Monday, March 18, 2019

A Simple & Effective Way to do a Video Interview (Also, No White Saviours)

No White Saviours is the name of a new Instagram account about how white people from the west can stop trying to save Africa—or other countries in the developing world.

According to the founders, “we never said 'no white people.' We just know you shouldn’t be the hero of the story.”

That’s an important message to hear. But that’s not why I am sharing it on this blog.

The reason I’m sharing it is because of the simple but neat way the BBC chose to interview the two women behind the campaign.

All the BBC did was a basic Q & A, posing the questions in text and then letting the women answer them in video.

There are no amazing graphics or photos; just two women talking.

Of course, the clip is edited for effect and length. But that happens in print or video.

Take a look. And if you are looking for simple and effective way to interview volunteers, recipients, staff, board members or others, consider giving this a try.

Read more about No White Saviours on Medium.

Read more about ways the BBC is trying to improve the online information and news experience.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

From the BBC: Ways to Make Online Stories More Appealing to Younger Readers

Earlier I wrote about how the BBC was experimenting with different formats to attract and keep the attention of younger readers on mobile devices.

They tried 35 things, like expanders, jump-offs and viewpoints.

And what was the result?

“The clear favorite prototypes were about explaining things better and showing the many different sides to stories,” lead researcher Tristan Ferne says.

Among the things showing promise are expanders, incrementals, summarizing and asking why.

An expander is an in-text yellow ellipsis after a key term/event/name/etc. that pops out some more information when clicked.

An incremental is an embed that provides more options for learning about the story (e.g. a short video clip).

Another thing that seems to work is personalizing information for users (although the BBC doesn’t like the word “personalization”).

The BBC found users were happy to swap personal information like ZIP codes for adjusted news. News could then be adapted for the reader’s location.

Once the location was known, the BBC could then supply information that answered the question: “What does this mean for me?”

In the answer, readers could know the implications of a national policy change for where they live.

Summaries are also important. Readers can’t be expected to know what the bigger picture is all about; why is food needed in South Sudan? What is the genesis of the crisis? Or even where is South Sudan?

Another idea is what the BBC called “consequences.”

Similar to “what does this mean for me?”, it offers readers a button to learn more about the impact of an issue. (e.g. what a government cutback to health care might mean where they live.)

Asking why questions is important, too. It anticipates questions readers might have about an issue.

Why are people hungry in South Sudan? Why are LGBTQ people afraid in Kenya? Why don’t girls go to school in Afghanistan?

Again, it’s a way of not presuming the reader knows more than they do—or as much as the writer knows about the subject.

More information about the results of the BBC research can be found here.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Brilliant Spillover, or Why do People With no Fundraising Experience Think they Know Best?

Why is it that people who have no experience in fundraising and marketing think they know best when it comes to writing appeal letters?

That’s the question I discussed with a fundraiser friend recently.

He is working as consultant to two non-profit organizations. In each one, the executive director has nixed appeal letters he’s written for them.

For one director, they were too long—she doesn’t like to read long letters.

He showed her research proving that longer letters get better results, but it didn’t matter.

As a busy corporate executive, she doesn’t have time to read long letters. Shorten it!

For the other, the letters were too donor-oriented. He wanted more information about programming.

My friend tried to explain the average donor makes a decision from the heart, not the head. But it didn’t matter for him, either.

As a programmer, the director wanted more details. That's what interested him. .

For both executive directors, the problem was they wanted the kind of appeal letters they liked—not the kind their donors would respond to.

I’m sure these aren’t unique situations. Many other non-profits have the same dynamics and experience.

It drives marketers and fundraisers nuts. Why do we invest all this time, energy and training to craft good appeal letters, if our bosses, or colleagues, say no?

What makes them think they know better?

After all, when it comes to programming fundraisers don’t tell their program colleagues what to do.

So why should programmers have the final say when it comes to fundraising?

I can think of a few reasons for why we got into this situation.

One reason is we all get appeal letters, and we know what we like.

Another reasons is what a former fundraiser called “brilliant spillover.” 

Because they are good at one thing, such as programming or running projects, they assume they are good at others—including fundraising.

As my friend put it:

"It’s the kind of thing that leads some people to presume that their brilliance and expertise in an unrelated area, such as international project management, automatically makes them experts on communications and fundraising. 

"It rarely does. People should concentrate on what they're hired to do, not try to do other people’s jobs."

Finally, it’s because they forget they are not the target audience for the appeal; they know too much.

It’s hard for them to remember that the average donor rarely, if ever, thinks about the need, country, cause or project at hand.

And if they do, they have minimal knowledge about it.

What most donors want to know is: Will my donation make a difference? Will it solve a problem? Will it change a life? 

Most don’t care how that happens. That’s what they trust programmers to do.

I’m not saying programmers and executive directors shouldn’t be involved in helping draft appeals; they should.

They need to know that what’s being sent to the public is true, and doesn’t misrepresent the issue or situation.

They need to feel comfortable with how the need is being described so they can stand behind the appeal and support it.

But they should not be the final say on what is written. 

They need to respect the wisdom, experience and prowess of their fundraising and marketing colleagues, just as fundraisers should respect their ability to run programs.

Otherwise, let's let fundraisers have the final say on programming decisions, and see how the programmers like it.

Also check out my post about why IDS students should take marketing and communications courses.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

When it Comes to Alternative Christmas Giving, it Might Just Get Your Goat

It's Christmastime! That means it's also time for many NGOs to "sell" alternative gifts to help people in the developing world--gifts like goats.

And who wouldn't want to buy a goal to help someone in the developing world escape poverty?

Animal rights activists, that's who.

That's why I discovered recently when a post from Plan Canada about buying goats for Christmas came up in my Facebook feed.

According to Plan Canada, a goat "just might be the most unique gift you’ll give this year." 

Goat’s milk provides important protein for growing children, it adds, and the sale of offspring helps the family pay for essentials. 

"Hoofs down, we’re m-a-a-a-d about this gift!” they exclaim.

They are the only ones who are mad: So are animal rights activists—mad at Plan Canada.

“No animals to be used for human consumption PLEASE!!! This is not compassionate!” posted one person.

“I disagree with making animals suffer and would never gift an animal for this purpose,” posted a another.

The anti-goat posts attracted responses.

“Omgoodness, the comments are making my brain bleed," replied another person. 

"You're not buying a goat for someone in downtown Toronto. You're paying for a goat to be given to a family in a developing country on behalf of your friend in downtown Toronto.”

Soon the thread was no longer about ways to help people escape poverty. 

Instead, it devolved into arguments pro and con about eating meat versus not eating meat, with a bit of religious dogma and a racist troll thrown in.

Smartly, Plan Canada stayed out to the debate; this isn't their issue. They were content to let others come to their defense.

But a check back later that evening revealed the original post was gone, taken down by administrators.

The experience is a reminder to NGO communicators of the need to stay on top of social media feeds at all times of the day.

A post may seem innocuous to NGO staff and supporters—who can be against helping people get goats?but can end up attracting all sorts of negative responses in a public forum like Facebook.

It’s also a reminder that not everyone sees the world the way NGOs do. 

To put it another way, sometimes the best of intentions can—bad pun coming—get your goat.

P.S. Another Plan Canada thread about goats appeared in my Facebook feed, and it happened again. See below.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Why International Development Studies Students Should Study Communications & Marketing

Menno Simons College IDS grads

I’ve been asked to create a communications and marketing course for communications majors by a local university.

The goal of the course is to help prepare them for careers in the non-profit sector—to acquire some of the skills they'll need to be successful communicators and marketers.

This would include things like writing appeal and thank-you letters; creating communications and marketing plans; promoting and organizing events; media relations; internal communications; and crisis communications, among other things.

As part of course development, the department chair wanted to know: What other majors could benefit from this course?

It wasn’t hard for me to quickly identify a group: Those enrolled in International Development Studies (IDS).

In my experience, it is rare to meet anyone studying IDS who wants to do anything but actual development on the ground in the developing world. 

Communications and marketing is the last thing on their mind.

But it should be higher up in the list of priorities, in my opinion, for the following reasons.

First, it is rare that someone studying IDS will actually be hired to do development work overseas.

This isn’t because they might not be stellar students. 

Rather, it’s because most NGOs today increasingly require people with specialized education and training in things like agriculture, engineering, agro-ecology, hydrology, nutrition, etc.

In other words, an IDS degree is more like a general BA—after getting it, students need to specialize in something else to be marketable to an NGO.

At the same time, most NGOs today are increasingly hiring local people to do the work.

Everyone knows this is important; it's what good development is all about. But it means fewer opportunities for Canadians.

So if IDS students are going to catch on with an NGO, it is likely in the home office doing things like communications, marketing, fundraising, finance, HR and management—the important behind-the-scenes work that makes the work overseas possible.

And if that’s the case, what better way to prepare than studying things that will make them employable? 

Things like communications and marketing.

Second, if IDS grads do catch on with an NGO overseas, they will need to help the organization tell its stories in order to raise support from the public.

Even just one course in communications and marketing will help IDS students better understand the challenges of communications, marketing and fundraising today so they can help their colleagues achieve their important goals—such as raising enough money to ensure workers in the fields can keep their jobs.

A working knowledge of that area will help them be better co-workers, and ensure greater success for the overall goals of the NGO.

Third, IDS grads could end up working for a small NGO where staff have multiple roles—including communications, marketing and fundraising.

Knowing how to write an appeal letter or press release, solicit media attention, or do effective social media will be an asset—and make them more desirable at job interview time.

Plus, if they should rise to become the executive director of a small NGO, they will find that as much as 50% of their time is spent in communications, fundraising and donor relations—the sector average, these days.

Some grads may even end up working for agencies where they have to raise their own support—in which case knowing how effective storytelling and writing of appeal letters will be critical.

Fourth, at some point they may need to support efforts to secure government funding.

Getting a government grant is the holy grail for many NGOs—such support is critical for their success.

In addition to writing effective funding proposals, successful NGOs also know that visibility and recognition is an important part of government funding—it is usually written into the grant agreement.

Being able to effectively tell the story of how government funding is making a difference through an NGO is key to getting future grants. No publicity can mean no money.

Fifth, it will help them communicate better with the public.

Public support is key to not only fundraising success for individual NGOs, but also for ensuring the government feels it has enough support to continue increasing aid.

If the public doesn’t know what their tax dollars are accomplishing through aid, why should they want Canada to spend their money that way?

There are lots of important needs in Canada that the money could also be used for, as we all know.

The fact is nobody reads 50-page technical reports about project effectiveness (unless they have to because of their job.)

If we want more Canadians to support the aid enterprise, we need to share stories in the ways they are accustomed to receiving them—short, and about people.

Always about people.

Sixth, communications and marketing is a growth area for non-profits of all kinds.

More and more groups realize they need to be better at telling the story of their work, and of the people they serve. 

For too long they have starved their communications, marketing and fundraising departments, choosing to spend most of their funds on program.

But as fundraising challenges increase, they realize they need to spend more on storytelling if they are to have a future.

Someone who knows how to write a press release and appeal letter, do donor relations, attract media attention and fundraise will not lack for employment opportunities, in other words.

To put it another way, if an IDS student wants to be employable; see their organizations succeed; get government funding; and build public support for aid; they should learn how to communicate and do marketing and fundraising.

Then again, I'm a communicator and marketer; what would you expect me to say?

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Fake News and Facebook, or What can we Learn From the Russians During the Cold War?

In the 1980s, during the Cold War, I read an article the state of news coverage in Russia.

Back then, the media in Russia was state-controlled. 

Bad news about the state was suppressed, and negative news about the West was highlighted.

As a result, you might think that Russians were poorly informed about the world.

Of course, many were. But the researchers also found something surprising.

Because they knew their media was state-controlled, many Russians assumed whatever it published or broadcast was slanted or untrue.

This made many of them diligent about seeking out alternative sources of information, like the BBC or underground newspapers.

In this way, they could either confirm or debunk what they were getting from their media.

It was different in the West. Since we had a free press, we assumed everything we read, heard or saw was the truth.

Much of it was. But some of it wasn’t.

Governments and corporations in the West also lied or bent the truth—like about progress in the war in Vietnam, about the march of Communism around the world, the size and danger posed by the Russian military, or the lack of danger from certain kinds of chemicals or pollutants.

Even cigarettes were safe; all those doctors said so. It was in the newspaper! 

By assuming what we got from the media was always true, we let our guards down.

(We didn’t know, back then, that the CIA used to plant negative stories about governments the U.S. disliked in newspapers in other countries, then get them picked up and republished by American newspapers, from where they would travel to other western nations. Voila! Instant credibility.)

It took the diligent work of activists, or whistle-blowers like Daniel Ellsberg releasing the Pentagon Papers, to help us see the truth about various situations.

That old article about the Russians, the media and the Cold War came back to me recently during the huge debate taking place about Facebook.

In an article on the CBC website, reporter Michael Braga wrote about how people are stealing photos of children off Facebook and passing them off as their own.

In addition to all the other fake news, posts, free offers and such on Facebook, it is “a good reminder of how easy it has become online to pass misinformation off as authentic," he wrote.

And because it is so difficult to police or control, it's also a good reminder of "how the onus has largely shifted, unfairly or not, onto users to sort out what's real and what's not.”

In other words, we can be critical of Mark Zuckerberg all we want, but at the end of the day it’s up to us to be smart about what we like and share.

Of course, this is just simple media literacy: Assume what we read on Facebook, or any other media platform, isn’t true until we can be satisfied that it is.

We need to ask: Does it come from a credible source? Can it be corroborated by a second source? Does it sound too good to be true? (Is WestJet really giving away free airline tickets?)

My own worry is that Facebook has become too big and too successful to ever reform itself.

Maybe governments around the world will impose regulations on it. But until then it’s up to every user to screen out the fake from the true.

Maybe those Russians during the Cold War can be our guide. 

P.S. The rise of "deepfakes"—videos that overlay celebrity faces on to porn stars or make Barack Obama say anything you want him to say—make separating true from false harder all the time. It's a scary world out there.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Mennonite Central Committee and the End of Famine Pornography

It’s Christmas, a time for giving—and also a time for Christmas appeals.

Over the next few weeks you will see lots of ads and appeal letters asking you for money, including from aid groups.

While you will see lots of photos of people who need assistance, one thing you won’t see is famine pornography.

Famine pornography—the use of terrible images of dying children, with flies in their eyes and distended bellies, in order to raise funds—was very common in the 1980s and 1990s.

Use of the images was widely criticized by many for the way they promoted a negative stereotype of people in the developing world as always being needy, starving, desperate, and helpless.

But even though academics and some NGOs denounced the practice, famine porn continued to be used on TV, and in print for one simple reason: It worked.

At that time, I was directing communications for Mennonite Central Committee Canada.

Like many other aid agencies, we were upset by the constant use of famine porn, including by some leading Canadian NGOs.

But instead of just joining the chorus and criticizing the practice, we decided on another approach.

We decided to set the bar higher.

In 1992, we created the first Canadian code of conduct for reporting about needs in the developing world.

According to the code, MCC would portray people in the developing world in ways that affirmed their dignity, promoted their skills and abilities, and revealed them as active participants in efforts to improve their lives.

At the same time, we would report honestly about urgent needs, such as for food. But we would not use language or images designed to shock donors into giving money.

We announced the new code of conduct at a press conference on November 25, 1992. It received widespread media attention.

Immediately, the bar was set higher not just for MCC, but for all Canadian NGOs.

The code was a game-changer. For the first time, the media and donors had a yardstick against which to evaluate NGO fundraising appeals.

It would be wildly simplistic for me to suggest MCC's code of conduct was solely responsible for the demise of famine pornography in Canada.

But it played a significant part.

As was reported by Esther Epp-Tiessen in her history of MCC Canada, in 1995 a leading authority in the Canadian humanitarian sector credited the agency with raising the bar for other NGOs.

Of course, it didn’t stop all at once. But over time the use of famine porn lessened.

Today, you would be hard-pressed to find any famine porn in fundraising appeals. And any reputable NGO has a code of conduct to govern how it reports about and uses images of people in the developing world.

I’m not saying images of extreme need should never be used. Sometimes we need a picture of starving children to shock us out of our complacency—as with what’s happening in Yemen, right now.

But they should never be over-used, and they should never be the only kinds of images NGOs share about the developing world.

Today, the big challenge facing the NGO sector is not famine porn, but things like short term mission and service trips and Christmas shoeboxes—both of which are very popular, but are poor ways to address the issue of global poverty.

Maybe it’s time for another NGO to step up with a new kind of code of conduct.

The fall, 2018 issue of MCC's Intersections is dedicated to the issue of how the agency represents relief and development. Find it here.