Bath Business and Society

Research, analysis and comment on the role of business in society from Bath's School of Management

Topic: Giving

How can NGOs become more credible watchdogs?

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📥  Charity, Giving, Policy

 

Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are indispensable watchdogs against corrupt practices and global challenges found in complex, modern societies. Yet sometimes, NGOs themselves can struggle to live up to the ambitious standards they demand of others, such as responsible advocacy, ethical fundraising, and meaningful participation of stakeholders. In this piece, Prize Fellow Stefan Hielscher and his co-authors Jan Winkin and Ingo Pies discuss their recently published research, which suggests that strengthening the rules of “fair competition” among NGOs is a promising avenue to increase their credibility.

 

Stereotyping by NGOs

With so many causes competing for attention from the public, it’s perhaps inevitable that NGOs may opt for shock tactics. Some controversial tactics can be very effective in raising public attention, gaining member support and securing funding, “Poverty pornography” provides a telling example. Critical observers invoke the term to describe the use of shocking but misleading imagery in NGOs’ fundraising campaigns, such as the notorious “potbellied child.” Critics claim such campaigns conceal the root causes of poverty, misdirect well-intentioned help, and violate the dignity of those in need. The website Rusty Radiator collects a variety of impressively frustrating examples, awarding the “fundraising video with the worst use of stereotypes” on an annual basis.

Granted, poverty porn is an extreme example. But it is the case that NGOs are sometimes tempted to simplify messages, thereby misrepresenting complex issues, and this may result in the root causes of the problem being misunderstood. For example, recent research reveals serious inconsistencies in advocacy positions related to the global food crisis in 2008. Before the food crisis, NGOs claimed that low food prices would promote poverty and hunger in rural areas in developing countries. After the food crisis, however, the very same NGOs claimed that high food prices cause hunger and poverty in urban areas in developing countries.

 

NGOs and responsible advocacy

To address challenges to their accountability and strengthen their credibility, in 2008 the international NGO elite founded “Accountable Now” (AN). Responsible advocacy is one of 12 agreed-upon accountability standards, and includes fact checks and clear procedures for advocacy positions. A complaints handling mechanism was designed to give stakeholders a voice to critique misrepresented interests or other questionable advocacy practices. A 2016 survey by AN of members and non-members however, revealed sobering results. NGOs seem to fare quite poorly in “stakeholder responsiveness” and “responsible advocacy.” Only about 10% of NGOs responded to complaints raised by AN’s evaluation team in a blind test, and many NGOs lacked robust fact checks and clear procedures to adopt or exit advocacy positions.

 

How competition affects NGO behaviour

Why is it that even member NGOs struggle to comply with AN’s standards? Our research suggests that NGOs operate in a highly competitive environment, all seeking funding, members and media attention. All these are necessary, but scare resources, and the competition for these can impede responsible advocacy.

NGOs are facing a “social dilemma” here. They can either choose the easy option and seek out attention without worrying too much about potential negative side-effects, or present a measured view which incorporates the best available knowledge on a controversial issue. The danger is that by taking the easy option, other NGOs will follow suit to secure their piece of the pie. As a result, the whole third sector’s reputation and credibility as a promotor of social change is put at risk.

 

Creating an enabling environment for responsible advocacy

Can we expect NGOs to refrain from this kind of race-to-the-bottom competition, and to engage in responsible advocacy on a voluntary basis? While some international “giant” NGOs may have the resources to take the moral high ground, some smaller NGOs are facing much stronger threats to their survival. For some of them, every successful fundraising campaign counts. Some NGOs will be able do the right thing only if the organisational benefits outweigh the associated costs. They will need to be sure that their competitors for public attention will follow suit in responsible advocacy.

This is why Accountable Now is such an important initiative. NGOs need to establish their own regulatory framework to raise standards for the whole sector. Within the AN’s NGO community, some voices are demanding stronger leadership to make this happen. Others are looking more towards external monitoring.

Our research has found that to be effective, both strategies need be designed so as to create a more enabling environment for NGOs and therefore to improve the cost-benefit balance. Effective monitoring of stereotyping campaigns requires graduated “reputational sanctions,” for example by raising public awareness of bad examples. Conversely, AN could reward best practice with public attention, by, for example, awarding prizes for responsible advocacy to leading NGOs.

There are no ready made solutions for these issues. It is important for NGOs, though, to acknowledge that they are not spared from the adverse impact of competition just because they are siding with the weak, the marginalized, the neglected and the poor. The insight of economics also applies here: good intentions need be supported by appropriate incentives, to do the right thing and to do things right.

 

Image by Howard Lake

Why don’t people associate WWF with Earth Hour? The battle between ‘panda’ and ‘lights out’

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📥  Branding, Consumers, Environment, Giving

 

Dr Zoe Lee asks how a strong brand identity can help charities who increasingly must satisfy both social and environmental goals and fundraising needs.

Recently I asked my postgraduate students if they knew about Earth Hour. Most of them nodded proudly and smiled. But when I asked if they knew who organised it, not many identified World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Some even mentioned Greenpeace. So why don’t they identify Earth Hour with WWF, and how could WWF use Earth Hour more effectively to elevate and energise its brand?

Earth Hour’s success is unquestionable. It has been labelled the largest grassroots social movement on earth, and is one of the world’s fastest growing brands. The initial brief was about how WWF could inspire people to take action on global warming without using fear. A simple idea was born – asking people to switch off the lights for one hour as a symbolic stand. Since then, many landmarks around the world have taken part, including the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge and Buckingham Palace.

WWF is still deeply stereotyped as cute, cuddly and warm due to its iconic panda image. Earth Hour, on the other hand, continues to gain global recognition, and could be perceived as more competent and hard hitting due to its idea of taking action now. But does this matter to consumers or supporters?

Perhaps not directly. A classic text from Levy and Gardner, “The Product and the Brand”, was a revelation for the branding world. They made explicit for the first time that every advertisement must be considered as a contribution to the complex symbol of brand image – as part of the long-term investment in the reputation of brand. Both the panda and lights off images are powerful and different, yet they are not directly related. Brand managers must accept that consumers see a brand in totality, and consumers and other stakeholders play a huge role in shaping brand meaning. The two different personalities and tones of voice can cause confusion if there is no compelling reason to link them together over time.

In addition to consumer confusions, firms stereotyped as competent are more likely to increase buying behaviour when compared to firms stereotyped as warm. Consumers have greater admiration for firms with high levels of competence and warmth.  This may suggest some clear benefits for WWF to leverage some of the hard hitting and competent identity of the Earth Hour initiative.

Charities usually take a narrow approach to branding – managing external perceptions in return for fundraising success. In contrast, an emerging paradigm recognises brand as a strategic tool to achieve greater change and social impact. Dan Pallotta noted that too many charities are rewarded for how little they spend – not for what they get done. Using donations to fund advertising to raise awareness or change perception is still deeply frowned upon. We need to rethink the role of marketing and advertising and focus on how to start rewarding charities for their accomplishments despite a high marketing spend.

 

Macmillan Cancer Support is a great example of a charity that now uses its brand in a strategic way;  perhaps even behaving like a business by leveraging its warmth and increasing the perception of competency by implementing metrics and return on investments. They engaged in an organisational wide change process to shift negative perceptions of their iconic image, the Macmillan nurse. Although the association with nurses has been perceived as warm and instrumental to fundraising, over time they are perceived negatively as ‘angels of death’. And with a changing cancer story, Macmillan needed to change and transform as a ‘life force’ for cancer survivors. Hence, they have a new brand name and a ‘can do’ attitude to improve the lives of everyone affected by cancer. Fundraising increased by £26 million within two years of this change, and the charity was awarded The Marketing Society’s Brand of the Year in 2014.

A powerful charity brand can help to achieve social as well as fundraising goals, and we should be more open-minded about the role played by brand in fulfilling a charity’s purpose. WWF made remarkable progress when giant pandas were downgraded from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Vulnerable’. For this year’s Earth Hour, there is an effort to incorporate the giant panda image with the #pass the panda initiative, but in a rather ‘soft’ way. Following in Macmillan’s footsteps, WWF could potentially be much bolder in claiming Earth Hour as a WWF project, and one they are very proud of. To make the most of Earth Hour's success, and use the public buy-in to support its main charity objectives, WWF needs to find a coherent message that ties both brands together, because consumers are more likely to believe something when they see it as credible, authentic and relevant to them.

Image: Earth Hour 2016 Berlin by Phossil