How to make shit smell good

aid versus bullshit

Once upon a time, a red box was delivered to a large aid agency. The courier was a bit confused because of the lack of a clear addressee. It only had the street and the city on it. But as it bore the logo from a big donor to the aid community, he delivered it at the agency's front gate.

After a while, it ended up on the desk of the "Director Donor Relations, Press Relations and other Public Stuff". He was a bit surprised. "Hmmm.. a big red box, what do we do with this. Can't throw it away as it apparently came from a donor", he thought as his trained marketing mind started on a roll. "And red... hmm.. Communism.. Not much I can do with that. But wait. Wait a second...".

He immediately called in his whole team and presented The Box: "This green box here, will be the center of our new fundraiser and awareness efforts..", he started. Immediately some eyebrows were raised, but as trained PR professionals, nobody said a thing: If it was to be a green box, green it would be. Even if everyone knew it was red, and wondered "WTF ?". The trick was to sit, look, but not see. Have your mind wonder off somewhere else. Nod when everyone else is nodding, smile when everyone else was smiling... That is the trick of a PR professional.

The PR team immediately went to work. Took pictures of the box. Photoshopped it until it was green. They pasted their agency's CEO (who had not been in the office for two years and moved off to the Bahamas, but nobody was to know) standing next to the green box. Several well known actresses and actors, which are always part of their PR conglomerate, were also photoshopped in it.

The "PR content" team had a bigger challenge... "What can we tell about a red, euh, a green box?", they brainstormed. "It is green. Which is good. Green is good. Green is in. Green is Eco-stuff. It is a box.... represents mystery,... like development is a mystery. No, wrong, like.. Many poor's needs are a mystery.. Better. Like.. euh, many problems in the developing world are a mystery. Good. Think further. Green. Islam.. Good. Green is Islam, but only Islam knows that... Will not piss of the Americans which will think of Eco stuff. What more..? "Empty the box"... no "Join the box".. Better... "Join the Box". "Wrap the world in green paper of change"... Work on that.. Mmm.., "Green Trap, Change Wrap", no. More."The Green Wrap" Right... Green, the colour of change. Al will like it. The Iranian people will too. Shit, for all we know, the Taliban might like it!" It went on for hours. It was clear all PR staff, who were seconded for three months from big PR companies, as a collective tax writeoff, knew their marketing stuff.

Then it went to the operations department, the finance department, the risk analysis department (who indicated that green was also the colour of the election protests in Iran, but all wiped it off the table as "nobody cared about that Iran shit anymore"), the IT department (who distributed green mousepads) and even the catering people (who wore green caps for two months). The security department suggested to scan to box as nobody had opened it. And there was an awkward smell coming from it.. But they got orders from "up above" to keep their hands off.

In short, it took less than two months to prepare the campaign, and to present it at the next "General Government Meeting". They got the nod from the Americans and the Brits, which was good enough to roll out the campaign globally. None of the other donors were important anyway.
Neither the US nor UK knew what it was all about trusted the organisation to know what they were doing. It was also as a trouble-free way to empty their budget before the year's end. Otherwise questions were asked. And by nodding, they stepped up as a major donor, so they'd see their logo on all PR material. "Donation from the American and British People". Solid deal, man. Solid deal..
Some rumour that the US and UK representative to the General Government Meeting had been drinking the night before, and were actually dozing off. Which would explain their enthusiastic nodding at the proposal. But that is just a rumour of course.

The Green Box was put in a huge display case, stuck on a massive rotating pole with flickering lights and all, in front of the agencies' office. It even dwarfed the McDonald's sign right next to it. McDonald being one of the main private donors to the agency, did protest every so slightly. But they were quickly reminded that Burger King was just around the corner and waiting... Indeed, the main private donors: McDonald's, Bayer, Shell and Bureau for the Promotion of Tourism in West-Agriculturia (which later turned out to be a tax outlet for the Albanese Mafia, but that is another story), all supported the idea and made small green boxes for change collection in their offices and outlets. "Change for Green".

In one of the roll-out meetings that followed, some staff did question the content of the Green Box. One even opposed the idea, but the cold stares she got, had her sit down and be quiet. After all, nobody wants to be a lone tree. They catch a lot of wind. And she had only a temporary employment contract, so 'not extended due to funding limitations' was easy.

Once this initial opposition was dealt with, all went very fast. Everyone was enthusiastic. Directors pitched in their support, as they knew the Green Box campaign had a huge budget. They all wanted a piece of the pie. Staff stepped up to be the "Champion of the Green Box". There was a competition to collect the most money from family. Kids had a worldwide "Green Box" painting competition, you name it,...

The press had a ball. They pitched everything from "Turning Development Green", "The Green movement: turning evolution into revolution". "The Largest Green Aid Campaign Ever"... Millions, Billions, it did not matter, figures were thrown. Everyone loved the hype. I mean apart from Putin having the flu and the Americans invading North Korea, it was a slow news month.
Even Foxnews feature something. "Large Green box, center to Obama Tax Evasion" in which they proved through extensive investigative journalism, that the box was sent straight from Obama's office, and contained money left over from his election campaign...

Three years later, the Green Box campaign was declared a success. It went in the books as a school example how to to strategize for a good fundraiser, how to motivate staff for your causes, how to rally donor support.
In the next government meeting, the UK and US reps gave an enthusiastic nod on the final evaluation report, and approved funding for the next project.

So, everyone was happy. Loads of money went around. And they even helped some poor along the way. Not many, as their 10% declared overhead cost, did not include 50% staff cost, and 20% transport cost, 10% security cost, plus the agreed 10% miscellaneous cost.

It did not matter. Everyone was happy. With the funding generated, the organisation survived another year. There were no scandals, so donors were happy. And does it not feel good to help the Poor of the World.

Oh and the box? It was delivered to the wrong address. It was supposed to go to the recycling company next door, and contained 300 dead AAA batteries.

Question to be asked:
How many green boxes exist in the aidworld? How many times are we all sitting in a meeting, enthusiastically nodding at eachother, although we all know the proposal is shit, the product is shit, the purpose is shit, but it does not feel right to ask questions or to oppose. How many times are senseless things done, because "donors want it", because politics want it, simply because the boss wants it? Do we leave enough room for critical thinking and opposition? How many times are we sucked up as part of this massive dynamic which includes all the "wins-wins", and where it is almost impossible to stand up in the stream and say "Is this really what we should be doing?". There is no reward in opposition, after all. Loser!

A Wise Friend told me not long ago, that in the Aid World failure, incompetency, "half-half" are much more common and accepted than in the Commercial World. I think I will start to believe that.

Picture slightly modified from a find on Words, Pictures, Humor


Jennifer Lentfer 13 August, 2010 17:05  

A very wise mentor in this sector once told me, "In development, you probably won't ever really know if you're doing anything right. But if you're not questioning, you are most certainly doing everything wrong."

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