Increasingly, NGOs are being encouraged to be entrepreneurial, innovative and creative, in terms of finding alternative ways of fundraising, how they engage with communities, and how they present their work.
How is this ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ emerging in NGO communications, and what might the implications be? Bond’s Communications working group recently explored these questions with Loughborough University academic, Dr Jessica Noske-Turner.
Dr Noske-Turner’s recent research argues that current development trends are part of a growing worldview that normalises the idea that a ‘capitalist spirit’ is needed to solve complex social problems of poverty and development. This worldview suggests that development will be more efficient, sustainable, and impactful if it works more like a market. This might involve partnering more with the private sector, feeling more like a start-up, being led by entrepreneurial ‘changemakers’, and being more ‘disruptive’.
Often, however, far from being ‘disruptive’, many of these narratives are more about compatibility with capitalism. It turns the idea of precarity (short-term projects, risk, experimentation) into something desirable. These narratives frame ‘traditional’ development as slow, bureaucratic, old fashioned, (financially) unsustainable, and a handout or as charity, and as having failed. It also tends to shift the burden of development and mobilising resources onto local communities. It typically promotes individualised action by charismatic leaders over collective action and participatory processes. It favours optimism and simpler, short-term solutions, avoiding the structural causes of poverty and injustice. It tends to feature women and youth as the ideal entrepreneurs and makes them responsible for solutions to the structural lack of formal employment.
Ultimately, this spirit obscures the fact that contemporary capitalism underpins many of the problems of inequality that development is supposed to address.
How does this emerge in communication?
In NGO communications, this might emerge through a stronger focus on women, youth entrepreneurs, stories of individual heroic leaders and changemakers, communications that simplifies complex problems as things that can be ‘solved’, and narratives that emphasise tech, creativity, innovation, disruption, agility, and risk. It could also associate with apolitical ‘social movements’, and there would be an absence of attention to structural inequalities, radical political struggle, notions of solidarity, commons and government responsibility.
Emerging insights from the Bond Communications working group workshop
NGO communications are often at the coalface of many of these tensions. Much of the work of communications professionals directly or indirectly links with fundraising, branding and communications with donors and wider audiences. Communications is therefore a key space where organisational, donor and societal expectations about how development should work are negotiated.
One of the key themes emerging in discussions in the workshop was the use and consequences of individual success stories. Individual stories are often seen as useful in NGO communications because they can help audiences connect and understand complex issues. But when do these become hero stories that “dumb down the solution”? Perhaps there are narratives that communicate that individuals are part of the collective system and support.
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These trends are also reflected in the increasing ‘projectisation’ of development work, which can make it difficult to do longer-term, sustained, structural change work with communities, and to be able to tell stories about long-term impacts and changes.
Communications professionals in the session reflected on how at times there can be tensions between commitments to social justice, organisational imperatives and strategies, and requirements of donors. This can be particularly fraught in partnerships with corporate funders who seek to benefit from associations with NGOs as part of their marketing strategy, which can enable those same corporates to continue activities that further global inequalities. The power dynamics in these situations can make it difficult to push back on narrative and branding directions.
It was clear in discussions that the manifestations of these trends are often quite ambiguous. For example, should we disregard ‘economic empowerment’ as an inherently problematic neoliberal concept, or can it be an important, informed response to situations where economic vulnerability is a key driver of health outcomes?
The discussion also raised bigger questions – is it even possible for development communications to engage in discussions about anti-capitalism? Some of the participants work for organisations with more radical politics than others, leading to different positions and responses, but the notion of dismantling capitalist structures remains conceptually difficult for society.
One conclusion from this workshop is that further exploration is clearly needed to identify alternative and actionable communications narratives and strategies.
Want to join the discussion?
If you’re a member of Bond but not part of the communications working group yet and would like to be part of the discussion, you can join here.
To find out more about the research you can contact Dr Jessica Noske-Turner via email: [email protected]