Friday, 5 March 2010

“The industries of conscience”- Do NGOs sell a product?

Government and big corporations have often been condemned for the use of PR. But it’s not only government and big corporations that are using PR for building reputation; international nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are also using PR to propagate their agenda. According to wikipedia, the number of internationally operating NGOs is estimated at 40,000. National numbers are even higher: Russia has 277,000 NGOs and India is estimated to have between 1 million and 2 million NGOs.

Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy in their book PR A Persuasive industry mention that “it could be argued that NGOs do sell a product – that as what have been called “industries of conscience” – they “sell” their donors and volunteers that most delicate of luxury goods, a contended conscience. I personally don’t agree with the statement, reason being, you can identify the objectives with which NGOs exists through their actions, communication messages etc. but you can’t always recognise the real objective with which a donor donates money or a volunteer offers his/her services.

Therefore, donor and volunteers might not always be looking for a transaction that offers them a “contended conscience” in return. For example, according to a research done by Vinspired (online survey of 1,997 young people aged 16-25 in England) in June 2009, the motivations for volunteering (considering volunteering) inevitably involved a mix of altruism and self-interest. While nearly half (46%) said that helping others would be an attractive reason for volunteering, young people indicated a great many personal benefits that would make volunteering appealing. Around six in ten (57%) thought gaining work experience and training was an attractive reason for volunteering and over two in five (42%) said building up a CV would be appealing. The research Engage Young people in Politics (2008) which involved a poll of 1,000 girls aged 14-25 who are members of Girlguiding UK also supports the same analysis. As per the report, the main motive for volunteering given was CV points with 61 percent of girls naming it as their top reason.

Moreover, NGOs heavily rely on public relations to express their viewpoints, create awareness about their activities and concerns, and highlight their achievements etc. For example, Ron Sereg in his article PR Boosts Third Sector Results argues that if NGOs are to be sustainable and effective they must make a commitment to PR. Also, Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy state that since NGOs are engaged in a sophisticated transaction, which most of the participants would rather not see as a transaction at all, therefore, it requires lashings of public relations. Thus, the point here is that the job of PR is not to “sell” but to build and maintain mutually beneficial relationships. Hence, NGOs do not really “sell” their donors and volunteers a contended conscience; they engage their stakeholders in an effort to build relationships with them so that they can act as advocates for the cause.

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