The man in the street donor

Caveman Tom reckons I was too kind on donors with my recent post on how many NGOs we might need.

To be clear for a moment, normally when I talk about ‘donors’ on this blog I am referring to the big institutions (government aid departments, UN agencies, philanthropic trusts, and the like) who recruit professional staff to help them determine how they should spend their money. But in this case actually I was more talking about the man in the street, Joe Public if you will, who is persuaded to stick his hand in his pocket for some apparently worthy cause, usually based upon some NGO’s publicity. Almost without exception this literature grossly simplifies the actual problems that the NGOs are trying to address to convert it into the only message that arguably matters at that point: by getting out his wallet or chequebook the man in the street is making a difference. Even if it’s a small difference, is the implication, if enough men in the street do it then they’ll make a big difference.

Tom says of these donors’ ignorance:

“No, it is not their fault, but they need to start asking more questions and received better education.”

To which I say: carry on dreaming! There are so many issues out there in the world that we are called upon to adjudicate, that is frankly not possible to come close to a decent understanding on more than just a few. Just think about all those ethical product labels one encounters in an average shopping trip: e.g. fair trade bananas or organic bananas? I’d take the fair trade ones any day, but there’s a whole tonne of issues to unpack in making just that one decision.

If many people vote in elections (if they vote at all!) simply for the party that their parents voted for (with little further analysis) what hope can we have that they will want to read up on effective means to alleviate poverty? All these NGOs marketing departments might be immensely frustrating to field staff (ref any one of J from the ‘Hood’s rants), but the guys working for them aren’t stupid; they know that a simple picture of a starving child works far better than a bucketful of prose on the developmental tensions between settled crop cultivators and semi-nomadic pastoralists.

So yes, while it infuriates me no end that big institutional donors continue to make the same basic mistakes time after time, I am rather more phlegmatic over the man in the street donor. If we want to influence their giving then, it seems to me, then we have to make it as simple as possible to differentiate between the quality of NGO’s work. Sam Gardner’s suggestion that the Sphere standards could form the basis for such a ranking in the humanitarian aid sector is thus particularly intriguing.

If we could truly all agree on such a rigorous method for comparing the achievements of different NGOs (with a cost-benefit ratio factored in), and then widely publicise that as a basis for making funding decisions, then that would be fantastic. But is it really in the interests of BINGOs who already have very successful fundraising campaigns? One can be optimistic, and appeal to the idealism of most NGO staff, and suggest that they should commit their NGOs to this now, but what will happen when the first big NGO gets a significantly sub-par score? Suddenly the excuses about the complexity of development will rain down thicker than ever.

Joe Public is often quite happy to be sold stuff that s/he knows is bad for her/him, e.g. a Big Mac, on the basis that it might taste good and any way all their peers are eating them. So I think one faces an insuperable task in attempting to persuade them that their do-gooding donation might actually do some harm. I would keep up the campaign against SWEDOW – as it has a simple message – but apart from that I wouldn’t get our hopes up too high. Sometimes we just have to accept things as they are. Institutional donors, on the other hand, deserve all the excoriation they get and more.

ps. That I previously suggested that appealing to the voter in achieving the necessary reforms to bilateral donors is another one of the contradictions in which we live.


4 responses to this post.

  1. “it seems to me, then we have to make it as simple as possible to differentiate between the quality of NGO’s work” Well said and I entirely agree. It sounds like we are both largely on the same page, just went about saying it in different ways.

    I appreciate the follow up post.



  2. […] pathological need to dish out money in response to every problem they see. It’s bad enough, but understandable, when amateur Aid DIYers feel the need to just “do something”, but professional aid agencies […]


  3. I wish I read your blog before, MJ! Excellent post and it’s nice to know that your thinking aligns very much with mine. Again, absolutely agree with you on that “Institutional donors deserve all the excoriation they get and more.” I mean, it’s their job to pick the best NGOs, and surely institutional donors should know that best NGOs are defined by the effectiveness of their programs, not of their PR campaigns, right?
    About individual donors, I agree with Tom that “it’s not their fault”, but I agree with you about “keep dreaming”. I doubt that donors themselves will start asking the right questions. We have to teach them how to ask the right questions. That is why I greatly admire the work of Jennifer from How Matters and Sandra from @Good_Intents.
    Writing my post and reading your words here “if we want to influence their giving then, it seems to me, then we have to make it as simple as possible to differentiate between the quality of NGO’s work” made me think about the social business system proposed by Muhammad Yunus. Particularly, the “social business stock exchange” where stocks would directly depend on social performance and results produced by social businesses. I feel that nonprofits’ dependance on grants, lack of strict business-like regulations, and their “altruistic” status (it’s better to do something than nothing, right?) make them somehow less accountable. As far as I know, social performance rating is much more used in social business and microfinance, but not among generalist NGOs. Am I right? If yes, why can’t social performance rating (its customizable version for generalists or a totally new system) be used by all NGOs?



    • Interesting suggestion, Liza. I haven’t come across these social performance metrics before. Can you point me at a link or two? I assume they are as flawed as any simple attempt to measure development success, but any start in this direction has to be a good one. Maybe, as you suggest, because social enterprises have to work harder to prove they are doing good, this is an area where they have developed a lead over NGOs. The nimble start-ups take on the established players, and – lo and behold – turn out to be better!


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