How NOT to handle bad press: Thoughts on “crisis communications” in a new global aid paradigm

Like it or not, investigative journalism is an important mechanism of accountability for large non-profits who don’t have a “constituency” or “shareholders” to whom they are directly responsible. And as we were reminded last week, a quasi-governmental organization like the American Red Cross needs to accept and submit itself to scrutiny for its work in Haiti and elsewhere.

Yes, the situation in Haiti is “complex.” Yes, there are two sides to every story. Yes, the reporting itself was a collection of verifiable facts and opinions, which (in my opinion) also fell short of providing a well-woven explanation of events and outcomes. And yes, perhaps expecting anything more from the Red Cross other than being a good fundraiser may be too much to ask.

But as we learn that civil society continues to lose the public’s trust, that is not the point.

I am so happy there are so many great organizations responding to natural and man-made disasters around the world, and that thankfully, there are many other alternatives for giving money directly to local disaster response and recovery like Thousand Currents’ Nepal Fund. But again, that is not the point.

Inside the social good sector, we have known that donor-recipient power structures have plagued programmatic effectiveness for much too long. We know that accountability for philanthropy and international aid is considered a “black box” because accountability to poor people—rather than our financiers—has rarely been at the center of our endless “what works?” conversations. People on the receiving end of aid have a right to know how money is being used and to what end, but this approach seems to continually be ignored by most organizations.

Institutions, by their very nature, are slow to change, and most times the incentives to do so must come from the outside. But when mistakes are uncovered and released into the public domain, there is a choice. Foundations and international aid agencies can either dismiss critics outright for “not telling the full story,” or can engage the deeper questions about why it is so hard to do this work well, and share our experiences.

What if… instead of defending ourselves and our good intentions, we also acknowledged the following aspects of our work?

  • The historically top-down model of international aid and philanthropy has helped create the “all good” or “all bad” public narrative about our efforts.
  • How much the 6 P’s influence our work: “pressure to portray a perpetually positive picture of projects”
  • If we spent more time engaging with people on the receiving end of aid, we would have better information about what could work or what did or did not
  • Our supporters are not 4-year-olds. They can handle complexity and uncertainty.
  • Our challenge is to make the link between failure and results. It requires adapting our strategies and programs and then talking openly about these shifts.
  • Staff and leadership may not have all the answers, but they can build their reputation by asking the right questions of themselves, being transparent, and continuing to learn.

IDEX may never have the fundraising prowess of the Red Cross, but that is – you may have guessed it – not the point. We exist to help unleash the power of grassroots leaders, as they are uniquely situated as trusted leaders, educators, and resource people in the face of disaster, and in the face of the structures and circumstances that keep people in poverty. And we are not afraid to admit that social change work is inherently full of shortcomings, along with its victories.

We envision a philanthropic sector where foundations’ and NGOs’ commitment to mutual respect and transparency can build upon this reality with the public’s support.

So let’s focus our reflection, evaluation, and ultimately the international aid discourse on what it means to do quality work…whether the press is good or not.

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