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Effective framing

When I think of funders, I think of the individual donor. In the NGO sector, individual donors are our members, core supporters, and our advocates. While they may not represent the largest pool of funding for NGOs, they are the ones who help build and continue the momentum of our causes and call to action. But there is a two-fold problem: (1) how do we as environmental NGOs frame the language of our causes and, (2) how do we educate and engage our individual donors? To make the environmental movement more effective, we need to address both simultaneously to effect change.

On the first point, the framing of the environmental movement – whether it is about climate change, population, or wildlife – has often been divisive and stigmatising to the mass proportion of society. We cannot simply reduce a force as complex as climate change to, let’s say, shocking images of a lone polar among melting ice caps. Such approaches tend to simplify the narrative into a ‘special interest’, as opposed to the truly global and all-encompassing phenomenon which touches us all. They also tend to disempower, and render hopeless, segments of society who recognize the problem but can’t fathom a feasible way forward.

As NGOs, we must frame the environmental challenges of today in such a way that builds coalitions and provides a catalyst for meaningful dialogue and change. Such a framing need not be limited to ‘traditional’ environmental concerns such as consumption or conservation alone. In fact, a hallmark of success will be the very ability to unify the seemingly disparate causes which affect the grand sum of our environmental condition. Here I am talking about poverty, migration, women’s rights, education, and family planning to name a few. All have a unique purpose in their own right, yet all are severely compromised without a unified environmental vision. Part of what we strive for at Population Matters, is to shine light on this, and advocate for a framework which puts forward population as the underlying determinant under which prospects for environmental sustainability ultimately fall.

Advocating for environmental sustainability through greater attention on our numbers can be seen as controversial. The adage that ‘consumption not population’ drives our current condition has an element of truth. However, the inconvenient reality is that our numbers determine the number of consumers and, ultimately, our prospects for addressing poverty, biodiversity, and climate change. By seeking to broaden the narrative of environmental issues to global poverty and population growth, we strive to frame the environmental movement in such a way that builds coalitions and offers a more holistic approach.

Making the environmental movement effective also means providing opportunities to not only engage, but empower, our individual donors. Donors need to feel passionate about this cause, so much so that they not only want to fund the work but be active campaigners to lobby their government, tell their friends and family, and host community events to raise awareness of the cause. This requires a shift in the thinking of our donors, looking at how to not just capture a one-time donation, but to bring them on board for life. We need to find ways to get donors to read about the organisations they fund, the work they do, and the actions they can take to make a difference – to understand that there may not be an “immediate” reward to their actions, but that step by step changing attitudes towards climate issues causes a tidal movement that leads to real change.
Some suggestions:

1) First off, it’s not all about the money. Yes, fundraising and funding projects is integral to seeing change. But to really continue the momentum of the movement we need active, engaged, and passionate supporters. To do this, NGOs need to look into building relationships with their members, relationships that are not all about the asking and taking of money.
2) Ask their opinions: What are they most passionate about? Segment them along these lines and design engagement opportunities that speak to their passion, but also further your cause.
3) Provide reference materials: Policy reports, academic journals, etc. are great for deep understanding of the issues. But we should also provide messages which they can disseminate to the wider audience who may not know as much about the issues. If you were to give an elevator pitch about the cause, in 30 seconds, what would you say to get someone’s attention?
4) Support, support, support: Remind your constituents that you are there to provide support to them too. In their endeavours to lobby governments, campaign, fundraise, run a marathon… you are supporting THEM in THEIR actions too – it’s a two-way street.

Engaging our individual donors as equal partners, and empowering them with the knowledge, resources, and networks to advocate for change ultimately multiplies our efforts manifold. However, framing our environmental movement in a way that moves beyond individual causes to one that highlights the bigger picture and build coalitions of support is a necessary precondition towards addressing the disaffected sentiments of many would-be environmental champions. Taken together, reframing our movement and improving our donor relations, NGOs can more effectively build the coalition of civil society needed to galvanize effective change from the grassroots up.

Simon Ross is chief executive of Population Matters.

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