There is no doubt that charities improve the lives of millions of people across world each year. It’s hard to argue with that.
The question that is seldom asked is whether philanthropy also plays a role in perpetuating the problems they solve. Rarely, do charities indulge in this level of self-reflection.
Veronica Yates is Director of CRIN, the Children’s Rights International Network. They call themselves a self-loathing NGO.
Last year Veronica took the radical step of rewriting the rules not only of how CRIN operated, but also taking a stand against the whole charity sector.
“I looked around suddenly and thought, maybe I’m part of the problem.”
So what is exactly is wrong with charity - what rules need breaking?
Symptoms not causes
By and large, charity campaigns inform people about the symptoms of problems not how and why the problems exist in the first place. They encourage you to keep sending money to support the people who suffer from X Y or Z, rather than engage you in the deeper questions about why the problem exists. Part of the reason for this is that charities are required to be apolitical, and many of the systemic causes may require a political solution.
Giving your spare change to the symptom is easy. Looking more critically at the system is hard. But ask yourself, are you here to take the easy route?
A dependency on despair
Negative campaigning reinforces hopelessness. CRIN want to change that by carving out clear principles in their code.
“stories of despair make us feel powerless. We want to better define what is we’re righting for, rather than just repeating what it is we’re fighting against.”
The reality is that charities are dependent on negativity in order to exist: misery is how they convince you of their purpose. But will we ever be able to really fight the causes of the problems from a place of guilt? Charities charge their batteries on negative emotions but humans do not. It also increases the distance between citizens giving and those receiving, and makes the predominant mode of charity, one of sympathy, rather than empathy.
Charities know that pushing our emotional buttons is the most effective way to make money, and are dependent on doing so because they get locked in funding cycles and succumb to the pressures that put growth above all else. This means that supports are treated as consumers, not concerned citizens.
Attack at the edges
Charities tend to fight the stuff we all agree is ‘bad’. As CRIN describe it, “the low hanging fruits of advocacy”. In this sense they’ve moved far away from being provocateurs or real changemakers (with a few notable exceptions).
CRIN are actively trying to break this norm in their own field: children’s rights, by fielding some more controversial campaigns. Their report outlines their intention to challenge the following:
The exclusion of children from voting,
The way children participate in the legal system
The bodily integrity of children (including challenging things like virginity testing, routine male circumcision and the forced sterilisation of children with learning disabilities).
These are marginal, controversial topics, and most charities in the same field do not touch on them. But CRIN are pirates, committed to attacking the edges and telling the truth, until eventually, the mainstream pays attention.
NGOs typically produce large volumes of content in the hope of winning support. How you communicate the issues is hugely important, but since most charities will tell you they are resource poor and short on time, reports and campaigns are often rushed out. The potency of language is lost. Here are two issues CRIN highlight:
Impotence: language has become flaky across the board. In a recent study, of the most commonly used words at the UN Security Council, strong sounding words such as “demands” and “warnings” have been used less and less frequently.
Clarity: jargon is a problem everywhere, but there is a special kind of jargon that exists in the think tank/NGO space. If you read a paragraph with too many words and phrases that require a second or third read to grasp the overall meaning you’ve achieved cognitive overload (for example: our innovation framework requires leveraging more resource and identifying synergies with partners). In a world of 24 hours news cycles, too many charities are hopelessly behind in capturing and maintaining audience attention.
CRIN is taking a stand against ‘bad language’ and telling the truth in plain terms.
Pragmatism over principles
More and more charities focus their energy on what is realistic, rather than what is right, but CRIN argue -
“Perfection is a tough standard to meet, and setting a goal based on what seems realistic rather than principled can have a seductive allure. Yet a trap lies in caving in to pragmatism, and chasing short-term goals: if we lose sight of the ultimate change we want to see how can we ensure our pragmatic steps will get us there?”
In essence, you either believe something is right and you want to fight for it, or you simply don’t believe in it enough.
History belongs to those who broke the rules and fought for what at the time, would have seemed like an impossiblity. It’s so easy to lose sight of a big picture when you’re answering a thousand emails and your line manager is expecting you to deliver a report or a presentation.
It’s tempting to see the outputs as the measures of success, but they are not. They only thing that matters is whether you are shifting the needle on the bigger picture.
For more information about CRIN’s work, and how they launched their mutiny, get in touch with Veronica on firstname.lastname@example.org