Enough charities… IF

screenshot of anti-aid demo at mistersjrobinsonltd.wordpress.com

The Anti-aid rally

I saw a tweet today that claimed to contain a link to footage of an anti-aid rally. Guess what, it turned out to be a ‘viral’ film. The premise was simple: “people are wrong to think that international aid doesn’t help. It does.” You can watch it here. (Or here if that link doesn’t work http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlKaNJzHdF0&feature=youtu.be).

This is all very admirable, but I think that it rather misses the point. The reason people think that aid doesn’t work is because charities keep showing them that it doesn’t while telling them that it does.

Every mailing, every banner, every tube card that  I see for an international development charity seems to say the same thing: ‘Look at this picture. People are dying in Africa, and it’s all your fault.’ (It only ever seems to be Africa where they show this happening, by the way, even though poor people are dying all over the world, from lack of safe water, lack of vaccination, lack of food, lack of drugs, lack of education.)

I can only guess that this approach must be working (in the sense that it generates one-off donations for the charities involved). But I also guess that it must rapidly lead to diminishing returns. The first e-mail I get having given a fiver can’t just show me the same thing as the tubecard. It has to tell me something else. In fact, it usually tells me that aid is working. But that’s the opposite of the reason why I gave the money in the first place. I gave the money because, despite all the aid, charities keep showing me that people in Africa are still dying.

This leads fairly quickly to cognitive dissonance. The charities are all communicating two things that can’t both be true at the same time. Either aid isn’t working, and the poor of the world need our help; or aid is working, and they don’t. (It would be all right to say it is working in some places, but other people in other places need it, but that never seems to be the message, with the honourable exception of Comic Relief.) Worse still, the images show me it isn’t, and I see them even when I don’t read the words that are telling me that it is.

And that’s why development charities seem to have got themselves into a bit of a mess. Their messages are confusing and confused. And there is almost no brand differentiation between most of them. What’s the difference between Oxfam and Unicef? Or Save the Children? (I think the lack of differentiation may be because charities don’t know what their purpose is, but that’s another story, for another day.)

Anyway, that confusion may be one of the reasons why a lot of charities have come together and formed another organisation called Enough Food For Everyone If. I can hear the meeting now: “the future of food is the next big problem for the world. But people don’t know we’re doing anything about it. Let’s join together and tell them.”

That’s bound to make everything clearer. Now as well as undifferentiated charity brands like Oxfam and Unicef and 98 other smaller organisations who no doubt do some really brilliant work telling me about the future of agriculture, I can have another voice to muddy the waters.

Actually, the voice is much clearer than the other voices, because it’s only talking about one issue: food.

It’s very professional, has a beautiful website and some lovely films (featuring all the same celebrities that appear in all these films, so you can be even less clear who is actually talking to you.) And it’s clearly spent quite a lot of money on everything from making ‘viral’ films to SEO and Google adwords. (That’s not a complaint about spending money producing communications by the way. If you’re going to do something, do it well.)

But what is the emergence of this new brand going to do to the brands that are funding it? It’s giving them all a voice, but it’s also making them even less distinctive than they already were. (And not in the way that Help for Heroes did for brands in the helping heroes sector). So yes, if you’re a small charity, you could say you’re getting your message across more effectively than you might otherwise have done. But in order to do so, you might have become invisible yourself.

And even for the large organisations, does convergence like this do any good? Unicef and Oxfam are both enormous brands. They’re also competitors. They compete for the same share of donations. By combining in this way, don’t they run the risk of making themselves less distinctive to potential donors? Aren’t they reducing the number of potential reasons for people to support them? They already almost all recruit supporters using language and imagery that is interchangeable (and as we have seen, fairly confusing). Now they are making their own brands invisible in the pursuit of clarity. And creating another brand in their space.

Now, I happen to believe that what the world needs now is not more brands in the international development sector. It’s less.

I was hugely heartened when Cancer Research UK was founded, because it stopped a huge waste of money. The story was the same for Age UK. But the development sector just keeps growing. And spending. And everyone in it seems to be doing largely the same thing (working with local partners in developing countries to deliver their programmes). Of the big brands, only VSO and MSF seem to offer a different way of working. Not that you’d ever notice it from their communications.

So why don’t the big brands merge? Or divide up the challenges they face (there are enough of them after all) and take one each? It would surely save money, and enable more of it to be spent on the work, and less on admin.

More importantly, it might even get them more supporters. Which has to be a good thing, particularly as the ‘civic’ cohort which has always kept them going gets ever older.

Because as we get poorer, it’s going to take more to get us to give money to causes – no matter how good they are. And confused brands aren’t going to do it any more than confused messages are.