Archive for the ‘charities’ tag

Who should judge if a charity has done a good job?

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Selective and misrepresentative media coverage has led the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), the body that co-ordinates a dozen international humanitarian charities, to decide not to evaluate the overall success of these charities on the ground (according to today’s FT). DEC made this decision “due to the increasing tendency for the media to report evaluations selectively and take criticisms out of context” (Brendan Gormley quoted in the FT).

It’s easy to see why Gormley and others should take media coverage so seriously. A couple of months ago The Times reported that, following the significant amount of footage of the earthquake in China and the access given to domestic and foreign journalists to cover the disaster, over $900m was raised in aid. By contrast, despite a death toll nearly twice as high, and similarly awful destruction and suffering, Burma received only about $55m in aid.

Most aid agencies – and The Times article – linked the level of fundraising directly to the amount of media coverage. There were stories every night on the news from China, yet hardly any footage from Burma. As Mark Astarita from the British Red Cross said at the time, “At the end of the day, charitable giving doesn’t necessarily follow the need. Disaster fundraising follows the news agenda”.

So media coverage matters. And that includes coverage of the charities’ performance. Therefore if an independent report makes criticisms of their performance – as did a 2004 study of the way charities dealt with the 2002 drought in southern African – and the media pick up on those criticisms, then those charities receive less funding. Or so they believe.

This has led DEC to look ‘for new ways to ensure accountability’. Or, to be less euphemistic, to be less comprehensive in its post-appeal evaluations, relying on occasional reviews. And even with these not guaranteeing they will be made public.

But if the charities do not audit their own performance, who will? Journalists sometimes like to assess the way charities do their job, or where their money goes. But these assessments tend to be either unduly critical – ‘look how this money is being mis-spent!’ (e.g. see ‘Myanmar cyclone: Drug lord crony will profit’), or unduly uncritical – i.e. simply appeals for more funding (e.g. ‘Give disaster appeals a life’). Few journalists have either the time or the resources to monitor the work of a charity over a long period.

Perhaps the answer is for charities themselves to do less auditing and more reporting. As I argued in a previous post, if charities adopted some of the values of journalism and began reporting regularly on what they were doing – and this is reporting I’m talking about, not PR – then they couldn’t help but talk more honestly about the successes and failures on the ground.

Some charity heads will still complain that any self-criticism will be leapt on by journalists looking for fault, but at least it gives charities more control of the story, it enhances their commitment to transparency, and provides them with a defensible position should they need it.

Written by Martin Moore

July 8th, 2008 at 5:12 pm

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Why charities need to become more like news organisations

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Just back from giving a talk to lots of charity folk (mostly from communications / press / pr) about why they need to become more like news organisations.

By that I certainly don’t mean ActionAid should try to become like News International. What I mean is that charities should do more reporting. Not PR. Not marketing and communications. On-the-ground, face-to-face, regular, consistent, fair, factual reporting.

I haven’t space in this blog to go through my whole spiel but, in bite size chunks my argument is this:

- ‘News’, in its many and various forms, is immensely important for shaping our political outlook and directing social action. If you don’t believe me then look at the effect blanket coverage of the China earthquake had on fundraising compared to the virtually non-existent coverage of Burma. Over $900m raised for Chinese earthquake victims (approximately 74,000 deaths to date). About $55m raised for Burmese cyclone victims (approximately 134,000 deaths to date) – source, The Times (22-5-08).

- News organisations are doing less on-the-ground reporting. The evidence for this will be familiar to those who have been reading this blog and from Nick Davies, Press Gazette, and the missives sent out by the NUJ

- News organisations (and the public) are relying more and more on other sources for their news . I’m sure you’ve already noticed that most of us are now getting ‘news’ from lots of places we didn’t used to (this blog for instance). From the government, from commercial organisations (Property News anyone?), and of course ‘citizen journalists’, aka the public. According to OFCOM, for example, the government now spends over £100m a year producing newspapers and funding government ‘news’ outlets.

Problem is… most of these sources are erratic, they lack context, you don’t know what their motive is for writing / photographing / recording their content, and there’s little chance their news is informed by a sense of obligation to the public interest.

That’s where charities come in.

Now charities have an agenda too of course. But they are also motivated by a sense of obligation to the public, have a keen interest in seeing injustice reported, are structured in such a way that they can report as part of their day job, and of course they’re already ‘on-the-ground’. Plus, since they tend to wear their agenda on their sleeve (often in brightly coloured neon), at least you know where their bias is coming from.

But, and it’s a big but, charities have to understand that reporting is different from PR. They have to realise their audience is not just big media organisations anymore, it’s also the public. And as such their communication to the public should be informed by the values that inform journalism, not the values that inform PR.

If they collect factual information, report it fairly, and contextualise it properly, they won’t just start to fill the public information gap left by fast-departing news organisations, but will promote their own cause in a sustainable and ethical way.

Written by Martin Moore

May 28th, 2008 at 3:50 pm

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