Following on the post (and great comments) about whether Oxfam should get serious on changing social norms, I’ve been thinking about a ‘life cycle analysis’ approach to INGOs’ engagement with the public. The starting point is that at different ages, people have different assets and constraints (eg disposable time, cash, openness to new ideas). Obviously, one shouldn’t generalize – not all 20, 40 or 80 year olds are the same – but just for the sake of argument, let’s do so anyway. In the table below, I’ve allocated columns to Age, Assets, Constraints, Possible Aims for INGO engagement and entry points for that engagement. See what you think
|Age||Assets||Constraints||Possible INGO Aims||Points of Entry|
|0-5||Blank canvass, crucial age for shaping norms||No power, money||Building progressive social norms||Parents (esp mothers), faith organizations|
|6-18||Forming political opinions, lots of energy/idealism/time, can influence parents||Little money, power||More detailed shaping of values and opinions; broad campaigning; fundraising; badgering parents on eg advocacy or ethical consumerism||Schools, youth celebrities, faith orgs|
|18-24||Energy, time, idealism. Some future leaders/decision makers become easier to identify thanks to ‘sorting hat’ of university/discipline||Little experience, influence||Influencing future leaders eg via internships, volunteering, engagement with elite universities; long term recruitment||Elite universities/disciplines; Cultural ambassadors|
|25-45||Kids, growing influence in workplace (eg govt officials)||Kids (permanently knackered, broke)||Some advocacy with those in positions of influence, access to kids on norms; Long term retention||Progressive kids’ clubs (cf Woodcraft Folk); Light touch contact maintenance (email etc); Some sectoral advocacy engagement|
|46-65||More time (kids growing up, flying the nest), money, influence, experience||Still tied up in work/careers||FundraisingSome advocacy; Advisory roles||Advisory /mentoring roles to Oxfam teams and partners? Some specialist advocacy groups?|
|65-||Time, contacts, money||Energy levels and health declining over time||Grey Panther advocacy groups; Fundraising||Use supporter databases to identify clusters of people with similar experience/ interests; Identify ‘old men in a hurry’ to convene issue-specific advocacy groups (eg of ex bankers or accountants)|
When I did this exercise, what struck me was how little it resembles how Oxfam (and presumably other NGOs) currently engage with the public. We do next to nothing to shape norms during the early years of childhood, either directly or through parents and faith organizations. We see campaigns as primarily a role for youth, despite their lack of contacts, influence or staying power. Older people are too often treated as walking chequebooks rather than highly networked veterans with decades of experience we could draw upon.
Beyond just adapting engagement to the shifting sands of a person’s life cycle, we also need to move from ‘broadcast to conversation’ – a management slogan more often spoken than followed. That means acknowledging and responding to people’s varied and individual talents, experience, desires and agency, with ample space for feedback, suggestion and initiative as part of being an INGO supporter.
Exciting, and probably the way we have to go anyway, not least because people’s expectations are changing and they want more of this customized treatment and less of the ‘just trust us, we’ll make sure your money is well spent’ stuff. Customization could even extend to ‘disintermediation’ – finding a way to put people directly in contact, whether on donating (‘click here to send your cash straight to the SIM card of a person living in poverty’, a la GiveDirectly) or advocacy (‘sponsor a Women’s Rights Activist in a country of your choice’).
All good stuff, but it poses a huge challenge to business as usual, both in terms of the IT systems to allow all this to happen, but perhaps more fundamentally, to the culture and attitudes of traditional aid organizations.
Thoughts? (and thanks to Lizzie Williams and Foyez Syed for conversations on earlier drafts. Only fair to point out that Foyez was a bit scandalized by my blatant elitisim on universities and thought we should also be challenging the current system by promoting and developing leaders from different backgrounds. Fine, but we will never have the resources or scale to make much of a dent on that one, I fear.)