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The Ugly Side of NPOs’ and NGOs’ Branding Machines

Oct 3, 2012

By: Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer

Two years ago, Susan G. Komen for the Cure – which has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent months due to the huge amount it spends on nebulous “awareness” efforts – made headlines by essentially saying “we own the words ‘for the cure’ and we own the color pink.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve discussed the pinkwashing of October, the commercialization of the breast cancer movement and Komen’s politicized – and self-defeating – attempt to pull funding from Planned Parenthood.

Over the past few years, the nonprofit giant has also received much criticism for seemingly prioritizing its branding efforts – it spends a great deal of time and money suing other charities that use “for the cure” or similar variants or which use the color pink – over its original mission to help find a cure for breast  cancer.

This problem is also besetting the big nonprofit organizations (NPOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are often among the first groups on the ground wherever there is a disaster, whether natural or man-made, that cuts off the flow of basic services and leaves behind large numbers of human casualties.

Nonprofit Quarterly reported recently that the huge amounts of money and in-kind donations rounded up by the best-known NPOs and NGOs frequently get tangled up in bureaucratic webs spun by organizations bent on “branding” their efforts and making sure they get the credit, particularly in the press, for the aid.

Unfortunately this renders their missions moot, as those most in need after a disaster – those injured, those left homeless, families of the dead – have to wait that much longer to get help. It also, ironically, cancels out the organizations’ branding efforts when negative media stories arise.

With post-disaster humanitarian assistance ever more politicized and convoluted, concerned with press coverage and hobbled by competition for funds, it’s clear the system is broken and increasingly inadequate in responding to disasters – especially those that aren’t big enough to command the whole world’s attention.

Obviously, we need some fresh ideas. And the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies has come forward with a bold proposition: an emergency response fund that cuts through the red tape and channels aid quickly based on where it’s needed most, not on how much press a disaster is likely to get.

And isn’t that the whole point of emergency aid organizations? Yes, of course, they need to promote and fund themselves, but not at the expense of their stated missions, something the American Red Cross was criticized for after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.

The general fund idea has worked before. Over the past two years the CBHA tested the idea with a pilot program, the Emergency Response Fund, which has funneled 48 grants to 12 crisis areas in a speedy fashion, unhindered by NGOs’ and NPOs’ branding concerns. 67 percent of those funds went to local groups, which often – though not in every case, naturally – are the best-positioned to get money and supplies flowing right after earthquakes, floods, nuclear meltdowns and other crises hit communities around the world.

Of course, there are some difficulties that would have to be worked out to implement a similar fund on a global scale. The aid giants – which still do commendable work despite their myriad problems – would have to be convinced to go beyond self-interest and participate. And donors would have to be convinced to give up control of where their donations go.

So the CBHA faces an uphill battle if it wants to get all the usual disaster-relief actors (governments as well as NGOs and NPOs) on board with this great idea. But, given the results of the pilot program, it’s something we need to try. Disasters and their victims can’t sit around waiting for self-proclaimed savior groups that can’t seem to get their act together. The longer aid groups squabble over control of branding and of the media narratives, the larger the body count on the ground.

And that’s an untenable state of affairs.

Response to this initiative will tell us which groups are truly committed to the causes that are their purported raison d’etre – and which are hopelessly hampered by an obsession with image.

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