Is there a reason to be sceptical towards humanitarian donations?

Maybe you saved a child in Malawi, planted trees in a rainforest in South America or did your best to help a species of animals from going extinct – or maybe you didn’t. Fundraising campaigns tend to make it harder for people to be open to donating – but why?
Visual by Gina Gommer

When people talk about humanitarian work it divides society as much as politics, religion, and climate change. Everyone agrees that it is a good thing to donate to charities – “the right thing to do”. What people strongly object to is how humanitarian organizations choose to contact possible donors. But the question is – does the end, aiding people in need across the globe, justify the means of a sometimes pushy, aggressive fundraising campaign?

Face-to-face and telemarketing campaigns have become the issue in many discussions worldwide, concerning humanitarian organizations and their fundraising strategies[1]. Naturally, this raises scepticism and questions like “Where does the money go?” – the logic being that if they are so aggressive when they raise money, are they doing actual work in the countries they have programs within? Investigating this intersection is the quest in this article.

Do you want to hear the good or the bad stories?

The story they try to tell us

Let’s first look at some examples. On one side, we have examples of organizations, businesses, and sometimes NGO’s (not necessarily humanitarian organizations) who prey on people’s wish to do good. Many such examples exist.[2] On the other side, we have the good stories: the UN, Red Cross, Red Crescent, UNICEF and different media devoted to telling the good stories[3], uncovering the “bad eggs” as well, making it clear to the public, which humanitarian organizations are to be trusted. The media tend to tell the nasty stories because that sells newspapers. Do you want to hear the good or the bad stories?

The media also tell the story of a world filled with natural disasters, refugee-crises, hunger, and war. This all adds fuel to the fire in the sense that help is needed and that someone should do something, but it makes it unclear exactly what to do; On the one hand, help is needed but the media discourages the readers through nasty stories to do anything about it. On the other hand, the humanitarian organizations that people should be trusting are not observed as being trustworthy because of their, sometimes aggressive, campaigns – but don’t you find the work the organizations do to be important?

I am no expert, but I have worked in the humanitarian industry for just short of a decade, both in face-to-face and telemarketing. The media, the lack of knowledge and all the scepticism (from friends and family as well) was my enemy for years. I started out in this industry, just as oblivious and just as full of hope as the next person. I entered these organizations, working for money and as a volunteer, and I had this dream of saving the world. But I became cynical. Not because of the work they did – but because of how I was met. Why were people so sceptical?

“Where does the money go?” or “Does the money really get to those in need?”

Visual by Gina Gommer

How does it work? – A sneak peak behind the scenes
If you really try to investigate how this all works, you will find a lot of different research, interest groups, media and so on – all of which try to tell the story of how the humanitarian world works. Often the talk is focused on the so called “money trail”. I can’t remember the amount of times people have confronted me with the question “Where does the money go?” or “Does the money really get to those in need?” but I can tell you that I was asked this a lot.

If you take a typical organizational pie chart that shows how money is distributed, both in terms of revenue and expenses, humanitarian organizations have an expense called ‘Administration Costs’. Often, people get confused about administration costs. An old boss of mine once told me, when trying to explain what it covers, that it costs money if you want to be sure that they go the right place – and isn’t this really what we want?

It quickly became obvious to me that a vital importance for the organizations is the difference between earmarked and unearmarked money.[4] Unfortunately, what money the organizations have to their disposal, and what they can use them for, doesn’t always correlate with the help they know is needed.

Visual by Gina Gommer

Without going much deeper into the mechanics of humanitarian organizational finances, I can tell you that when you donate money yourself, they can use their years of expertise to make sure that your money is being given to where it is most needed. The truth is that humanitarian organizations (I know of) do everything they can to make sure the help gets to right place.

If an aid-worker, driving a truck full of bags of rice, sees a starving family on the way to a village where the bags of rice are on route for delivery – do they give one bag to that particular family? Would you? I’m not saying this is happening, but it is important not to judge organizations based on the media. People are scared of the unknown – should we instead turn our scepticism towards bad press and be more open to trusting the NGOs?

This all comes to the simple hope that people would do something […] instead of looking for reasons not to.

What to do?
Back to the fundraisers – we have taken a sneak peak into the work they try to advocate help for. Maybe I have raised some questions for reflection sometimes fundraising might be a little much. Sometimes a telemarketer might seem a little too aggressive. That was me, not so long ago. But they’re not shouting on behalf of themselves – they would have left a long time ago if that was the case.

Who are you? The one who meets these people with curiosity – which willingly (or reluctantly) agrees to have chat? For the cause or the knowledge. Or do you hide behind the narrative of doubt that the media feeds? I have found that when I meet a face-to-face fundraiser, I feel like standing face-to-face with my consciousness; my moral compass tells me that I should be doing something and that I should take action.

Visual by Gina Gommer

This all comes to the simple hope that people would do something, take action (that is, at least consider donating, or just look into which organizations might be the ones you would love to donate to) – instead of looking for reasons not to. The truth is, the people working for humanitarian organizations try to do the right thing. I would not suspect anyone working from 8-16 to just do it to take away people’s money. The organizations, who really try to make a difference, are 99.9% of them – and I allow myself to say 99.9%, because after having worked in the industry for years, it is obvious to me that nobody wants to do this for sport. They mean business.

Do yourself a favour next time and help uncover the bright side of humanitarian donations. Be curious. Not sceptical.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2013/jun/14/face-to-face-fundraising-risk

[2] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-aid-business-fraud/exclusive-aid-charities-reluctant-to-reveal-full-scale-of-fraud-idUSKCN0PP00V20150715

[3] https://verdensbedstenyheder.dk/europa-aviser/

[4] https://www.unocha.org/our-work/humanitarian-financing

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