Fundraising and who does it

There’s been a lot discussion in the development blogosphere lately about fundraising and the images we use to trigger donations. It’s a serious conversation, and one that interests me. Exactly how much damage do we do when we use condescending portrayals of poor people in NGO ads? Tales from the Hood has an interesting take on it. So does the Good Intentions Are Not Enough blog. Aid Thoughts has a whole series, and Waylaid Dialectic has the iconoclastic view.

But you know that? The whole debate is irrelevant to my life right now. It’s not something I have to think about in my work. Because I work for a company. An employee-owned company that works for the public good, but an actual profit-earning company.

People complain a lot about involving the private sector in development aid, both as donors and as implementers. But I will tell you this: my employer never runs ads featuring scrawny, weeping, big-eyed children. We never have to make sure our logo is in the picture when we take a photograph. Our organizational development department just writes proposals and applies for contracts. No fundraising appeals. No donate link on our website. We don’t send anybody address labels and you sure can’t sponsor a child through us.

International development companies do have to market themselves. But that marketing is a very different game; it’s about looking competent, reliable, and professional in everything they do. They are selling their own skills, not someone else’s pain. (And let’s be fair here. NGOs don’t use heartbreaking pictures because they like to demean people. They use them because they are proven to work. It’s what they have to do to get their funding.)

I’ve worked for NGOs, and the US Government, and universities and the UN and all kinds of places. (I was a consultant; I got around.)  No particular tax status makes for a perfect employer: companies can’t do advocacy the way NGOs can, the UN’s got bureaucracy like fast food has French fries, and universities treat minor politics like blood sport.

On the other hand, for-profits don’t need photo ops. Universities access a nearly bottomless human resource pool and access to cutting edge research. UN agencies have moral authority and sector clout no one else can match. NGOs that do a good job of fundraising can start moving money really really fast when they need to.

This is our field. It has a lot of very different players, with different strengths and weaknesses. I like that. NGOs are not inherently virtuous. Companies are not inherently greedy. It’s a all mixed bag of human beings organized in different ways, attempting to do good things. Doing effective work matters a whole lot more than tax status.

(photo credit: #1millionkittensforAfrica)

The usual disclaimer: I am speaking for myself. These are my views and my views alone. I am not in any way speaking on behalf of my company. I believe in what we do, but I do not speak for the company in this or any other instance.

Leaving Haiti

The other day, the WHO asked aid groups in Haiti not to leave for at least 60 days. I found that kind of confusing, to be honest, because no aid agency is going to leave Haiti on purpose. Their humanitarian mission will make them want to stay – these groups do after all, want to help people. So will their competitiveness. Getting to open an office in a new country is exciting, and expands an NGO’s global reach.

NGOs will leave Haiti when they no longer have the funding to stay. They will do their best to stay – intense public fundraising appeals, unsolicited proposals to government donors, staff drawdowns, and salary cuts – but eventually there will be no money to remain in Haiti. Then, and only then, they’ll leave. (Except MSF. MSF leaves when the “emergency phase is over.” But as far as I know, only MSF does that.)

That means there is no point in appealing to the NGOs to stay. The WHO is aiming its pleas in the wrong direction. It’s not, in the end, the NGOs’ choice. We need to donate the money to keep them there, and push our governments to do the same. Whether or not the NGOs stay in Haiti is up to us.


Photo credit: Zedworks

Chosen because – that’s how you leave, right? On a jet plane?

Why don’t we do better?

Sam Brownback

I have mentioned two or three or thirty times that I am not the only person in the development world who obsesses about how we could do our work better. Everyone has ideas; it’s a very common topic of conversation among people who work in this field. Most of us have the same ideas. So why don’t we ever get to act on them? There are a few reasons I can think of:

Donors don’t always know what they are doing. Government donors are usually democratic nations, which means in practice that foreign aid programs are often defined by legislatures with no real background in international development. So you end up with earmarks for pet ideas, rules forbidding useful practices like harm reduction, and an overall lack of direction. Private donors tend to go for exciting quick impact ideas like mobile health clinics and cash-for-work projects. Overall, complicated, unsexy ideas like health system strengthening may go unsupported.

Donors are politically motivated. I have seen health projects where the donor chose the pilot areas because of mysterious HQ calculus about the possibility of terrorism or political instability. Or take a look at how funding goes to Gaza and the West Bank. Donors have reasons for supporting international development funding that go way beyond supporting international development, and it can be hard to take that money and make it useful. Many (maybe most) organizations tend to try anyway.

Lack of time. There is a steady supply of new research on what works in international development. There is no steady supply of time in which to read that research and figure out how to apply it in practice. Some places have a technical team at headquarters to keep up with new research and recommend how to use it. That’s not as common you would think, though, because that kind of work counts as an overhead expense. High overheads make it hard to get grants and donations.

Host country capacities. A good development program works with the host country government to build its skill set, so that impact will continue once the program is over. Sometimes that means obeying host country regulations that contradict best practices, or spending a year convincing a government to change its rules. For example, some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa were achingly slow to adopt community therapeutic feeding (plumpy’nut and other RUTFs) even when the data showed it was much more effective than older ways of treating malnutrition. It’s miserable being stuck in a project that could be doing far more than it is allowed to, but I think the alternative – setting up an aid system that is parallel to the government – or worse yet, contradictory – is worse in the long term.

Funding and evaluation cycles. It’s very hard to design a program that will have a long term impact and also start showing results in two years. It’s not impossible; I’ve worked for several projects that managed it. But it’s hard. It limits your options severely. And inexperienced or unskilled NGOs may just aim for quick results and worry about the long term later.

This is not an exhaustive list. It’s just off the top of my head. What am I missing?


Photo Credit: Iowa

Chosen because Senator Brownback once tied up hundred of hours of manpower from an HIV/AIDS program because he didn’t understand the difference between harm reduction and risk reduction.

Three bad ideas for helping Haiti

plane over Haiti

In the rush to engage on Haiti, a lot of well-meaning groups are jumping in to help. Some are brand new, and some have never worked on a disaster like this before. Most of these groups are going to be useless. Some will actually do harm to themselves or others. A tiny minority will have a positive impact. I wish those odds were better, but they’re not.

I’ve seen three bad ideas for helping in Haiti floating around recently. I don’t want to single anyone out for criticism – after all, everyone is trying to do good here. But in this case, the culture of nice may be letting bad programs hurt people. I need to say something.

Bad idea #1 – 50,000 Shoes The idea is to donate 50,000 shoes in 50 days for Haiti. They are asking for a $5 donation for each pair of shoes. The problem with this idea is that it’s based on an assumption – that lots and lots of shoes are what Haitians need right now. What if they need clothes? Or food? Or water purifiers? Should they sell their new shoes and use the money to buy those things? Has anyone done an assessment to find out if shoes are needed? To decide what kind of shoes are needed?

The shoes could end up wasted and useless, absorbing people’s donations without providing any benefit. They could clog supply lines that also bring in desperately needed medicines. They could keep the local shoe suppliers from rebounding after the earthquake, and if badly chosen for the Haitian climate they can give people disgusting fungus.

This is almost a good idea. The time-delimited fundraising with easy to remember numbers will drive people to donate, and they’ve got celebrity endorsements that are raising their profile.

How it could be a good idea – call it $500,000 in 50 days instead of 50,000 shoes. That would double their fundraising goal (since they are trying to provide $250,000 of shoes) but I think they could pull it off, considering their level of media attention. Then they could make a high profile donation, including a ceremony with one of those oversize checks on poster board to Partners in Health.

Bad idea #2 – Flight to Crisis Volunteer doctors and nurses are banding together to charter a flight to Haiti and help with medical care. It’s brave, it’s scrappy, and it shows amazing initiative. It’s also a horrible idea. The people don’t seem to have any plan from bringing in their own supplies and haven’t set up a place to stay in Haiti. They don’t have a hospital to work out of or any background in responding to this kind of disaster. This is exactly the kind of misguided effort I was afraid we’d see, because Haiti is close enough to the US to make it possible. For more information on why this is such a bad idea, read this account of another group of health care providers that chartered a plane.

[Edited to add: please see comments below for a response from Flight to Crisis. They are better organized than their page makes them look.]

How it could be a good idea – in about three months, when rebuilding gets serious and Haitians have time to think, this group could choose a Haitian hospital to partner with. They could fundraise to help it rebuild, and donate supplies and equipment. They could visit the hospital quarterly to train the providers there as needed, and make sure that the equipment is in good shape and well maintained.

Bad Idea #3 – The Global Volunteer Network Haiti Project This project, which volunteers pay to support, is seeking people to volunteer for the following projects: working with children, teaching, health/medical efforts, building and construction, counseling, and business development. They say that volunteer trips can run from one week long to six months. This list seems designed to please volunteers, not meet the needs of people in Haiti. You already know that I am not a supporter of trips where you pay to volunteer.

This, however, is even worse than usual. This isn’t just useless feel-goodery for rich people. This will hurt people in Haiti. Traumatized children should not be making emotional attachments to volunteers who will be gone in six months. Volunteer labor for building and construction will keep Haitians from getting paid jobs to do the work themselves. And no outsider volunteer has any business providing counseling; counseling needs a background in local culture and context that a visitor won’t have.

How it could be a good idea – It’s almost impossible to rescue this one, but short-term volunteers could offer brief, targeted English or French classes to Haitians who needed them. They could cover technical topics that local teachers might not be able to offer. Not in a week. There really isn’t anything useful you can do in a week. But two months might work. It really wouldn’t qualify as disaster response – or rebuilding – but it would at least be useful.

For more information on how to help in Haiti, take a look at my Aid Watch post.

Photo credit: simminch

Why size doesn’t matter

flat tire
flat tire

The most recent installment of the Notes from the Field series on the Aid Watch blog was written by a “veteran NGO leader” from Nepal, Scott MacLennan. In it, he decries the absentee management and outright deceptions of large NGOs, arguing that “Only small NGOs it seems are able to actually get out in the field and get their hands dirty making things happen.”

I disagree. I disagree passionately. Only competent, well-run NGOs are able to make things happen, and those factors are unrelated to size. It comes down to the skills and qualities of the people running the NGO. An organization can influence this by the way it selects people. This is wholly unrelated to size.

To further argue my point, I’ve made a handy list of the pros and cons of small and large NGOs:

Large NGOs:


  1. Have a certain base level of competence because of their broader experience.
  2. They can more easily expand or supplicate successful projects.
  3. They usually have enough staff that if a country director in Nepal leaves they can pull someone from, say, Sri Lanka rather than leave the post vacant while they hire.
  4. They are used to the requirements and mechanics of donor bureaucracy, and that lets them get started more quickly and not be bogged down in paperwork.
  5. They generally have more experience with financial controls and are usually better at it.
  6. They may have enough different projects to leverage their presence. For example, I once threatened a local official that we’d cancel laboratory skills trainings if they didn’t allow a child health campaign.


  1. They can be inflexible.
  2. They can have a lot of bureaucracy that stifles change.
  3. They may lose their personal touch – it’s just work to them.
  4. They generally have a higher percentage of funding from government donoirs, which limits their programmatic options.

Small NGOs:


  1. They tend to be more flexible and able to change directions quickly.
  2. They tend to be emotionally committed to their work.
  3. They are generally funded by small private donors, which means they have many more choices of how to use their money.
  4. They are often very connected to the communities they serve.
  5. They can be more innovative.


  1. They may be short on technical background, or have more good intentions than useful knowledge.
  2. They may not have enough experience to realize they are reinventing the wheel, or worse yet, reinventing a flat tire.
  3. They may not have dedicated finance and administrative staff, which means financial accountability is weaker.
  4. If a staff member leaves, they have to advertise and hire to replace them – no pool of people to draw on.

That list makes it pretty clear that it’s not the size of the NGO that matters. Different kinds of organizations have different strengths. What matters is now an organzation uses those strengths and overcomes its weaknesses. Size, in this case, doesn’t matter.


Photo credit: Austin Tolin

Chosen because, well, it was pretty. And this is a hard concept to illustrate.

What to do instead of starting an NGO

Here’s a nice list of things you can do instead, excerpted from

1. Seek fiscal sponsorship from an existing NGO.

2. Volunteer for a non-profit that is doing something similar to what you have in mind.

3. Start a local chapter of a national non-profit.

4. Put together an unincorporated association to fulfill your mission without seeking tax-exempt status.

5. Form or join a giving circle.

6. Set up a donor-advised fund which makes grants to charitable causes of your choice.

7. Become a social entrepreneur by forming a for-profit social venture to accomplish your social goals.

8. Organize support for a cause at an online social networking site.

I particularly like numbers 2, 5, and 6. Volunteering for an NGO, or getting heavily involved in fundraising, give you the chance to learn the ins and outs of the situation before you try to run something yourself.

Ah, perspective


It’s easier to be self-righteous when you’re in DC. At headquarters, things seem clear. Good managers, bad managers, good programs and bad programs – you can tell what works and what doesn’t. You can end programs that don’t make sense, or don’t seem to be doing what they’re supposed to.

I was talking to the guys from GiveWell the other day, and one question that they asked was – why do some many international NGOs implement programs that have no evidence for their effectiveness? If you have no idea what impact a program has, why do it?  At the time, I had trouble coming up with a clear answer. Put in those terms, it’s pretty mysterious.

Now, though, I have an answer: in the field you see people’s faces. Say you’re running a multi-million-dollar program that has only documented twelve lives saved. That’s pretty obviously a bad program. You could help a whole lot more people with that money. But, what if you’ve met all twelve people? It’s pretty hard to say no one should have helped them.


(photo credit: hdptcar)