Do goats really save lives?

3 ways NGOs can speak more carefully to win the trust of supporters

By Cath Taylor

Published 8 Aug 2023

1. “Goats save lives.” Dialling back the language of transformation.

I spent years crafting copy for Christmas giving campaigns that pop animals into superhero costumes (figuratively, anyway.)

You know the type - give someone a goat for Christmas instead of socks so that families living in poverty can send their kids to school and improve their health. If most donors to these kind of campaigns haven’t been told they ‘can save a life’ at some stage, fundraisers probably feel they just aren’t trying hard enough.
How does all this land with thoughtful supporters? A woman who’d been receiving our requests for chicken/goat/pig gifts for years called one Christmas to find out exactly how many chickens were needed to lift a village out of poverty.

Is “Africa” just a bottomless pit of poultry? If goats can save lives, why aren’t things significantly better than they are? And while we’re at it, why haven’t we ended poverty? Afterall, for years we’ve been told we can and should… and it clearly isn’t done.  

It's possible that in telling people they can save lives and end poverty, we set ourselves up to win the sprint but lose the marathon. While we’re all desperate to cut through in an increasingly shouty and sensationalised world, there’s a real need for us to dial back our language a bit and temper our claims.

As fundraisers/development communicators, taking more care with our language can gaurd against cynicism and disillusionment. We all want to feel powerful in our generosity. But while our catchy taglines are true in many ways, reality is a bit more complicated. It's also more compelling.

2. Geetu the gifted goat: a detailed, nuanced story about livelihoods.

Actually we don’t have time for a detailed, nuanced story about livelihoods (but it’s linked here if you’re keen to see what one might look like).  And that’s part of the problem. 
The average reader spends just 52 seconds on a website, which likely includes jumping around from page to page sampling information at a glance. As a result, we’re not only using more explosive language but condensing complex information into oversimplified headlines to keep eyeballs on content. 
It takes trust and courage to believe a supporter will be interested in the nuance and complexity of the problem we’re trying to solve. It also takes creativity to find ways to make the most of the channels we have to reach the people who care the most. 

We know that many donors still carefully read long form letters as part of direct mail appeals – how much detail are we willing to share there to build more understanding?

Are we ever guilty of leaning into a popular fear (“Cost of living crisis skyrockets!”) because it suits our own narrative or fundraising goal, even if stoking fear might be disproportionate to reality or in other ways harmful?

What of our social media presence? Are we making the most of visual opportunities not just to make the ask, but to tell the whole story succinctly?

How do we lead people along the change making journey in our ongoing communications, taking the time to drill down beyond the linear fundraising formula of ‘Problem- Emotional Ask - Solution’?
We’ve conditioned our supporters to receive and respond to certain types of communication and tones of voice. But the damage we’re potentially doing, long term, outweighs the benefits of strident asks and big claims of transformation. Rebuilding trust requires a whole lot more investment of time and energy.

3. “We tried this, and it didn’t work.” Sharing our mistakes alongside our successes.

Many donors only hear about the crushing needs of the world, closely followed by the radical difference their donation has made to bring about change. This creates unrealistic expectations about the nature and rate of change.

In the middle of our work lies trial and error, struggle, courage, despair, tiny triumphs and a lot of experimentation – in other words, all the human experiences that help us relate to one another more deeply. 
Telling these stories – particularly what we tried that didn’t work so well – gives people who may feel far from the development context a process they can truly relate to. After all, how many of us have been able to pull off the changes we were hoping for in our own lives with any degree of predictability?

Insights into the people behind the projects matter, particularly the truth about the whole messy business of change. Also, the actual humans behind the magic are usually just really interesting! 
In conclusion, we’re all constantly bombarded by unrelenting information delivered in bite sized chunks marinated in emotion. Is it possible that if development fundraisers and communicators buck the trend, we’ll actually be better heard?
Dial down the language. Tell better stories. Share mistakes as well as successes.
Given the chance, donors will respond to the trust and respect we extend to them.

And ultimately, isn’t that what we need from each other most?

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