Opinion: It's time for NGOs to focus on people — not PR. Here's how.

A group of women in a new settlement in Zam Zam camp for internally displaced people in North Darfur, Sudan. Photo by: Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID / CC BY-NC-ND

All too often it seems the world around us is continuously and rapidly changing, especially international markets, business and politics. While the charity and development sector are not immune to this ever-changing world, it can appear to be living in a kind of bubble. Even though organizations are aware of changing policies — especially in regard to funding — they are often too slow in responding, adapting and counteracting.

One of the main reasons NGOs are reluctant to change, let alone break up their rigid structures that are too often inefficient and detrimental to the cause they originally set out to address, is uncertainty of what this would mean for their brand.

Organizations focus more on their brands than on what really counts: The people they serve.

This has been manifesting itself in expenses for administrative staff members, marketing, advertising, PR-related work and, generally speaking, unrewarding and inexpedient expenses that are way out of proportion when measured against their total available budget and what actually goes to the projects (i.e., their beneficiaries).

Implementing organizations, especially the big names of the NGO world — and see: we are automatically speaking about “big names,” which implies well-thought, profoundly implemented and sumptuous brand awareness activities — are more and more acting as big brands. We need to move away from organizations seeing themselves, wanting to be seen and acting as brands. But how can we do that? How can we make them want to do that?

First, NGOs need to refocus on what’s really important: Their actual work and the projects they are implementing. Organizations need to return to the simple understanding that their work and their legitimization are their projects. At the same time, these projects constitute the most obvious, most powerful and already existing, truth-worthy message they could ever dream of using in promotional material. Organizations work through and for projects, so why should the projects in return not work for the organizations? Use them as your most powerful content for your communication! Because what is really important in the development and social business world coincides with the only real basis of assessment: The impact a project has, the cost-benefit ratio of projects, and their overall efficiency and sustainability.

Second, organizations are ultimately working for the benefit of those people and communities affected by any kind of need, poverty, or unfavorable circumstances. While these beneficiaries deserve to be heard, they also want to be involved. The insights and knowledge they inevitably possess makes their feedback priceless in implementing sustainable, efficient and impactful projects. In addition, it also helps the organizations shed the light on what is important about their work, what justifies their existence and what they can best use to move away from their brand-image back to a beneficiary-centred approach and story. Therefore, the focus needs to shift from brand-over-beneficiary to beneficiary-over-brand. A refocusing on the communities/individuals being served and projects themselves is needed if implementers are to become what they set out to be: Positive world changers.

Finally, all this work of organizations cannot happen without the indispensable help and support of partners, funders and supporters. Whether these are big institutional funders, mid-range or single individuals making small contributions — and the trend over the past few years has shown that this group is continuing to become more and more important — they all have one thing in common: They want to know how their money is being used. They want to see the impact their money has made and they want to see how their support is contributing to changing others’ lives for the better. Organizations do their work — implementing projects — for the beneficiaries and also on behalf of all the people that are supporting them.

This is why every single one of these stakeholders — implementers, beneficiaries, supporters — need to have the opportunity to connect with each other, to engage, exchange, learn and discuss. This means integrating the beneficiaries, as well as being accountable towards supporters and donors — for the cause and not for the brand’s sake!

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Simon Reckla

    Simon Reckla is the co-founder of Action Connected, a groundbreaking online platform that connects all three pillars, namely supporters, implementers and beneficiaries, of the charity and social business world. He holds dual masters degrees in politics and international relations and international economic relations in Eurasia. Simon’s work experience ranges from the private sector, through journalism to working for the Italian Senate and the European Parliament. He is passionate about fostering sustainable development practices at the highest level of international standards.