between the asks that makes them decide if they'll give again or give more."

Of course, for an organization like MSF, which seems to be in a perpetual crisis mode thanks to the dizzying number of ongoing conflicts, the approach is far from simple.


Samantha Nutt would appreciate her colleague's frustrations, and her brave stance. Her book begins in Somalia, where she arrived as a young aid worker more than sixteen years ago and where her assumptions started to unravel about the field of humanitarian work. "I kept seeing a huge number of missed opportunities, mistakes and frustrations," she recalls of that time.

It was another five years before Nutt would start War Child with a mission to help children overcome the challenges of living with, and recovering from, conflict. While many relief organizations involved in the acute stages of conflict are unable to deal with longer-term development because of regional instabilities, War Child's focus allows them to address the gaps between relief and development, such as kids' education and rights.

As for MSF, McHarg makes it clear where they stand — and where they don't. "We see our action as being temporary. The value we have, particularly in war zones, is keeping people alive." Saving as many people as possible so they can enjoy better times ahead is their invaluable mission. But, she explains, "It's not possible for us, as an international medical humanitarian organization, to address the root causes." There's only so much each organization can do, after all.

The good news is there's value in different forms of aid, explains McHarg. Nutt agrees. In fact, War Child often works closely with UN agencies and international NGOs for whom Nutt has tremendous respect. But, she states, there are serious dangers in the excessive reliance on funding models that focus on short-term emergency-based interventions. They ignore longer-term initiatives which "not only prevent strife and conflict over the longer term, but are also more cost-effective and put local communities at the centre of the change."

Donors demands

Interestingly, Nutt says she can't wholly fault NGOs for that focus, explaining they're simply reacting to what donors seem to want. In fact, many organizations are tired of outdated models of humanitarian action but they look at their financial bottom line and continue on. For change to occur, donors need to step up, she says, and demand messaging that doesn't rely on guilt and stereotypical images. "As soon as donors start saying that, you'll see organizations begin to follow suit."

Of course, organizations should do their part too. "Rather than lowering the bar on development literacy by appealing to people's base emotions instead of their sense of justice, our objective should be to raise the bar and explain what good development is and why it matters."

The message medium

But what about the view that donors will be turned off by more realistic and complex campaigns? That they crave simple messages that use guilt and shocking images? "Yeah I don't buy that," Nutt responds emphatically. What international circles call "poverty porn" is inherently dangerous, she says, her voice rising with emotion. "It ends up perpetuating racial stereotypes and creating a sense that people in other parts of the world are just waiting for some magnanimous, western savior to come in and change the circumstances of their lives." But nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, those assumptions set the humanitarian field back, says Nutt. And it's that reliance on stereotypes that leads to donors' frustration and sense of hopelessness. They say, "Haven't we done this already, what's wrong with those people?" McHarg agrees. If the picture is painted too simplistically, people think that whatever action is done will solve the problem, she says. When the crisis re-emerges because they've only addressed the symptoms as opposed to the root causes, donor fatigue and cynicism results.

What would really encourage giving, according to Nutt, is showing the "courage, resilience, determination, innovation and initiative that is happening in the field, driven by local capacity and competencies and not us trying to save people and all this weighted, neo-colonial language."

Now what

So where do organizations go from here? As for McHarg's risk-taking venture into transparency, the response to her editorial has been positive. "It's been very encouraging," she offers, adding that MSF's donor relations team always responds to requests for more information about projects on the ground. "We really try to have the discussion and continue the debate," she says, adding that can actually engage donors.

More realistic communication strategies are vital to achieving that. To make her point, she offers three potential photos: one is of a malnourished child sitting on the ground alone, the second has a western doctor standing over her, and the third has her in her mother's arms with a group of doctors standing in the background. Each image offers a different interpretation but when asked which of the three best exemplifies the most accurate and effective communication, the third is the clear winner, says McHarg. "It engenders an interpretation whereby there's a problem but the child has the support that involves participation of family and various staff too. It reflects reality more accurately."

For her part, Burk believes emotional messaging will always be there. But, as giving continues to evolve, "it will become the door opener instead of the thing that makes it a slam dunk from beginning to end." After all, research demonstrates powerful images affect our brain. "The only time an organization goes wrong is when it relies on one or the other."

Perhaps so, but if Nutt and McHarg had their way, talking about the realities on the ground may play a greater role in their messages. Now may be time. Nutt says her colleagues have been having these conversations for more than 20 years, at boardroom tables, at events, in private. "These are not novel positions to be taking," she offers. "How else is it going to change?"

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is also president of Elle Communications and can be reached at:

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