Telling better stories

Once, at a restaurant, I ordered “Crispy potato wedges with sweet and sour dipping sauce” as an appetizer. What I got was French fries and ketchup. The description on the menu was true, but not honest. I didn’t feel like I could complain to the manager, but it left me feeling disappointed and vaguely deceived.

Too much of our communication about international development is true but not honest. We boil complicated situations down into simple ideas. We pretend there are easy answers to problems so difficult there may be no answers at all. We use emotional impact and compelling photographs to avoid detailed discussion of the challenges of doing good development work.

And we need our stories, because our stories are what bring us funding. Whether it’s a government agency, a foundation, a corporate partner, or a little old lady putting a five dollar bill in an envelope, the people who give us money respond to stories. The government calls it reporting, corporations ask for success stories, and regular people just want reasons to give their cash, but they are all asking for stories to explain what we do and why we deserve their money to do it.

For a long time, were stuck with our oversimplified, easily digested stories. Our true-but-not-real stories were all we could get out to the world. Three minute spots on the evening news and press releases don’t leave much room for nuance. Even reporters from respected media outlets rarely have the time or expertise to research and relay a complicated article about the realities of international development.

The world has changed. We have now have a huge selection of social media tools we can use to shape our own messages and communicate directly. And – we can do more than just put a message out there in an electronic bottle and hope someone finds it. We can have conversations about what we do, how we do it, and how people can be part of that. We don’t have to spoon feed people easy ideas because we’ve got the time and space to talk about the hard stuff.

This is my challenge to you:

Think seriously about what social media can do for you. Don’t just use your Twitter account for mini-press releases; use it for genuinely new information as it happens. Imagine a country director in Darfur tweeting as he travels to a refugee camp. Imagine a collaborative blog by your HQ staff, talking about what backstopping actually entails. (People would be a lot more likely to pay overhead if they knew what overhead was.) Imagine your Sri Lanka country team posting their photos to Flickr and their videos to YouTube. Imagine your website as a portal to all of that, a place people go to get deep knowledge about what your organization does. Imagine turning all your donors into passionate advocates who encourage others to give too.

Better stories can do that for us, and we finally have a way to tell them.

Photo Credit: Miranda July at Modern Times, taken by Steve Rhodes.

Expensive translation, cheap food: how a pro runs an international meeting

I’ve been to an awful lot of meetings that involve international participants. I’ve seen some go well, and some turn into complete disasters. I spent my last international meeting thinking about what makes some go well, and some go badly, and this is what I came up with:

1. Hire the best translator you can afford. I can’t stress this enough. Do not, under any circumstances, hire language students as translators or expert participants to also translate for others. Your meeting will fail completely if no one is able to understand each other, and I mean that literally. To help the translator, speak in short, clear sentences. If you are using simultaneous translation, speak slowly so the translator doesn’t fall behind. If the translator speaks after you, stop after every other sentence so she can translate. Avoid analogies and metaphors, especially sports metaphors. Anything that requires your translator to stop and figure it out will ruin the flow. Some phrases you may not think of as sports metaphors: gear up, take a shot at it, take a different tack.

2. Some cultures are very uncomfortable introducing themselves, and it can be hard for everyone involved to remember foreign names and faces. If you’re at a table, use placards with names and titles for each person.

3. Have an agenda which explicitly describes each item to be discussed. Think about whether you want to assign a time frame to each item. Meetings intended to share information and form relationships may benefit from being able to take extra time on productive topics and race through dull ones. If decisions need to be made or specific topics covered in detail, a time bound agenda may be useful.

4. Don’t make jokes. They never translate properly.

5. Don’t serve food. Cultural belief on when it’s appropriate to eat, or get up and collect food, differ widely and can lead to frustration or even resentment. Give every attendee a cup and a bottle (or pitcher) of water, and their own little plate of cookies or nuts, and stop there. If you absolutely must have a meal connected to you meeting, schedule it for before or after, and don’t do business during it. Or have coffee breaks and serve snacks there.

6. Know which delegation is hosting, who is chairing the meeting, and who will take the lead on each agenda point. Your chair must be comfortable moving things along to stay with the agenda.

7. Be as candid and informal as your feel comfortable being. Americans are known all over the world for being blunt. You might as well use it to your advantage. Be extremely courteous, but say what you need to say. You don’t have to fit perfectly into the other culture. Just make it very clear you are doing your best to be polite and respectful. Your translator is your ally here; he can make sure your good intentions come through. This is why you paid for the best one you could find.

Photo from John Connell.

How to wreck your image in one easy step

Jennifer Baumgardner, a feminist artist and documentarian, produced a t-shirt which says “I was raped.” It is intended to raise awareness help women end the shame they feel when raped. It’s a delicate topic, so I’ll send you to Scarleteen for background information.

The t-shirts are controversial, and they’ve led to a lot of discussion. I noticed an interesting theme in the comments at Jezebel. The very first commenter says, “If these are printed on American Apparel tees, I will shoot myself in the head.”

American Apparel has gone from being viewed as an important, ethical company to a sleazy demeaner of women. In about four years. Because of the advertising and marketing choices the company has made. (Yes, the CEO is also controversial, but I bet no one would notice if it wasn’t for the racy ads.) They’ve lost a ton of respect from the kind of ethical consumers who they need the most.

I wonder how many NGOs undermine themselves the same way, obscuring their good work with poverty-porn pictures that demean the communities where they work.

Lesson: Your marketing should be worthy of your programs.

What is social media, anyway?

A nice white paper on social media. From smashLAB, this paper starts with the very basics, like defining content communities, blogs, and virtual worlds. It then goes all the way into some basic case studies and a discussion of how companies can use social media. It’s a good introduction for anyone new to the concept of social media, and the ideas apply equally well to nonprofits.

NGOs, health, and social media

I ran into this grant opportunity on Twitter tonight:

Rising Voices, the outreach arm of Global Voices, in collaboration with the Open Society Institute Public Health Program’s Health Media Initiative, is now accepting project proposals for the third round of microgrant funding of up to $5,000 for new media outreach projects focused especially on public health issues involving marginalized population.

I’d be surprised if a lot of NGOs have the capacity for innovative social media work and also are small enough to apply for a 5K grant. With any luck I am wrong – I’d love to see more social media used on public health. I also suspect you could do some really great stuff in the developing world with text messaging. The list of possible project types in the grant description is interesting stuff.

This one seems useful:

Distribute mp3 recorders to a local NGO working on palliative care issues, and help them produce monthly audio testimonials and/or interviews featuring stories and experiences of participants, for uploading to the NGO’s website.

This one not so much:

Organizing a regular workshop on blogging and photography at a legal aid center representing the rights of people living with mental disabilities. Part of the budget could be used to purchase affordable digital video cameras and internet café costs, so that participants can describe their challenges and life experiences to a global audience.

I don’t think getting to describe yourself to a global audience automatically useful; it’s not an end in itself. It has to have a purpose. (Someday I’ll talk about refugee kids and cameras.)

on research and donor funding

This nice summary of BDI logic models does two things. It 1) gives you an overview of a model for behavior change that actually takes into account the complexity of human decision-making and 2) tells you how to market it to potential donors. It’s very savvy, and it makes me kind of sad. I see useful public health research go unused all the time because it’s too complicated for non-experts, and donors are rarely experts.

Links worth looking at

I am traveling, and I’m not sure what kind of internet access I will have to update. I’m offering up a bunch of interesting links to keep everyone busy in my (possible) absence.

1) The Children of War Rescue Project actually has a dayblog listing day-to-day activities. It is an amazing exercise in transparency, and also a great way for outsiders to learn more about what NGOs do. If you are thinking you’d like to work for an international NGO, just following along the posts is like a mini-internship.

The marketer in me thinks that they could be using this dayblog more for promotional purposes. Right now it doesn’t even have a link to their main project website. They should also explicitly describe it as an exercise in transparency, and have donors look at it to see what they do.

2) Paul Graham on the overlap between nonprofits and companies. I am consistently impressed by his ideas, and this is a great think piece on what makes a company and what makes an nonprofit. I have long held that the major difference between an international NGO and a company is tax status and no more. It is interesting to see someone else’s similar take.

3) Soap operas changing family size in Brazil. This article makes me twitch in different directions. On the one hand, it justifies the educational soap operas I used to help produce. On the other hand, what kind of unintended effects is TV having on our society? Since almost none of it is designed to do anything good. In fact it seems to me designed to make us meet more junk food and buy stuff…maybe I don’t have to just wonder what effect it is having.