One Year in Kenya [Lesson 4/5]

Effective organizational marketing does not equal ‘good’ development work.

One of my work responsibilities was to write stories for the marketing departments of the two organizations I was affiliated with. Initially I was excited about this responsibility, but I soon recognized frustrations and limitations.

Since people everywhere relate best to stories, the marketing departments wanted stories from me about individual people. Conversely, my job, as a researcher, was to analyze and evaluate impact in the aggregate, for a population of individuals. As a result, any single story I wrote about an individual felt weak, anecdotal, and potentially misleading. Who’s to know whether this individual is an extraordinary outlier or an average Joe? (For more on this see The Danger of a Single Story.)

Several months into my time in Kenya, I recognized the distinction at the heart of my troubles. It is sometimes difficult to differentiate, but the difference between someone doing advocacy and someone doing science is always crucial.

Organizational marketing, particularly for non-profits, is essentially advocacy work. In order to garner support (both financial and otherwise) marketing must ‘sell’ people on the idea of the organization’s work. In order to do this, marketing must be confident and convicted that the work the organization does is, in fact, ‘good’.

This attitude flies in the face of that of a scientist. Particularly in evaluation work, the default attitude is to be constantly critical and almost superficially unsure. The strongest conviction of a good evaluator is his or her own doubt. The three most important words for a scientist are: “I don’t know”.

It is often difficult to differentiate between the two, as good advocacy actually sites and quotes science. Good science does this too, but there is a key difference. Advocacy aims at pushing an idea or concept while science simply (or not so simply) aims at pushing the truth.

This distinction comes to the fore when making sense of this article by Michael Mathethson Miller of Acton Institute latently written about the work of the organization I work for. It is a brilliant form of advocacy and marketing, but it is certainly not science. It absolutely and unequivocally should not be used to inform or direct program strategy or policy decisions. The article is designed to get people, who usually don’t think about this sort of stuff, to think about poverty alleviation (or ‘wealth creation’, whatever you want to call it. It’s the same thing) more deeply. It is wonderful advocacy, but terrible science, and confusing the two can be fatal both for the work of the organization and, sadly, for the people the organization aims to serve.

The development blog WhyDev recently wrote about the juxtaposition between effective marketing and good development. Effective marketing raises attention and donations. Good development work should improve the lives of poor people. Here are five reasons why the two are incompatible:

  1. We have short attention spans
  2. There is no incentive to translate complexity
  3. Even if it offends some, on balance, dumb simple is better
  4. Money drives the work, not the need
  5. Effective marketing draws on herd mentality

[For a remarkably well written story (yes, story!) about the danger of confusing advocacy and science – and really much more, read Nina Munk’s brilliant book: The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the End of Poverty.]

HT: Brett Keller on the advocate vs. scientist distinction

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