"You'd be surprised at how unfriendly this industry can be," Amie* confessed. "When I first worked here (at an international NGO in Melbourne), nobody wanted to help me with anything."
People are often surprised to hear that a sector such as development, which should theoretically value empathy and sharing, can be so competitive. Why is there so much competitiveness in development? Whether it's jobs, resources or attention, it seems everyone's competing against each other.
This attitude of competition is no more prevalent than in the sphere of fundraising. At whydev.org, we've recently been raising funds for a project of our own. We've been trying to raise seed funding to build an international support network for aid workers.
Our idea is inherently about collaboration and sharing, and in some ways flies in the face of the attitude that Amie described. Yet, in raising money for this very idea, I managed to get a firsthand glimpse into the realities of fundraising that others must experience daily. With private donations, as with applications for tenders and grants, there is an inherent element of competition involved. People will compare your project to others, decide the relative worth of each, and then make a decision about where their $20 will go. Undoubtedly, healthy competition should be welcomed.
However, this view sees fundraising of private donations as a zero-sum game. This perspective states that there is a certain amount of money available, and each project or NGO must compete for it, which is perhaps viewing things too narrowly.
Peter Singer's influential book, the Life You Can Save, describes how almost every person who is living a life of comfort can give more of his or her wealth away. In his example, the end result of sacrificing a little bit of comfort is saving lives.
Realistically, pretty much all of us can afford to give just that little bit more. There isn't a limited and static pool of private donations that NGOs need to fight tooth and nail over. We instead should encourage people to increase the amount of money that they're willing to give.
How can you encourage people to simply give more?
One way could be by fostering a culture of giving. For too long, NGOs have focused on fundraising for specific projects as the need arises.
Singer argues that when you donate to a specific cause, you should be as loud about it as possible. You should be telling all your friends about your donation, whether it is through social media or otherwise. Although this might seem a little like bragging, Singer says that this means other people will also be encouraged to give, and therefore, giving becomes increasingly normal.
Perhaps NGOs could foster this by donating to other NGOs themselves. Although problems emerge if World Vision Australia donating funds raised under a certain pretence to MSF, what if prominent employees of World Vision came out publicly and donated to other NGOs?
Imagine for a second if Reverend Tim Costello, the CEO of World Vision Australia, publicly stated that he was supporting MSF because he believed in what they were doing and trusted them to use his donation well. As counterintuitive as this scenario seems, imagine how powerful a message it would send.
The message would be one of true support and solidarity; that it is okay to give to a cause that is not your own. Most importantly, the general public might look at such an action and be encouraged to give more.
The danger of thinking about fundraising purely for your own cause is that it is possible to lose focus on the whole notion of giving in the broader sense. Suddenly, raising funds becomes a competition with other fundraisers and the notion of collaboration disappears. But this view of fundraising doesn't acknowledge that an untapped pool of funds may be currently ignored, by not encouraging people to give more. If we focused our energy on fostering a culture of giving, NGOs may be able to collaborate to increase their funding for all, not only for one.
*not her real name
Weh Yeoh is a disability development worker based in Cambodia. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed a MA in Development Studies at the University of New South Wales. He has worked in the NGO sector both in Australia and in China, and is a co-founder of whydev.org. You can view his LinkedIn here and follow him on Twitter here.