WASHINGTON -- As the international community considers the next round of development goals to address some of the world's most critical challenges, more than a dozen of the most recognized global charities are quietly adopting a new PR formula intended to boost public support for their missions.
The Narrative Project was introduced this summer to a coalition of nonprofits that includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the United Nations Foundation; Oxfam; Save the Children; ONE; and CARE. Taken together, the groups dispense billions of dollars a year to help alleviate poverty, hunger and disease in some of the poorest parts of the world.
Sources with knowledge of the working group that produced the PR recommendations told HuffPost that the Narrative Project was the result of high-level consultations among partner groups, which took place over a nine-month period starting in October of last year. According to a PowerPoint presentation obtained by The Huffington Post, the goal of the Narrative Project is "to reverse the decline of public support for our work" and to counteract "fatigue" among rank-and-file supporters of these charities, many of whom increasingly view aid as "a good idea, done badly."
Citing data from focus groups in the United States, France, Great Britain and Germany, the Narrative Project's writers conclude that a new "narrative formula" is the key to "changing public attitudes" about aid to the poor from wealthy donors. They recommend, for example, that partner charities "Don't state abstract goals like 'ending poverty' as our ambition," since "these concepts act as triggers for skeptics."
But for many of the groups involved in the Narrative Project, this directive will be challenging, because ending poverty is a key part of their stated missions. The Global Poverty Project, one of the Narrative Partners in the group, says it is working to "end extreme poverty by 2030." And the mission of the U.S.-based Results group is "to create the public and political will to end poverty."
The formula directs groups to "reframe the world's poorest people as those who share values" with their potential donors in Western Europe and the United States. The writers add that, "Using terms such as 'the world's poorest' is not forbidden, but they should only be used in combination with messaging that invokes shared values such as dignity and pride."
"Don't invoke pity for the poorest people, or for helpless human suffering," the project's writers recommend. Instead, "show that expertise, effort, investment, risk and responsibility are all shared."
The project also recommends that groups not "position donor countries, celebrities or NGOs as heroic providers of benefits and solutions for poor people." This could be difficult for groups like ONE, the charity synonymous with global superstar Bono and his band U2, as well as for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, through which Microsoft founder Bill Gates funds highly publicized global health and development projects.
The debate over how best to alleviate poverty is a robust and long-running one, often pitting neo-liberals against libertarians, and those in the far left against those in the center-left.
But this year the stakes are especially high for the global aid community, which includes nonprofits, governments and institutions like the United Nations. Negotiations are currently underway in New York over the next sweeping set of development goals, which participants hope will come into force by 2015.
For aid groups like the United Nations Foundation, the pressure to mobilize supporters ahead of these talks lends an urgency to the task of crafting a coherent message.
"This is the most relevant conversation of our time," said Aaron Sherinian, vice president of communications and public relations for the UN Foundation. "We live in a time when it's possible for us to make consultations global, and to carry them out in real time. And that means that our communications have to be up to the challenge."
"If there's a tool that allows us to engage the public in a way that's productive and authentic," he added, "we're going to employ it."
But critics of what some call the "aid-based" model of international development say that focusing on how best to mobilize wealthy countries' charity dollars drowns out more important debates about how to tackle the root causes of poverty and inequality.
"We can't confuse charity with real development," said Martin Kirk of the campaign group The Rules. "It's like the difference between the emergency room and the public health department."
"If you tell people that the problem of poverty only requires more money, then it means we can't talk about corruption and tax evasion, or about the huge amounts of money that are coming out of poor countries, and the tiny trickle that's going in," he added. "The real question is, why is the system making some people so much wealthier, while others remain so much poorer?"