Reframing the message in international development: where are we heading?


Reframing the message in international development

How can NGOs get the public involved in development projects without being too simplistic in their communications and fundraising efforts? This was the main topic of discussion at a conference organised some time ago by Wild Geese Foundation, a Dutch NGO that supports community-based projects in developing countries. The event’s goal was to share the findings of the EU-supported training and communication project, ‘Reframing the Message’ and discuss the way forward.

‘Reframing the Message’ aimed to improve the communication practices used in international development by advocating for a more realistic and mindful approach; an approach that is transparent, shows both lessons learned and success stories, and is respectful of the dignity of the people involved.

Let’s first take a look the perceptions of the sector. An article published by the Guardian states: ‘[…] media outlets accuse NGOs of […] exaggerating the scale of disasters to attract donor money.’ Furthermore, a street poll conducted by BrandOutLoud illustrates once again the negative images associated with the African continent and the distrust in the way NGOs are using public money. Yes, the sector urgently needs a change in the way it communicates (and not only, but that’s another discussion).

Judith Madigan from BrandOutLoud and Fiona Coyle from Dóchas were two of the speakers who shared their thoughts on the topic. Here are some highlights from the discussions together with my reflections:

The real mission

Step back and think about your nonprofit’s values and role in society. How are these aspects reflected in your communications? Although it might be challenging when in a fundraising role, focus on the long term effects rather than on the short-term gain. Let your mission transpire across all your communications.

A genuine voice 

There is a blatant disconnect between NGOs and the people they work with/for. Involve the local communities in your communications, let their voice be heard. As someone from the audience said, stop talking about Africa, talk about the people – the change agents! NGOs must stop referring to Africa as if it were one country (no wonder the existence of articles such as ‘Africa is not a country’) and discard the ‘white savior’ attitude once and for all. Get closer, listen actively, understand, collaborate. ‘Let’s focus on what unites us not on what divides us’ was someone’s remark.


When crafting a message or designing an image, think about the dignity of the people. Ask yourself: would I like to be portrayed like that? For inspiration, see how BrandOutLoud (an advocate of ‘reframing the message’) is empowering grassroots organisations through branding and communications. Or check out charity: water, whose mantra is ‘Opportunity not Guilt’. These organisations are leading the way.


For NGOs to gain credibility and become sustainable, they need to communicate both success stories as well as lessons learned. What went well? What needs to be improved? Share the inside stories, be open to criticism and implement the feedback.

A new narrative

All these ideas go hand in hand with the research published by FrameWorks Institute, which looks at how nonprofits can re-frame their social media messages in order to fundamentally drive social change (eg. ‘avoid compassion fatigue’). Through Strategic Frame Analysis™, an approach which ‘roots communications practice in the cognitive and social sciences’, nonprofits are encouraged to rethink their narratives so that they integrate their mission and values and have an impact at the system level.

I see these discussions as crucial for the sector and hope that by building on them, integrating them in our daily work and disseminating them, we will soon transform the way NGOs communicate about their programmes.

What’s your NGO’s approach to communications? Share in the comments below.

Looking to give a facelift to your organisation’s messaging? Get in touch for a consultation.

Photo credit: d_pham, framed (Flickr)

Published on 13 April 2017 by Laura Tufis.