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Raising the Level

Oh, Michele Bachmann. How could my friends and I resist talking about the latest American history falsehood that came out of your mouth the other day? Much to my chagrin, one of my brilliant friends pointed out that Bachmann and others’ incorrect statements are exactly why many Americans relate to the Republican Party. Republicans don’t talk down to their audience, as those liberal-elites tend to do. They speak to average Americans like one of their own friends – friends who probably do occasionally get the story of Paul Revere backwards.

Call me crazy, but somehow this got me thinking about the stories NGOs tell about themselves and their work, in particular the recent discussion around Global Soap.

Uganda native Derreck Kayongo, the son of a soap maker, founded Global Soap, which sanitizes and reprocesses used hotel soap bars and sends them to impoverished nations with soap shortages.

 After reading CNN’s Hero coverage of Kayongo and Global Soap, PDT bossman Scott Gilmore penned an open letter to Kayongo, the gist of which was that by giving out free soap, the organization is undercutting local businesses that produce their own soap. He suggested that a more effective business model is to sell the reprocessed soap in the US, and use the revenues to buy soap from a local producer.

Scott’s letter received a lot of responses, including one from blogger Liora Hess. Her argument was that Global Soap’s story is more compelling than it would be if they followed Scott’s advice: “Sometimes getting our hands dirty…with a simple, if less efficient, process is more compelling and wider reaching than a distanced, if more efficient, process.” She makes a valid point, albeit one that breaks my heart a little.

Perhaps I’ve been immersing myself in the #smartaid Twitter crowd too much, but should the story of a founder or an organization matter as much as that organization’s impact?

If the answer were yes, then I would argue that this line of thinking is one of the biggest problems of aid and charity, for several (fairly well-known) reasons:


  • These types of stories give the impression that the solutions to poverty and development are as simple as buying a shoe or sending soap. As blogger Tales from the Hood argues, these aid projects can help (many also make things worse) but they aren’t going to solve the underlying problems of poverty and disease nor lead to development.
  • In order to show a clear story that illustrates obvious need to the public and donors, NGOs rely on “portraits of despair” of their recipients. You know, the ones of African babies with bloated bellies and flies in their eyes, otherwise known as poverty porn. These images characterize aid recipients as helpless and incapable and contribute to the paternalism of Western aid by allowing us to consider the recipients as lesser than equals. Would you want you and your family pictured that way?
  • Oversimplifying the story often results in bad development policies, leading government officials to support solutions that are easy to package but often not effective.
  • Emphasizing the story leads to consumerism charities, such as TOMS and Project RED because the reasons for supporting a cause shift away from the impact of an organization to the emotional appeal of a trendy brand.
  • And let us not forget Greg Mortenson. When we fall in love with a founder or an organization primarily for their presentation, we forget to think critically about the organization or project. We’re blinded by the story.

Greg Mortenson

Despite all these negatives, I don’t wholeheartedly believe that the general public has to have a juicy story to feel compelled to donate. Can we only comprehend black-and-white stories that are neatly gift-wrapped for our consumption? Is the general public – myself included – seriously incapable of thinking about complex problems and solutions?

To this I give a resounding no! But now it’s up to us.

The aid organizations and the celebrities aren’t going to be the ones who change their marketing. After all, it’s working. We, the consumers and donators, can change this, and I’m making a heartfelt plea for us to do so.

Resist the appeal of the story. Say no to George Clooney’s oversimplification of the Sudan conflict. Stop yourself before you buy that RED Starbucks mug. Donate to organizations whose cause and impact you’ve spent time researching and whose Web site gave you all the information you needed to know to make a well-informed decision. Send money to those organizations whose photos depict Africans working, smiling and living dignified lives, not exploitative photos of them suffering and crying. Tell your friends to do the same. Give feedback to organizations on their promotional strategies – good and bad, so they realize why you are making these decisions. The story sells, but it doesn’t work. Let’s show the aid community that we aren’t fools.

Bauleni Banda, Chikandwe Village, Malawi – two ways to tell a story (photo credit Duncan McNicholl)

Photo credit: Perspectives of Poverty project by Duncan McNicholl.

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  1. Jacob Patterson-Stein says:

    Great post. I agree with most of what your wrote. I think your conclusion that people should, “Resist the appeal of the story.[…]Donate to organizations whose cause and impact you’ve spent time researching and whose Web site gave you all the information you needed to know to make a well-informed decision” is a little naive. It is up to organizations to do the right thing. To be sure, smart donors are good donors, but the burden should not be on the person making the decision to donate, rather than buy or invest in something for personal gain. Selling soap in the U.S. to then buy soap from local vendors doesn’t have to be less sexy or appealing or whatever. There is something alluring about the selfless founder doing what no one else will do, but this CAN be done well and responsibly. Responsibility can be hip, too. I think you’re right that websites should give as much information as possible to inform potential donors, but this can be done with the same thrill of “the story” and without resorting to pdf files or wonky aid speak. I think education aid has done a good job of providing an alternative to “resisting the appeal of the story,” but instead telling a story that makes sense and is appealing. I wrote about this a while back; it might be of interest-

  2. Nabeel says:

    Great post. I agree with most,if not all of your points, but would urge you to think about two things:

    1) Earned revenue is probably a more sustainable way of funding aid and development than charitable donations, and while Project RED might be a poster child of what Zizek calls ‘cultural capitalism’ and what has also been described as conspicuous consumption (, social enterprise is real, and it’s a viable, proven way of bringing about sustainable development. I fully agree that the reason for supporting a cause shouldn’t be that it is currently ‘trendy’ – but I felt like there was an implicit statement about rejecting market-based approaches.

    2) I’m not a Greg Mortenson defender – but I don’t fully accept the story told by 60 Minutes and Krakeur. What’s happened is very tragic – a great initiative with real promise and real results (if exaggerated slightly) has been derailed because of a media blitz that frankly did not leave room for differences of opinion. Everyone and their mother made Mortenson their whipping boy and demanded that he explain himself while he was preparing for serious surgery. I don’t see that as fair. What’s more, some of the points raised against him (such as: CAI uses donations to finance Mortenson’s travelling and speaking engagements!) were actually quite dumb, because it was always part of the explicitly stated mission of CAI to promote the importance of empowerment through educating goals. Another was, essentially, that he’s a bad manager and is disorganized. Not surprising at all – ANYONE who’s read his book will see him stating that himself.

    I’m rambling a little bit, but my overarching point is that just as we got caught up in the mythical CAI story that was always too good to be true, many also got caught up in the “Mortenson is a liar” story that made a villain out of him. That’s not only bad for his cause, but it’s bad for the sector as a whole. For those who are not working in aid or nonprofits, it was a great time to disparage our effectiveness and trust shot down like nobody’s business.

    We do have to resist the appeal of the story, but brand-building is not necessarily bad. It is important that everyone know what the organization is doing, and part of that is storytelling. Not making up fiction. But there are incredible things being done by the aid community, and for that to continue, people need to know about it. The general public is not incapable of thinking about complex problems- but it deals with complexity every day, and unfortunately it doesn’t seem like enough people have the time or inclination to dive deep into a study of impact.

  3. Liora Hess says:

    Thanks for the mention, Morgan. As I’ve stated before, I think the story AND the impact matter. It’s not either/or. The problem with Scott’s letter, IMO, is that he completely omitted the story as a necessary ingredient.

  4. Finda says:

    Your post reminds me of this video “How Not to Write About Africa – Binyavanga Wainaina – narrated by Djimon Hounsou”:


  5. Morgan Ashenfelter says:

    Thanks for your comments Nabeel, and the link to the conspicuous consumption blog post. I’m not rejecting social enterprise as a legitimate or effective way of dealing with the world’s problems. I would argue that social enterprises with sound missions often make more sense than charity organizations that are dedicated to giving hand-outs. But I wouldn’t describe TOMs or RED as having sound missions because they aren’t actually trying to solve the underlying issues of poverty or inadequate healthcare.

    As for Greg Mortenson, my point was less about him and CAI specifically, but about “founders disease” and why we do need to look more critically at organizations’ impact rather than the founder or brand. The same thing goes for news stories about aid organizations or aid workers that paint a very simple hero versus bad guys story.

    And you’re right, brand-building isn’t bad. Unless your brand is built on poverty porn and simple solutions that don’t address the root causes of the problem.

  6. […] article originally appeared on PDT’s Building Markets blog on July 21, […]

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