Chances are, if you have a Facebook account, you’ve probably heard of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign by now. And without a doubt, you’ve probably also read the resulting criticism, which spread faster than perhaps the video itself. Invisible Children were accused of over-simplifying their message, conveying neo-Colonist ideas and reinforcing stereotypes of developing countries.
While the Kony 2012 controversy is this week's hot topic, NGOs using stereotypes and over-simplified messages is old news. In a 2011 Columbia Journalism Review article about “why NGOs prefer bad news,” the head of one organization sums up the problem: “When you’re fundraising you have to prove there is a need. Children starving, mothers dying. If you’re not negative enough, you won’t get funding.”
There's been research done that backs this claim. As it turns out, bad news makes people more inclined to open their pocketbooks. In a 2008 study examining the images used in charitable advertising, researchers discovered that people are not only more likely to donate to charity when images of children are used—they’re more likely to donate to charity when negative images of children are used. The sad truth is that photos of emaciated children surrounded by flies are more likely to garner support (and funding) than photos of adults enthusiastically contributing to development outputs.
And that’s exactly why Invisible Children created the movie it did—in a video response to the criticism, Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey explained that part of their three-pronged approach is to create a “compelling narrative” through making films.
“Once people see the movie and they start to care, we ask them to get involved,” he explains. Basically, in order to get people to care about the issue in the first place, Invisible Children had to oversimplify their message and had to reinforce stereotypes—because if they didn’t, the video would have never gone viral in the first place.
What does all this have to do with "travel with purpose?"
The very unfortunate truth is that in the same way that NGOs struggle to fundraise effectively without perpetuating stereotypes, volunteer-sending organizations have a difficult time recruiting volunteers without using these same tactics.
Consider this: companies use PhotoShopped images of attractive women to sell clothing because they want women to visualize themselves wearing the clothing. When it comes to recruiting volunteers, organizations have a similar goal—they want prospective volunteers to visualize themselves on project, living and working in a developing country. And the best way to do that? By using images of attractive young people with children—regardless of whether the beneficiaries of their programs are even children.
When I think back to my own volunteer abroad experience, there’s one photo that sums up my six-week construction project better than all the rest. It’s a candid shot; in it, I sit slumped against a wall during my midday work break. I’m covered in a thick layer of dirt and sweat, my shoulders are hunched and the look on my face clearly reads, “Did I really sign up for this?"
That one photo better captures the day-to-day realities of my volunteer experience in Vanuatu better than any of the other pictures taken during the trip. But there's a reason I would never show it to prospective volunteers; I'm pretty sure if I did, no one would volunteer overseas ever again.
The truth is, some volunteer-sending organizations that are genuinely committed to social justice and equity have a difficult time recruiting volunteers and securing funds simply because they refuse to resort to what some deem to be unethical advertising practices. And some organizations that are genuinely committed to sustainable development may have to over-simplifying messages in order to meet organizational goals.
So how can you know if a volunteer-sending organization is doing great work?
The good news is you've come to the right place. Verge has a ton of resources for choosing a volunteer program. One great place to get started is this article on "How to Find an Ethical Volunteering Organization."
But my advice to prospective volunteers is to try and look past the images. Ask to speak to alumni of the program and read through the organization’s financial statements and annual reports, if they're available.
And remember, just because an organization has a flashy website doesn’t mean that they’re doing great work—and just because an organization has an awe-inspiring video doesn't mean that they're not doing great work.