The Story Matters

I was talking to a friend who works in Social Development, and the conversation veered towards what can such institutions do differently to make a bigger impact on Society.

I had a few ideas in this regard, and I was happy to voice them.  I told him that organizations that were focused on social development efforts have to straddle two different ends of the spectrum.  On one end, they have to engage in grassroots work and ensure that their efforts yield results.  This includes identifying areas in which they can make a difference, getting together the resources needed, going about it the right way, making results measurable and increasing accountability of the initiative.  On the other hand, there’s what I call the “megaphone” factor.  It’s equally important to garner support for the cause, to make the programs more visible (to stakeholders, investors, media, etc.), to leverage the power of communication and connect with volunteers who can contribute in a small albeit meaningful way.  Both ends were important.  In fact, what’s needed is to achieve a balance between the two.

A few days later, I chanced upon an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times that resonated some of this thinking:

In a thoughtful book published this year, “The Life You Can Save,” Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University offers the pond example and explores why we’re so willing to try to assist a stranger before us, while so unwilling to donate to try to save strangers from malaria half a world away.

One of the reasons, I believe, is that humanitarians are abjectly ineffective at selling their causes. Any brand of toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication than the life-saving work of aid groups. Do-gooders also have a penchant for exaggeration, so that the public often has more trust in the effectiveness of toothpaste than of humanitarian aid.

There’s growing evidence that jumping up and down about millions of lives at stake can even be counterproductive. A number of studies have found that we are much more willing to donate to one needy person than to several…

For example, in one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokia’s plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help.

A few socially-focused organizations may have mastered the art, but others definitely needed to get better at the “megaphone” factor, and in ways that leave a lasting impact.

See Also :
Gordon Brown’s inspiring TED talk on Global Good (July ’09)

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