Sunday, June 11, 2017

Report About Communications, Churches and Missions Released: Tell Me a Story

"The challenge is just information overload and then you go numb."

“It takes energy to be connected to all these things.”

That’s what a respondent to a survey about church and missions told Rick Hiemstra of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada about the challenge of staying up-to-date with all the communication coming from church-related ministries these days.

The respondent went on to compare life today with what it was like before the Internet.

Now, he said, “the circles of concern are increasing and some of these people are just stretched to the limit because there so many issues at all these different levels.”

The response was part of the Canadian Evangelical Missions Engagement Study, sponsored by the EFC and the Canadian Missions Research Forum.

During the study, over 3,400 members of evangelical churches n Canada were polled about their engagement with missions.

In the fourth of a series of five reports from the study, Rick shared results about how people in Canada want to receive communications about missions.

(Another finding of the study was about what has been called the domestification of priorities when it comes to how churches decide what to support—more and more are deciding to keep money at home for important local needs.)

Although the study is about missions, it still provides insights for church-related groups doing relief and development work.

In his report, Rick notes that many respondents “talked about the challenge of managing the volume of communications from missionaries and mission agencies.”

Said one person: “The challenge . . . is just information overload and then you go numb.”

At the same time, many respondents said they wanted information. Yet they “saw a paradox in the demand for information and the common complaint that there was too much information to absorb.”

So what kind of communication do churches and individuals want?

Most commonly, respondents said they expected written communications anywhere from monthly, to twice a year, to annually.

Said one: “I think twice a year is good. If you get too many letters you tend to stop reading them because sometimes they don't have new information and then they all start to sound the same!”

And what do they want to see in the communications? Most said they want two things: Stories of lives changed, and evidence that missionaries have a plan that they are carrying out.

Said one pastor about an agency he thinks is doing a good job of communicating: “They communicate well, a lot of stories . . . but they are also good at saying this is how we are spending our money.”

Said another after noting appreciation for information about what is being done: “At the same time, they’re telling the story where it’s not boring, they’re telling it actually how it’s affected people and what’s going on and what they’ve gained . . . it's not just numbers and facts.”

And how long should communications be? If it is printed and mailed, keep it short.

Said Rick: “Almost all informants said the ideal length for a written report is about two pages and it should be “as basic as possible.”

They went on to say that the “elements they want in a more formal written communication are goals set, goals met, and stories of transformed lives, and they want this in two pages.”

What about social media? Some churches like to be able to have a Skype conversation with a mission worker—it makes it much more personal.

Said one pastor: It's the relationship that's key. Social media is personal and immediate unlike form letters.” Said another: “Skype in the service makes missions extremely personal and much more alive.”

One form of communication that people also appreciate is in-person, which helps authenticate and personalize the need and the person or agency being supported.

Says Rick: “Printed media, on its own, is not sufficient. It needs to be corroborated or authenticated by a person. As quality communications have become easy to produce, people are paralyzed by the volume of information and are looking for ‘real people’ and relationships to help them sort what is important.”

And yet, despite all this, the challenge remains: Even when agencies follow all these guidelines, getting people to pay attention is hard.

As one pastor put it about the lack of pick-up for missions in his church: “I suspect that they are not catching what you are throwing at them because they do not have the resources of time and energy to process it.”

For the complete report, click here.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Canadian International Relief & Development Sector: Ripe for Disruption?

In wake of merger of big cancer charities, what would happen if Canadian NGOs dreamed up a new way to serve the poor?

Earlier this year the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation announced they were merging.

The reason for the merger? Rising fundraising costs and falling donations.

In an interview in the Globe and Mail, Cancer Society chairman Robert Lawrie said  the merger, which is designed to cut costs and promote efficiencies, might be a model for other charities struggling with growing costs and falling donations.

One person who would like to see that happen in Canada’s international relief and development sector is Nicolas Moyer, formerly director of the Humanitarian Coalition.

During his time at the Coalition, which brings together seven Canadian NGOs to collaborate on fundraising efforts during disasters in the developing world, Moyer was a persistent—and often lone—voice promoting increased cooperation in the sector.

Looking at the sector today, with its many competing organizations, he wonders what would happen if the leaders of Canada’s major relief and development NGOs acted like the two cancer charities, setting aside their organizational interests to dream up a new model to serve the poorest and most vulnerable people around the globe.

If they did that, “they would never come up with the system we have today,” Moyer says.

“NGO leaders wouldn’t, in good conscience, choose to set up competing organizations, vying for brand recognition and competing for market share of donor dollars.”

Instead, he says, "they’d find a way to work together, minimize wasteful duplication and maximize our collective impact for the good of the people we want to help.”

One thing that would help spur merger talk would be if the federal government, which provides millions of dollars in grant funding, “stopped feeding sector competition and instead tried to incentivize collaboration.”

The government could, “at little to no cost,” he says, only make grants available to NGOs that work together, providing “dedicated funding streams for joint approaches, or even refuse to consider single-agency programs.”

But even if the government doesn’t force groups to collaborate more, he thinks other forces will compel them to do so.

“The sector is incredibly ripe for disruption,” he states—like what happened through Uber to taxis, AirBnB to hotels, and the Internet to the news media.

Among the disruptions he sees for NGOs include how “developing world governments are getting better at what we do."

And although not every poor country is treating its citizens the way they should, “as more of them attend to the needs of their citizens, what will be the role for foreign NGOs?” he asks.

Then there’s the arrival of groups like Give Directly, which cut out the NGO “broker” and enable Canadians to give directly to poor people in the developing world.

“At some point, an enterprising person or group in the developing world is going to figure that out they no longer need western NGOs to mediate between donors and the poor,” he says. “When that happens, what will our role be?”

And even if the current model isn’t disrupted, there’s the challenge of raising funds to keep all these agencies going.

“Despite all the money that goes into competing NGO fundraising and marketing campaigns, as a whole the sector is not raising more money for relief and development,” he says. 

And even though agencies are spending more to fundraise, “overall giving for relief and development in Canada hasn’t grown,” he adds. “All we are doing is winning or losing market share from each other.”

For Moyer, the big question is: “Can we work together to be more efficient?” He isn’t optimistic.

“While a few NGOs are looking at the big challenges ahead, most in the sector are ignoring the serious structural issues underlying their future,” he says.

NGOs, he states, should be asking themselves: “Where do we want to be 20-30 years from now? If the current way we are operating isn’t sustainable, what would we replace it with? If we worked together more, what could we collectively achieve?”

Disruption is a fact of life today. Is merger an answer? Not everyone will agree with Moyer's view that it is. But at least he is asking important questions.

A version of this post was originally published in the May 10, 2017 Hill Times.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Media and International Disasters, or Don't Hold Your Famine During the Olympics

When it comes to the media, 45 times more Africans have to die than Europeans to get the same kind of coverage.

Children line up for food in South Sudan.

Some black humour from the world of relief and development: “If you are planning a famine, don’t hold it in summer—we’re on vacation then. Also, avoid U.S. election years.”

That old and sad “joke” we used to tell ourselves years ago to explain why some disasters got covered, and others didn't, came back to me as I thought about the lack of attention being paid to the terrible hunger crisis today in parts of Africa and Yemen.

An estimated 20 million people face starvation in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and parts of Kenya and Nigeria—the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945 according to the UN.

And yet, although the world has known about the situation for months, there has been hardly any news about it in the media.

Sure, there’s been a bit of coverage here and there—the CBC did a fine job in early May. But in general, there has been mostly silence in newspapers, radio or TV.

Why is this the case? I can think of a number of reasons.

First, it’s hard for journalists to get into the most-devastated areas—even NGOs have trouble getting food to those who need it most.

Second, media outlets also have fewer resources and staff to cover stories. Even if they wanted to cover it, it would be hard to find the funds.

Third, it’s hard to tell the story of a famine, which takes months to develop. Unlike a hurricane or earthquake, there are no great pictures to show as the tragedy slowly unfolds.

Fourth there’s the Trump effect; the new President, and his unpredictable ways, has sucked up much of the media oxygen. Throw in all the other news competing for attention, and time for the famine can be hard to find.

Finally, there’s the general fatigue everyone feels over the extended Syria crisis. We hardly have space in our hearts for another disaster. And the media isn’t stupid; they can count the clicks on their websites. They know what people are reading—or not.

What disasters get covered by the media and which don’t was the subject of a 2007 study of major U.S. TV network news by Thomas Eisensee and David Stromberg.

Titled News, Droughts, Floods, and U.S. Disaster Relief,” and published in the May, 2007 issue Quarterly Journal of Economics, the study looked at 5,000 natural disasters between 1968 and 2002 that affected 125 million people—and how they were covered by ABC, CBC, NBC and CNN.

The study found that coverage was affected by whether the disaster occurs at the same time as other newsworthy events, such as the Olympic Games, along with where it happened and how many people died.

(This certainly was true during the 2012 Sahel food crisis, which took place at the same time as the London Olympics; the media dedicated most of its reporters to the games, and the events took up most of the space and time.)

The authors found that while the media cover around 30 percent of the earthquakes and volcanic disasters, less than five percent of droughts and food shortages are covered—despite many more people dying due to droughts and food shortages.

They even came up with a numerical comparison: For every one or two people who dies in an earthquake or volcano, 32,920 people must die of food shortage to receive the same media coverage.

The study also revealed geographical bias, showing that it 45 times more Africans have to die in a disaster than Europeans to get the same kind of media coverage.

(These findings echo the old 1960s “Racial Equivalence Scale” created by American reporters to show the minimum number of people who had to die in plane crashes in different countries, compared to the U.S., before there was coverage. According to the scale, “one hundred Czechs were equal to 43 Frenchmen, and the Paraguayans were at the bottom.”)

While media coverage of disasters in the developing world is sporadic, one thing it can do is spur government action: “We conclude that media coverage induces extra U.S. relief to victims in Europe and on the American continent, at the expense of victims elsewhere,” the authors state.

This makes the role of the media doubly important; depending on what they choose to focus on, people may live or die as governments respond by providing aid.

But what does this mean for today, when the media is greatly diminished by falling circulation and fewer viewers and listeners?

Unlike during the period of the study, the media has less impact. It may reach fewer of the public, but the government still pays attention.

If elected officials see something in the news often enough, they will conclude that their constituents also care about it—otherwise, why so much coverage? 

Media reports can then spur the government to action, by doing things like offering to match donations by Canadians who want to respond to the disaster.

At a time when the media is trying to convince people about its importance, helping to save the lives of millions of people dying of hunger is a pretty good case to make.

For more on this topic, and the role media consumers play in the amount of media coverage we get, see When it Comes to Media Coverage of Drowned Refugees or Dead Gorillas, We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

For the Media the Future is Digital, Internal Memos Show

Internal memos from two major North American media outlets have put a spotlight on how journalists are viewing the future.

The first, from the Boston Globe, shows how newspapers are trying to leave the world of print behind.

In the memo, editor Brian McGrory tells staff that it is time for the Globe to “once and for all break the stubborn rhythms of a print operation, allowing us to unabashedly pursue digital subscriptions.”

As reported by Joseph Lichterman for Nieman Lab,
McGrory goes on to say that the Globe needs to publish stories earlier in the day, restructure beats, create new audience engagement no longer see print as the dominant driver of workflows.

“None of the changes detailed here will come as any surprise, though in total, they represent significant change,” McGrory wrote.

The Globe is not alone; over the past two years, newspapers such as The Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune have all enacted similar initiatives.

The other major media outlet to share its vision of the future in a memo to staff was the CBC in Canada.

Although the CBC is not beholden to print timelines, it has been bound to the idea of supper hour and 10 p.m. newscasts in the past.

No more. In a memo to staff, General Manager and Editor in Chief Jennifer McGuire wrote that, in the future, the CBC will be driven by digital.

Digital news, she said, “needs to be a part of everything we do, not a stand-alone pillar of our news service.”

To make this possible, the CBC needs to make sure that all its journalists have more opportunities to be connected to its digital news operations.

The CBC also needs to “redirect resources to create more original and investigative journalism and to better serve audiences on emerging platforms” and The National, its flagship news program, needs to “inextricably linked to the reinvention of our news service. “
One of the key figures in the changes is Brodie Fenlon, senior director of digital at the CBC. I posted about his vision for the future earlier on my blog.
For both media outlets, the story is still the most important thing, regardless of what platform it is on. And they want to honour those who still value print and traditional TV viewing.
But increasingly, the most important platform is digital. 
At one time, the way we interacted with the media was through appointment journalism.” That is, we got the news when the media was ready to deliver it.

Those days are gone. They have been completely disrupted and disintermediated by the Internet and the Smartphone.

The media has also been impacted by unbundling. For newspapers and magazines, the only economical way to share news in the past was to package it into daily, weekly or monthly issues.

But people don’t want to wait until the media have enough articles so it makes financial sense to release it; they want it now.

Or, as someone put it, don’t wait until tomorrow to tell me what happened yesterday.

Today we want the news when we want it; we won’t wait until the media says it is ready.

For the media, breaking away from these rhythms is hard. If you spent your career working towards deadlines like the afternoon paper or the supper hour news, these changes are tough.

But media consumers won’t have it any other way. For the media, it is adapt or die.

As McGory of the Globe put it, the goal is to be “more nimble, more innovative, and more inclined to take worthwhile risk” in order to be a leader in sharing news.

Or just to stay alive.

Doing good is hard work. So is paying for it.

Siloam Mission, a Winnipeg charity that serves homeless people, has come in for criticism recently by a Winnipeg Free Press columnist who says it is spending too much to raise funds. He followed with another column charging they send out too many appeal letters. Tired of seeing this important non-profit take it on the chin, I decided to respond with an op-ed in the Free Press about the realities facing charities today when it comes to fundraising.

Siloam Mission—and other charities—have come in for some criticism lately over fundraising practices.

In particular, questions have been raised about the number of direct mail letters being sent by various groups, and about the amount of money spent to raise funds.

While no organization wants to spend money it does not need to spend, what’s true for business is also true for charities—you have to spend money to make money.

That has been true for decades. What’s different today is that charities need to spend more than they used to in order to keep providing their services.

When I started in the non-profit sector in the 1980s, things were different, and simpler.

Back then, it was much easier to reach potential donors. If you could get news about your appeal into newspapers, radio and TV, you pretty much covered almost everyone you wanted to reach.

Things are very different today. Newspaper circulation is declining, as are the number of people tuning into radio or TV news.

Today, we live in a noisy and fractured world of communications. Not only are people bombarded with messages from many different sources, they also have many more options for getting information—primarily through social media.

Breaking through this clutter is difficult, and expensive. It requires focus and repetition. And even then you may only be reaching a fraction of the audience, compared to ten or 20 years ago.

Then there’s the matter of donor loyalty. In the not-to-distant past, charities could count on donors selecting a charity for life, then making regular donations.

Today, for many people donor loyalty is mostly a thing of the past—especially for younger people. Often, the only way to get a donation is to send one, two or more direct mail letters, in the hopes of getting a cheque in return.

Speaking of cheques, if you are under the age of 30, you probably don’t write many of those. Most transactions today are now by credit or debit cards, and much of that is online. 

One of the fastest-growing expenses for charities is the service charges from credit card companies and businesses that provide encryption services.

And what about all those direct mail letters? Studies show that direct mail continues to be one of the best ways to raise funds. It is certainly better than e-mail or social media, which has not yet shown itself to be a good way to appeal to donors.  

Finally, about those charity rankings; is that the best way to rate a charity? Many in the non-profit sector are uncomfortable with them. This includes people like Bruce MacDonald, President and CEO of Imagine Canada, an umbrella group for Canadian charities.

The rankings, he told me, measure the wrong thing. They are “skewed to having a heavy emphasis on the cost side of business,” he said, adding they “perpetuate the belief that ensuring adequate resources to deliver quality programs is a bad thing.”

What MacDonald objects to is how the highest rankings are given to groups that spend the least on things like staff salaries, administration, communications and fundraising. The ones that need to spend more to deliver their programs end up with lower scores.

What MacDonald would rather see measured is impact—what effect the charity has on the lives of people it is trying to help. If it costs more to help someone beat an addiction, escape homelessness or overcome poverty, that should be seen as money well spent.

“If you want real impact, you need to have real investment,” he stated.

This was a point forcefully made by Dan Pallotta in his much-viewed 2013 Ted Talk titled “The way we talk about charities is dead wrong.” In it, he called out “the double standard that drives our broken relationship to charities.”

Too many nonprofits, he said, “are rewarded for how little they spend, not for what they get done.” Instead of equating frugality with morality, he suggests donors “start rewarding charities for their big goals and big accomplishments, even if that comes with big expenses.”

The non-profit sector today is experiencing dramatic challenges. Needs in Canada and around the world are rising.  At the same time, the pool of the most faithful and generous givers—older people—is literally dying. 

Coupled with a decline in attendance at worship services (religious people are another major source of funds for charities), non-profits are struggling to raise the funds they need for their important services.

Doing good is hard work. So is paying for it. And it’s getting tougher every day.

From the April 21, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Manitoba Opera Uses Performance Featuring Suicide to Connect with Community

Arts groups can’t just keep operating “in the traditional way.” 

It used to be that if you were going to put on a show, you just put on a show.

No need to worry about community concerns, critiques or trigger warnings.

No more, as Manitoba Opera has discovered.

This spring, the Opera is performing Werther, an opera that romanticizes suicide.

In a province like Manitoba, where someone kills themselves every other day on average, and where some northern Indigneous communities have experienced suicide epidemics, putting on a show that inspired copycat suicides can be a real challenge.

So, what’s an opera company to do?

In the case of Manitoba Opera, you use it as an educational opportunity.

Werther, the opera they are performing, is the 18th century story of a young poet who falls in love with a beautiful woman who is engaged to another man.

Unable to have a relationship with her, and to give her up, he finds peace by taking his own life.

The story, first published as a novel by Goethe in 1774, was turned into an opera by Jules Massenet in 1887. The publication of the story reportedly led to the so-called “Werther effect”—copy-cat suicides.

With this in mind, Manitoba Opera decided to team up with Mood Disorders of Manitoba to promote discussion about the issue of suicide at a panel discussion in April.

“We want to use opera as an art form to have a conversation about issues of concern in the community,” says director of marketing Darlene Ronald.

In addition to the panel discussion, students attending dress rehearsals will hear a presentation from Mood Disorders about healthy perspectives on love and relationships, and there will be two pages in program about suicide prepared by the organization.

For Ronald, providing educational events like the panel discussion is a way for Manitoba Opera to engage the community.

“We want to be part of the lives of people in the community, and find ways to connect more strongly with people,” she says.

Of course, she also hopes that some who attend the panel discussion—who may never been to the opera before—might also come to hear a performance.

But even if they don’t, “we hope they will still be touched by it, and what we are trying to do,” she says.

Offering events like this is also a recognition that arts groups can’t just keep operating “in the traditional way,” Ronald says.

“The arts are changing, and also how people view them,” she adds, noting that arts groups need to find new ways to connect with audiences.

This isn’t the first time Manitoba Opera has reached out in this way. Last year, for the production Of Mice and Men, which features an intellectually disabled character, the Opera teamed up with groups that work with people with intellectual disabilities.

In 2014, when the Opera performed Fidelio—the story of a woman seeking to free her husband, a political prisoner, from jail—they used the production to celebrate the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and also to highlight the plight of political prisoners around the world.

Refugees from other countries living in Manitoba were invited to be involved as extras in the performance.

The two productions were “a great experience for us, and for our patrons, a great way to talk about these issues and the things we have in common,” Ronald says.

Their efforts have been noticed by others, such as Opera America, the association for almost 150 opera companies in North America, and by OperaAnchorage, which used Manitoba Opera’s model to honour veterans.

“It was great to see something we did recognized in this way, and rippling through to others,” says Ronald.

While glad to offer these extras, she says that it isn’t easy—Manitoba Opera’s staff is small, and resources are tight.

“But it’s important to do,” she shares. “We hope we can add to the conversation in the community. That’s our aim.”

I think Manitoba Opera is on to something. At a time when money is tight, audience numbers are declining, and many are questioning the value of the arts, arts organizations need to find new ways to connect to their communities.

This includes linking what they do to the issues and concerns of the communities they live in—and that they ask for support, both in terms of attendance and taxpayer dollars.

Will it work? Will gestures like this turn around the fortunes of groups like opera companies? It’s hard to know.

One thing is for sure, though. At a time when it is hard to get any attention, putting on programs like Manitoba Opera did on suicide can generate additional publicity, including outside of the arts section (as happened for Manitoba Opera in the Winnipeg Free Press city section).

And if it makes someone feel more warmly towards Manitoba Opera—even if they never attend a performancethat’s not such a bad thing, either.