Let’s trade in these old stories

Roll the tape from my childhood TV screen: image of a 4 year old Ethiopian girl, ribs visible, distended belly, flies on her face, and a voice over, “For just 50 cents a day, you can feed this child.”

This story is  emotional, concrete, personal…and effective.  It accomplished its goal (getting people to donate).  But the aid did not get to the root of Ethiopia’s problems.   And the image of the poor, suffering, African child who needs to be saved is tremendously destructive.

This story, and its many cousins (the emotional appeal, focused on pity) were in vogue in the 1980s, and they got people to dig into their pockets to donate to international charities.  They also did a lot of harm.  They dehumanized people, creating an us/them mentality.  They fed on and into a  power imbalance.  They created distance rather than connection.   All of this in the service of getting someone to do something good.

The good news is that this storyline is mostly dead.  But there’s a newer version of this story that’s still pervasive, and it’s more subtle.  It’s the “here is what you’re buying with your money” story.  “For $10 you can buy a bednet that will save a life.”  “For $120 you can buy a goat that will feed a family.”  “For $5,000 you can dig a well that will provide safe drinking water.”

Here’s what worries me.  It is true that you can buy and deliver one bednet, one goat, or dig one well for $10, $120, or $5,000.  And as a donor you absolutely want to know that your money is being used well, and a concrete connection reinforces that feeling.

But just because the one story is true doesn’t mean it remains true when you play the same reel 1,000 times.  When you want to dig thousands of wells or provide livestock to millions of families, don’t things get a whole lot more complicated?  And, by the way, who came up with the technology to create that mosquito net?  Who is funding innovation to create the next, better solution?

We need better stories, ones that recognize that we are all interconnected.  Ones that put dignity and creativity and innovation at the center.  And ones that give space to create complex solutions to complex problems – while still giving people a sense that they are part of the solution.

I think part of the answer comes in replacing the somewhat misleading concreteness with membership and inclusion.  Your $15 is helping solve this problem.  And better yet, here are a bunch of other people who are also interested in being part of this same solution.

Let’s share our stories, why we care, what we hope to see accomplished, and what else we are doing to make the world a better place.

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9 thoughts on “Let’s trade in these old stories

  1. Are there non-profits that use donated money to earn profits and then use all the profit for charitable purposes? This way the donations are never exhausted and continue to generate funds in the future? New donations just increase the principle and, hopefully, the earned income which is then commited to charitable purposes. As you can see, I know little about this subject. Get me started.

  2. Walter, the short answer is ‘yes,’ though I assume a full answer would give you examples of such nonprofits. Nonprofits that have earned income are quite common, whether hospitals, the local Y, etc. At the same time, there are certain activities that nonprofits undertake that, by definition, do not cover their costs. Some nonprofits have done very creative things to leverage their core competencies to create a sustainable revenue stream. My impression, though, is that it is a rare nonprofit that gets to a point where it no longer needs donations.

  3. Sasha, nice post. I agree that the “Interconnectedness” story is a big one. It’s taken about 10 years to take hold. I think Friedman’s book the World is Flat really broadened the idea to more people and made it commonplace. Now, both companies and nonprofits are telling this story more and more.

    I see leverage in using it, because now that it’s become a worldview that people subscribe to and expect, it’s easier to tell and create consumer/investor conversion.

    Like you, I remember the infomercials of poverty stricken village children with a crusading British guy saying: “Just send $10/month and you can make a difference in this child’s life.” Very effective in raising money. Also effective in creating the unacceptable us/them story.

    I’d be watchful of walking away from the $10 buys a bednet and saves a life story. The data suggests that people understand that story and it creates a very clear call to action for the consumer/donor.

    P&G for example has found it to be really effective with it’s Pampers/UNICEF campaign. 1 pack of diapers = 1 tetanus vaccine. So far P&G and Unicef have deployed 11 million vaccines (the goals is 30 million.)

    TV spot: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYfJfx220lo

    I’m not disagreeing that the interconnectedness story isn’t a big idea. I think it is. But, concreteness is part of the bedrock of good storytelling. It’s one of the pillars the Heath brothers book Made to Stick.


    Until data indicates that people will act without dimensionalizing what their donation means, I’d keep quantifying it. It works.


  4. Eliott, agree on the importance of concreteness, and love Made to Stick. But I’m also pretty sure that “X will buy you Y” will not tackle the big problems the world is facing. So either we just say, “the retail donor will only fund a subset of solutions that can easily be translated” or we push our own thinking. Kiva has created concreteness in another way, by creating a platform that allowed for a direct connection that wasn’t there before. What are other innovative ways to crack this problem?

  5. Sasha,

    Aha! I think I understand you. I think you are saying: “Acumen Fund works on projects that scale, so it’s tough to make the linear ‘X gets you Y’ statement because the funding to benefit is more complicated. However, projects that scale are the projects that are going to have the biggest long term impact on empowering people to improve their earning power so potential investors and tribe members need to understand that and get behind it.”

    For example, Acumen Fund invests money in a company that enables drip irrigation for small scale farmers. The capital that enables that business creates tremendous positive social change, and potential longer term financial returns. However, the mechanism in place is: invest capital –> develop and produce product –> sell product –> social benefit through improved earning power over time by increasingly productive crop yields. Well that’s definitely a bit more nebulous and less linear. Not the easiest story to expect people to understand right away.

    Is this what you are saying? If so, I think you guys are doing a pretty good job telling it. Having Jacqueline storm North America on a book tour and do countless interviews with people like Charlie Rose and McKinsey is a pretty good start. I think your website and blog and twitter accounts are doing a pretty solid job of getting that point out and finding people who “get it.”

    From my vantage point there is a growing community of people who are really passionate and committed to global social change and poverty alleviation. I see is accelerating–especially on college campuses over the last 3 years. In my view, Acumen Fund’s value proposition: “We believe in human dignity. And, we believe in enabling businesses that enable the poor to improve their quality of life. So, we take huge positions in select, vetted investments for huge social change” compelling.

    It’s a more complex story. But, I think you have the right approach. Keep hammering the story home. Keep sending Jacqueline out on book missions. Keep the blog and twitter posts coming. Continue with the campus outreach work you already began. As you bring more people into your tribe and provide ways for them to contribute to the mission I think you’ll continue to bring on more highly committed evangelists. At least from my perspective, it seems like the boat is pointed in the right direction. Keep up the good work!

  6. Perhaps what people love about Kiva is that they know where their money is going. There is an amount that is needed, and donors know exactly who they are helping and how. They know how much money needs to be raised in order to effectively help someone. They can see their contribution and its impact. It is a group effort that is acknowledged and achieved.

    Perhaps charities can breakdown their gift-giving in this way by setting up multiple donation pages on their own websites. For example, an animal shelter could have separate pages for donating to:
    1- new, larger and improved kennels for the dogs
    2- the medical bills for a German Shepherd that was hit by a car last night
    3- free spaying and neutering program for pets of low income families

    Membership and forums could be added to make this a joint effort and create a sense of community between the shelter and the donors. It would also make it easier for donors to help spread the word and bring in more donations.

    Are any charities currently doing this?

  7. It is satisfying to feel as a donor that you are contributing to a specific purpose. I personally delighted in a local animal shelter that gave naming rights to cats in exchange for a donation of a certain amount. But I think there is some danger in this becoming a trend.

    1. Restricted funds need to be accounted for properly and this can be complicated, especially for smaller npos without a real bookkeeper and/or accountant

    2. The motivations that lie behind making a donation should be rooted in belief in the organization’s mission to address the issue and not on a case by case basis (with the exception of universities / endowments).

    3. Going back to the accounting issue, what happens when support for a specific case (the German shepherd in Melissa’s example above) exceeds the need? Is it not unethical for a charity to use the money for a different purpose, even if still within the mission of the charity?

    Again, I like it in principle and it’s certainly cute, but not as the regular course of business. I would like donors to support the decisions the charity makes as charities ideally prioritize their expenses according to the various pressures inherent to the mission.

  8. Nomsa is working hard to retell the story of homelessness. It’s hard to resist the urge to put emotional and sensational pieces in our marketing, especially when we see other npos raising more money using this tactics.

    We see how damaging this can be to our friends without homes and our heart is build community, to bring back the humanity and restore the passion of those we work with.

    Thanks for sharing this insight into such a great need for change within the nonprofit community. Such a great discussion has development.

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