You may not have noticed it, but there’s a big debate going on amongst international development charities about how to ask you for money.

For years the industry standard has been to tell you about the suffering that goes on in the world and rely on your sympathy (or guilt?) to part way with your cash and inform you about how they’re making a difference. We’ve all seen the sorts of adverts I’m talking about, but here’s an example to jog your memory:

In recent years a movement in the sector, which pushes against this trend and demands that things are done differently, is picking up pace. Their argument goes as follows:

  1. It’s not right or fair to depict people the charity support solely as helpless victims. These are people with real lives who work hard to escape poverty every day. Nobody is waiting around for a saviour.
  2. It’s a strategy with diminishing returns. Over the last few decades, the public have grown tired of seeing the same old images and have either zoned out or, worse, began to believe that money invested is ineffectual.

Of all the good work the international development community does, it’s stunning that on two fronts a communications challenge could be potentially undermining their efforts.

The argument goes that on the one hand, in stripping who they work with of any agency, they are increasing the sense of ‘otherness’ between the west and the rest. On the other, in failing to demonstrate the progress of their work, they are damaging the confidence of their would-be investors.

The solution, some say, is to tell the story of development with a more positive outlook.

So step forward this attempt to break with the industry norm from WaterAid last week:

In this video, WaterAid begin by focussing on the uplifting story of what clean water did for a community before transitioning in the final seconds to another story in the more traditional mould.

A fair compromise, right?

Well, not quite for me. Although it really is great to see them experiment with new content and I look forward to seeing further experiments in the future. I am concerned that, if this video doesn’t meet fundraising expectations, it may be held up as an example of why doing things differently can’t work.

That isn’t fair because I don’t think this video follows the recommendations that advocates of doing things differently have been making. Yes, demonstrating progress is important. But actually that should be just an underlying theme.

According to research by The Narrative Project, admittedly a messaging exercise put together by campaigners not fundraisers, the most important themes of any content looking to foster a more positive outlook are: independence, partnership and shared values.

On all three counts this video falls short. We hear about the “wondrous gift that you can give today”, firmly reinforcing dependency and undermining any sense of partnership. We also fail to hear anything about the people involved at all, except for the fact they like clean water, and so fail to build any sense of shared values either.

Of course this is just one example and I know how difficult it is to strike the balance. I really do commend WaterAid for trying something new and hope to see more. But I’d love to see the sector get even braver with new content. No halfway houses, just dare to test something truly different for a sustained period and see if we really can change the narrative.


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