Here was the assignment:
Every organization, however small, wherever it is located, has its own story to tell. This is its voice…its brand identity.
But non-profits in poor countries often rely heavily on funding from international donors, giving pause about how organizations can generate sustainable support for their work. As BrandOutLoud shared with us in the first class, a strong profile and professional communications can help indigenous organizations reach out on their own, create new partnerships, and diversify their funding base.
Can your group help empower your client organization through branding, communications and marketing support?
Your assignment is to consult with a vetted local non-profit in Malawi, Pakistan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, or Zimbabwe (which have all self-selected to be part of the class based on their interest). As your group’s client, these organizations will share with you their history, their work, and their current communications products. Your task is to learn more about their external communications needs and provide them with ideas for a new strategy and creative suite (suggestions for new or revised logo/tagline, website, blog, brochure, publications, photography, swag, etc.), based on their available staff and resources.
The reason I made this project a key part of my International Development Communications class at Georgetown this semester (42.5% of their grade) was because throughout my experience in aid and philanthropy, grassroots organizations are doing some of the most valuable, innovative, unrecognized, and thus undervalued work in the sector.
What if the talents of 19 public relations and corporate communications Masters students were lent to address this conundrum? What could they do? Could they help the leaders and staff of grassroots organizations to get better at selling themselves?
“Fascinating call with WEM Integrated Health Services [in Thika, Kenya] today! Nothing makes me as happy as working with grassroots organizations that are really and truly at the forefront of change, innovating, experimenting, implementing, failing, succeeding, learning, and transforming constantly! It’s often easy to forget the great amount of innovation that indigenous, grassroots organizations employ. Even more so because they don’t frame work within the language we understand or associate with innovation.You must listen, dig, ask questions, and reframe in your head to see that within what they describe as a regular part of their work lies ingenuity.
“We need all you communications experts to focus on providing your skills and services to these organizations! How do we make people understand the value of grassroots-led change? How do we make them realize that if they want to ‘do something,’ ‘help,’ or ‘bring about change,’ the most important thing they can do is invest in the grassroots organizations that are already doing the work but need our resources and technical support/skills?
“Grassroots, multiple issues don’t resonate. Simplify. Choose a single issue or a single population. Yet, we know after all these years of work, that the most effective organizations are those that understand and can work within the complex needs of their communities by providing holistic services and products. So, yeah, how do we make that ‘sexy’?”
Others chimed in:
“I think the people who can fund this kind of work want the credit. They want to say we saved this community. We fixed it. Not we helped this community fix their problem. The helping to fix is too long, not sexy, and is a new thing that is just gaining ground. It is breaking the savior-savage mold we are used to. Respecting peoples agency is hard and it takes too long. [Donors] want a quick return on investment.” ~Olabukunola Williams
“…for the funder in another country, their ability to relate to the grassroots organisation is impaired (for various reasons). We see it as common sense because we are there and we know that it works. As such, getting donors to relate to other donors – this is another area I’m currently exploring. Yep, this is a distraction from the gist of what you are trying to show – that grassroots organisations are the way to go, but you can’t start this process of slow and complex education until you have their attention in the first place.” ~Weh Yeoh
“Attempting to inject some level of nuance (aka admitting that things are really hard, outsiders are not saviors, grassroots orgs are important), competes with the more simplistic narratives that appeal to the egos of the average person. For my part, I hope better news reporting can change this to some extent. Then there is needed pressure on leaders who continue to shape discussions in a purely binary helper-helpee manner…[and] done in a way that the people affected speak for themselves.” ~Tom Murphy
We also have to consider that the skilled and dedicated local leaders of effective grassroots organizations may not have the time, energy, or resources to promote their organization’s image among the development set - they are too busy doing the work with and on behalf of their own community on a daily basis.
So what did the Masters students deliver to their clients?
For example. organizations got new logos:Organizations also got new brochures, business cards, blog/newsletter templates. They also worked with the students to develop manifestos, strategic communications plans, media kits and press release templates, storytelling guidelines, and website development and social media guides.
Will these new tools in the hands of the nine organizations with which my students worked change their profile and enable them to have a more prominent place in the development discourse in their localities, if not globally? Of course it’s too soon to tell and there is much more work to be done. (Shucks, turns out “quick results” are elusive for communications products too.)
But as Solome Lemma reminds us:
“It is upon on each of us, from whatever our positions, to start to shift the way these conversations about ‘development’ take place and shift how we pursue our work. A critical part of it has to be exploring how those of us that have access to and work with grassroots or indigenous organizations create a space in which they drive our narratives, as opposed to the other way around.”
My students also had some thoughts on flipping the development narrative on it’s head (another 35% of their grade), which we’ll be sharing soon! Here’s a little taste:
“[A new generation of] communicators are steering the future of the aid, philanthropy, and social enterprise sectors by helping focus on and place emphasis on what matters most. As storytellers and as truth tellers, communicators can shape and frame the international development narrative, not to just make sure organizations are doing their best, but respecting, humanizing, and upholding the dignity of everyone involved. Perhaps more importantly, communicators are inviting more people to have a seat at the table.“
Stay tuned – more to come!
My many thanks to the other organizations who participated in our class projects: Eye of the Child in Blantyre, Malawi, Aware Girls in Peshawar, Pakistan, St. Francis Health Care Services in Jinja, Uganda, Lupwa Lwabumi Trust and the Media Network on Child Rights and Development both in Lusaka, Zambia, Survivors in Action Zimbabwe in Mutasa, Zimbabwe, and Shingirirai Trust in Sabvuka/Tafara, Zimbabwe. And thanks to Firelight Foundation and the How Fund for linking us.