5 Steps for NGOs to Move from Guilt to Empowerment

My thoughts on how charities need to drop the guilt is getting tons of views. But the question remains: how does a charity drop the guilt? Can they do it overnight? Cold turkey?

As I mentioned some charities, like the US-branch of Save the Children, have already stopped using “poverty porn”. I’d like to share something I’ve talked to them about behind closed doors.

I guess you can call it a 5 Step Program for NGOs using guilt:

Step One: Engagement via Guilt

Screenshot of a Charity Ad that Airs In Canada

Especially near Christmas, you need only turn on the television to see which charities are flooding the airwaves with “poverty porn”.

You can read about my thoughts on this here. But, basically, the defining feature of this type of messaging is that it dehumanizes those in need into objects of pity.

Step Two: Engagement via Celebrity Spokespeople

Bono in Africa

I’m not talking just about Bono – but I suppose that’s who everyone thinks about when talking about celebrities and charity. Although I’m not the biggest fan of celebrity-centric messaging, I still think this is better than “poverty porn”.

After all, when a celebrity is involved, the focus turns towards the celebrity. Whether the celebrity likes it or not, it becomes about them. This has the benefit of pushing aside (or at least subduing) the use of “poverty porn”.

Step Three: Engagement via “Average Joes”

Hank Green in Haiti with Water.org

Anyone whose been following my work for a while knows that this is exactly what I’ve been pushing towards for a long time now. But even as recent as a year or two ago, I was still getting lectured by those insisting only celebrities (following carefully scripted talking points) are suitable for being a spokesperson.

Since then, you need only look at Water.org taking Hank Green to Haiti, World Vision taking YouTubers to Zambia and India, or Save the Children UK taking Mommy Vloggers & Bloggers to Africa to see the success, authentic engagement, awareness, and even additional funds raised – all in a way that avoids guilt.

Step Four: Engagement via Bridge-Makers

Afia Reviews and Approves Footage Taken of Her

To an online observer, the difference between Step 3 and Step 4 is indistinguishable. However, whereas the primary function of a spokesperson (be it a celebrity or “average joe”) is to promote an NGO, the primary function of a bridge-maker is to be a digital and cultural intermediary to give those in need a direct voice to the global community.

The goal is to give those in need a stronger say to better shape how aid is delivered in their communities. Through this process not only does an NGO get some publicity, but it can also can help to overcome local distrust of NGOs. Sadly, there is no set quantitative formula as to how to do this – it’s qualitatively specific to context and culture.

What I can say is that, from my work as a bridge-maker in Bangladesh, there is a preference for aid to come from an individual instead of an institution, for a direct connection between donor and recipient, for trackable donations, and for overhead to be exogenous from donations “for the poor”.

This may not be a step that every NGO can take. An NGO needs to be confident enough that those they serve, if given a direct and unfiltered voice to the global community, won’t have bad things to say about their organization. It’s also not for NGOs that are unwilling to qualitatively tweak or modify how they implement projects in order to accommodate this global conversation.

Step Five: Engagement via Those in Need

Eventually, as the digital divide is being bridged, the poor will be able to speak for themselves to the world with little or no assistance.

Ideally, this means that both control of an NGO’s messaging and implementation of aid projects divests from the NGO directly into the hands of those in need.

When this happens, NGOs will not only have dropped the guilt – they’ll have replaced it with empowerment instead.

4 Responses to “5 Steps for NGOs to Move from Guilt to Empowerment”


  1. 1 Tom Murphy

    Shawn,

    I largely agree with you but stumble over the ‘bridge-makers’ section.  You hit on my concern when you say that it is a pretty hard thing to not only do, but to design.  It is not so much that there needs to be a design per-say, but that it is so amorphous that it may be one of the steps that could be skipped altogether.

    One example is this project in Kenya where youth are evaluating local projects publicly and using the internet: http://nuruyakwale.wordpress.com/.

  2. 2 Shawn Ahmed

    Hi Tom – as always seems to be the case with our conversations, I find myself with little to disagree with!

    Step Four is really about realizing that the primary purpose of a lens in a village should not be to fundraise or promote an NGO. It’s okay to skip to Step Five 🙂

    Looking at the example you provided, that seems to be more about sharing glimpses of offline action and offline conversations.

    That is, they seem to be evaluating existing projects with the hope of one day shaping how such funds are spent in their community. 

    In order for this to be successful in the long term, it needs a positive feedback loop. That is, conversations & opinions shared online need to have a tangible impact.

    Without this tangible impact, villagers will start wonder if their voice is being heard and if they had an impact. If they start to wonder that, participation might drop.

    As you know, the way I do things is by making sure that every online conversation that’s fostered has a tangible impact on the ground. This keeps all parties engaged.

  3. 3 Shawn Ahmed

    I wanted to add an additional thought to my previous comment which you can read here: 

    http://uncultured.com/2011/12/13/5-steps-for-ngos-to-move-from-guilt-to-empowerment/#comment-385206574

    Being a bridge-maker isn’t just technological – it’s also cultural. Step Four is also about introducing the idea that there is something better than sending a Westerner to speak on behalf of the needs of a foreign country. 

    Afterall, as awesome as sending vloggers to Gambia is – the best person to speak for the needs of Gambia is a Gambian. And, ideally, those in need should be able to speak for themselves.

  4. 4 Shawn Ahmed

    Sorry – I’m now leaving a third comment. 

    Here’s Comment #1:http://uncultured.com/2011/12/13/5-steps-for-ngos-to-move-from-guilt-to-empowerment/#comment-385232602and Comment #2:http://uncultured.com/2011/12/13/5-steps-for-ngos-to-move-from-guilt-to-empowerment/#comment-385251667

    What I was going to add this time is that you do make a valid point re: design and amorphous. But that’s part of the point.

    Part of the reason it needs to be amorphous is because this is about giving control over – not to me, not to an organization – to villagers. 

    And so it needs a certain amount of amorphousness so as to allow villagers to shape the conversation and what happens or doesn’t happen next.

  1. 1 We Speak For Ourselves | The Uncultured Project

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