Another post inspired from the Tales from the Hood blog, this one about honesty and NGO propaganda.
A comment from Mo-ha-med (below) is something I really agree with:
I’m particularly curious about a remark of yours about how the PR dept needs to communicate things in a certain way and that we shouldn’t “believe our own propaganda”.
So essentially, yes, we do lie, and it’s okay for the PR department to lie to some people (or donors), but we should keep our heads cool?
My thoughts I posted are these:
I couldn’t agree more. Mo-ha-med – that is just what I was thinking, why are we even jumping to the conclusion that we should consider that our PR team would be overstating what we actually accomplish? That is like accepting defeat or admitting failure at honesty before we even start trying.
I would not trust any NGO that does not have a very open and honest answer to the question “What mistakes have you made recently and how are you working to improve your organization based on what you learned?” I would also not be inclined to give money to any organization which only has positive things on their website – every group ever makes mistakes! We should be sharing those so others can learn and until we start realizing that that IS our PR teams job, to BE honest, we are not going to get very far in the honesty department.
I also think it is SO important that those of us who work in or support NGOs ASK to see mistakes, failures, and current issues. It isn’t enough to expect that we will be told, particularly as managers or donors. For example, I was once trying to convince a large NGO working in Cambodia that their programs were negatively effecting education in the hundreds of schools across the country that they were working in due to ill-planned rules and regulations, lack of monitoring, and a backwards incentive system. When I made my “You are harming education in Cambodia” presentation in their main office in the US, the reaction from the person in charge of the program globally was “But, when I was in Cambodia last year to see the project, the two schools I visited seemed to be doing well?’
The fact that she hadn’t ASKED to see the ones that were failing (which could have been the majority of the rest of the hundreds of schools they had left materials in) is part of the problem. The fact that she hadn’t INCENTIVIZED her staff to show her the worst ones, the ones with problems, and the areas that needed improvement is part of the problem. The fact that her staff in Cambodia, who I met with at the time, realized that their incentives were based on successfully following a formula dictated to them from the US, was part of the problem. They were fearful to show the real results as, with a need to keep their job, they were more inclined to keep their mouths shut about the systematic problems they could clearly see in the organization than to risk being punished for being honest.
When we first started working with the communities we partner with, the answers we would get would be the answers the village chief or whomever we were speaking with thought WE wanted to hear. We didn’t hear truths, but guesses as to “what will keep these foreigners and their money here? Do they want me to say we have 100% junior high school graduation rates? 0%? What answer are they looking for?” I could see them struggling to try to identify our motives to then satisfy us with the correct answers we were looking for in order to keep our dollars in their village.
It took a LONG time to show them that the HONEST answers were what we were looking for. The same with staff – if we thank and reward staff, or the NGOs we fund, for being honest about mistakes and problems they encounter, then we are more likely to get honest answers and be able to help come up with real solutions.
In the same vein, if we tell our PR teams to report photos of smiling kids and a rosy picture of results while skipping over all of the things which are not working, we will be contributing to this perceived culture that NGOs must be doing good all the time or are not to be trusted. If we do that we are also harming our own programs, as staff and managers believe their own PR, and the programs of other organizations seeking best practices who never have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Instead, I believe that NGOs must be working towards positive changes all of the time, be honest about the problems they encounter while trying to get there, and be willing to be open about the changes they are making to their strategies, staff, and goals if and when they need to do so to improve their impact. Then we can honestly start seeing some positive results.