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.

Please let’s stop talking about PPPs

As you might guess, I didn’t originally write this post for this blog. But no one else wants it, so I’ll publish the poor orphaned post myself.

The term public-private partnerships don’t get explained much. They partnerships a lot of attention, but it’s such common vocabulary that no one ever stops to explain it. That’s okay, though, because it’s a useless term.

A public-private partnership is any collaboration between public bodies – like a government, the UN, or an NGO – and a business entity. That’s all. Public organization working with a private one. A pharmaceutical company donating drugs to UNICEF or a developing country government. A consulting firm offering free services to the Global Fund. A local government providing start-up capital to a business that may serve a public good.

Personally, I think this piece of jargon has pretty much outlived its usefulness. It doesn’t describe an unusual situation, help corporations understand their role, or serve as an accurate or specific term. We should retire it.

Ten years ago, when private sector business rarely got involved in development, we needed special vocabulary to encourage them. “Public-private partnership” sounds reassuring. “You’re not in this alone, frightened little corporation! You’re in a partnership. The UN will help you, we promise!” The special term helped to normalize business participating in international development efforts.

Now, though, it’s pretty much become the norm. Businesses get involved in international development and global health all the time. They don’t need supportive language to help them understand that they belong. They have decided it’s in their interest to support global health, and that’s pretty much enough to motivate a profit-making entity.

Because it’s the norm, we also don’t need special exclusive language that sets apart business-funded development work from work funded by government or private donors. Those are not the traditional donors any more; people expect that there will be corporate involvement in global health, for example. So we don’t need to single out public-private partnerships as a special case. They’re just one of the many ways that we fund international development work.

It’s also a term that is so general it’s useless. For all that it was supposed to helpfully describe a special kind of health or development effort, instead it’s meaningless. I mean, what if the US government hires an international development company like Casals Associates to implement a development effort? Why isn’t that a public-private partnership?  If Oxfam buys plane tickets for its employees, why is that not a public-private partnership?

The horse has left the barn. The bird has flown the coop, and you can never get those square foam pieces to fit back into the box once you’ve opened it. The corporation has entered the hen house, and it’s pretty much okay with the hens. Public-private partnerships vary, to a huge degree. It’s not useful to try to lump them all together, any more than it is to assume all official development assistance is the same. This new world of business participation in global health needs a new vocabulary to describe it.

UN Week Notes: Friday – the Final Thoughts

lots of confusing logos

My final impressions of the MDG summit, the UNGA sessions I saw on the web, and the Clinton Global Initiative boiled down to three main things: optimism, self-interest, and the private sector.

1)      Optimism: there was a relentless focus on the achievements that have been made to date toward the MDGs, rather than much discussion of how far we have to go. We’ve missed the boat already on many of the Millennium Development Goals, and that really didn’t come up all that much. It could be manufactured, as ODI suggests on their blog. Or it could reflect the fact that we all knew that we’d miss the MDGs anyway. It’s not a surprise that we’re falling short at this point.

2)      Self-interest: Over and over, speakers talked about the benefit to the donor of supporting international development. Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton talked about development’s benefits to the United States, and about development as a pillar of US foreign policy. Corporate representatives talked about the benefit of international development to the private sector. Even Greenpeace, at their closing session at the Digital Media Lounger, talked about the economic benefits of green energy.

It seems we’ve given up on human altruism, and now we’re framing our moral imperatives as self-interest. As long as it works to support development, it’s okay with me. But I wonder what happens when development doesn’t show the immediate benefit to the wealthy world that we’ve been promised?

3)      Private Sector: I wrote about this on the End the Neglect blog but it bears repeating. The partnership of business with NGOs and governments was a big story this week. Coca-Cola was everywhere, and other companies were right there with Coke. The private sector has decided it’s in their interest to support development, and governments have decided it’s time to encourage it. This is going to have a huge impact on the way international development efforts are supported and implemented. I doubt that impact is going to be 100% positive.


Disclosure: I attended UN Week as an Oxfam VOICE, which funded my trip as part of an effort to increase awareness of the MDGs.


photo credit: Francisco Diez