The way most NGOs speak about the topic a “foreign language” to most people
“The public needs the bigger picture for aid to survive.”
That was the headline for an article on the website of Bond, an organization in Great Britain that works on behalf of international NGOs.
Written in June after that country’s general election, author Melissa Paramasivan said that British NGOs “should consider themselves lucky that their budget battleground wasn’t bloodier.”
Despite concerns that aid might be cut, “most parties pledged to keep the UK’s commitment 0.7% of GDP to aid,” she wrote.
But that doesn’t mean NGOs can rest, she added; aid has become a target for politicians, the media and those who call for more money to be spent at home—where an estimated 1.1 million Britons use food banks.
If NGOs want to preserve aid funding, then they need to help the public understand what the money is spent on—they need to do better communications, Paramasivan stated.
Unlike health, education or transport, “aid is not a service that you see or experience every day in the UK,” she wrote.
“This means communicators should be working even harder to tell us what the budget is being used for and how it relates to the wider work of the government, and the world.”
NGO communicators need to do the same thing as any other marketer: “Convince people that what you’re selling is worth parting money for.”
Currently, she went on, NGOs are doing a very poor job at that.
NGO communications tends to consist of “quarterly reports, riddled with jargon, written for a target audience already working in the sector, generally indigestible to the general public.”
It needs to change, she added, “otherwise the funding will.”
One way to do this is social media. But many NGOs aim their social media messages at specialists, not the generalists—the public, the people the politicians listen to.
“To borrow from business, aid used to be a Business to Business (B2B) model,” she wrote, noting how aid groups used to think all they needed to do was get money from the government and then report to them how they spent it.
But now, she said, “it’s a Business to Consumer model (B2C) driven by the growth of digital and social media. The public has an ever-increasing influence on how money is spent, especially when aid is brought into election campaigns.”
Now aid groups need to not just report back to government how they spent their money, but also to the public who makes that expenditure possible, she says.
So, what’s the solution for those who fear aid cuts? “Cut the jargon and stop underestimating people,” Paramasivan says.
International Development is a complex concept, she acknowledges. But the way most NGOs talk about it, “it’s a foreign language” for most people—and it doesn’t help that most of the discussion takes place in lecture halls and insider meetings, conferences and roundtables.
Communicators, she says, “need to share stories in easy-to-find arenas and with accessible messaging.”
She is quick to note that she isn’t advocating dumbing things down; “people understand a lot more than you think,” she stataes. “They just need to see where it fits into the bigger picture.”
Her suggestions for breaking “the cycle of introverted communications? Get practical. Invest in communications; it’s as important as monitoring and evaluation.”
“Strip back the jargon when pitching to journalists. There is every chance your story fits the global news agenda, don’t package it as ‘development news.’”
“Think about it as a conversation in the pub—you are telling an interesting topical story to a general audience. Leave the jargon for conferences.”
Use Facebook live, hackathons, twitter chat; “there are more and more ways to reach people than press releases.”
And don’t be surprised when your case study gets three likes, she says. Groups need to ask: Why should anyone read this story? How are we leading people to it? What’s their experience when they get there?
Sounds like good advice to me.
For more on this, see my post “When it Comes to International Development, Are We Nuts?” about the one question that NGOs may need to answer above all others.