Development, the Public, and Complex Messaging

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In one of my most widely-read (and quoted - even by the New York Times!) blog posts back in 2011, I commented on the price of admitting failure for NGOs and aid organizations. That year, transparency and admitting failure, ostensibly to "innovate and learn from our mistakes," was all the rage in the aid and development blog-o-sphere, and it sparked a great conversation about how aid organizations market and evaluate their programs. In a nutshell, their tendency is to blow the trumpet on successful projects and sweep the failures under the rug in an effort to keep public support - and donor money - flowing. The "pro-failure" movement argued that this keeps the sector from innovating and learning from its mistakes, thus dooming us eternally to repeat them.

Perhaps because I am one of the few (relatively) conservatives in this field, or maybe just a cynic, I don't particularly mind expressing opinions that go against the grain (probably because I am not yet getting paid to express them), so in this case I took to my keyboard to point out the obvious - that NGOs' fears of being open about their failures were well-founded because they inevitably did result in withdrawal of donations and financial support from large-scale donors who didn't want to look like chumps in the court of public opinion. The media circus surrounding the (misrepresentation of) published results of the Global Fund's audit in 2010. The Fund, in an attempt to be transparent and accountable, posted a report about the fraud it discovered in a handful of its grants and was promptly rewarded with a massive withdrawal of donor support.

As I mentioned in that post, I do believe that failure has value when shared among industry professionals, but sharing it with the public will only bring bad publicity. Now it seems that the aid and development blog WhyDev agrees with me:
Research shows that when we read web pages, we actually don’t. In fact, we typically read 28% of the text that is on a web page. Similarly, only 12% of readers read all the way to the bottom of a page. (I’ll be accessing NSA records to check if you make it all the way down in a few minutes).

Knowing this, people who work in communications for non-profits boil down the complexities of the program so that it hardly represents the actual work done. Then they stick it in the slow cooker for another 12 hours until it is reduced even further.

In the push and pull of what needs to be done versus what people consume, clever communications folk know that they have to cater to the amount of effort that people are willing to give.
The post, "5 reasons why effective marketing and good development work are incompatible," eloquently sums up my stance on the issue - that most people simply don't care, and when they do, they want it in simple terms. The public doesn't have patience for nuance, so marketing departments do what works. Case in point: Failfare DC, an aid industry conference to "celebrate failure," only happened in 2011 and 2012, and the last anecdote submitted to Engineers Without Borders Canada website Admitting Failure was at the beginning of last year. WhyDev has promised to post a rebuttal of their piece in a few days, but I still don't see the trend catching on.

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