Month: February 2015

When Bad Logos Happen to Good People

PCAPLast year I took this photo at the beach in Jacmel. I took it thinking that it was one of the worst logos and worst names for a nonprofit that I’d ever seen and thought that I’d probably want the image sometime to refer to of exactly what not to do. I knew it would probably come in handy for the blog sometime. So I’m a logo snob. I studied art and design so I’m particularly sensitive to how we communicate things visually. But this one was especially bad. Why is it so horrible, you ask? The image itself implies an offensive hierarchy where the giver is seen as being higher, superior to the bottom dwelling receivers who are so desperate that they are reaching out for pity. In the name, the very first word, the primary description of the children is “poor” which demonstrates a skewed focus from the start which dehumanizes the individuals who are supposed to be served by the project. Not to mention that the logo and the name are both too general, too vague, and too inflated with a very long expired approach to charity work where there are rich people giving stuff to poor people without any collaboration, empowerment, or true development.

Not only were the logo and the name bad, but they were on the side of a bad truck. One of those giant trucks with cages on the back for the white people to ride in so that they look like zoo animals as they drive through the Haitian streets to wave at all of the little kids that stare at them. So I took the photo knowing that through some of the design consultation work that I do with different groups it would serve as the perfect example of what to avoid in branding. And since then I have indeed used it multiple times for that exact purpose. But I never used it for anything on the blog yet and that was a year ago.

Then, a couple of weeks ago I got a message from one of my readers who was going to be in the Jacmel area with a mission team and they wanted to meet me. They wanted to visit me in Mizak and learn more about the work that I do here and then see if I could travel back to where they’re working. They were visiting a children’s home in the nearby community of Camatin which their church back in Indiana supports financially, but they were hoping that I could come along to help them better understand the operations of this project that they were involved with. They had some questions on the way the children’s home was run and also the effectiveness of their involvement as foreigners and they hoped that I could help them figure out some answers by helping through the language barrier and interpreting the cultural situations that influence the work there. I always look forward to a chance to meet my readers in person and also to learn about initiatives that I’m not familiar with that are working within our local communities here, so I agreed to their invitation and we made plans for the exchange.

After they came to visit me in Mizak, I was to ride back with them to Camatin. It was starting to get dark out by that time, so I didn’t even notice the truck that we were climbing up into for the ride back. I didn’t notice, that is, until the next morning when I woke up in Camatin and walked out onto the second story porch where we were staying and saw the logo on the side of the truck in the driveway. It was the exact same truck that I had photographed last year! I started laughing out loud at the absurdity of this strange bit of serendipity until the leader of the group heard me and came out to ask what was so funny. Knowing that he was a reader of the blog and understood my critical perspective on so many nonprofits, I had to tell him the truth. I told him the whole story, how I saw their truck on the beach a year ago, probably with some of them even in it, and judged it very harshly for the logo and name. I had to tell him how I had used them as a bad example to other groups who were working on ethical branding. I told him how ever since I saw it on the beach I have frequently wondered about the organization behind the logo and what kind of work it actually accomplished in Haiti (because there’s no way I could actually know from their branding). Now there I was, having ridden in their truck the night before and having spent the night at their headquarters.

To my delight, he laughed along with me and told me the story of the logo. He said that it’s been around since the 80’s when some well intentioned Americans got involved with the children’s home which had already been established by a local Haitian businessman. They incorporated the home as a nonprofit in the States and gave it that name and logo. Those Americans and the churches that they were from that had first supported the home had long since cut ties with the organization, but the nonprofit structure in the States and the name Poor Children’s Assistance Project, have remained in tact with a 2 person board responsible for it. Yet, it seems that the organization lacks any real invested leadership stateside concerned with updating it’s vision or reconsidering their branding to be more appropriate for their current status as a single children’s home caring for a total of twenty young girls, with an uncertain future as regulations for orphan care and adoption continue to change. They also lack leadership in Haiti as the whole project depends on the direction of one single man who inherited the project from his father and doesn’t have such a heart for it.

Despite all of this there are 20 little girls in that home who depend on its operation for everything in their lives. And there are a lot of Americans and Haitians collectively who care deeply about these girls’ well being and their futures. During my one day with this group at the children’s home I learned that the issues facing their programs there are truly much more complex than a bad logo and bad name on a bad truck. But I also met the girls who stay there and the women who take care of them and the staff that work to make sure all of their needs are provided for. I learned of their needs that might have a better solution possible for resolving them but will probably be impossible to ever implement that solution because of the systems of decades old charity that their needs are woven into from the start which is too complicated to undo. I found myself wishing the absolute best for the girls there and the staff that’s responsible for them but found it hard to believe that the absolute best would ever be reachable for them. For those reasons I applaud those people who are doing their absolute best to support this project despite the imperfection of the situation and encouraged those supporters who were there that week to continue their support any way that they could. There’s a future that’s going to be available to these girls that might not have been otherwise, and that always deserves to be celebrated.

I may have cringed when I first saw the logo on the beach, but now I’m thankful for learning the story behind it and the lives that are connected to it and I’m thankful for the friends that I met along the way. But next time I hate a logo on a truck on the beach, or on a t-shirt in the airport, or on a building in the street, now maybe I’ll invite Karma to bring that logo’s story back around to overlap with my own story. You just never know.

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Whatever You Do, Don’t Start Your Own NGO

I have often been asked my advice for individuals who are starting their own organizations and after years of nurturing my own start up org, being involved in starting and encouraging a number of others and now on the brink of starting another brand new one, my best advice is: DON’T DO IT! This is a case where I implore all off the other justice-loving, peace-fighting, hard working, big-dreaming hippie do gooders out there to do as I say and not as I do. I’m too far into the deep end of the intoxicating rush of designing logos and crafting mission statements and training staffs and mobilizing groups around common goals to make it out alive. But you still have a chance to save your own soul! Whatever great idea you have for the next life changing organization to introduce into the world, take a moment to bathe in the the very brief euphoria of the hypothetical, and then quickly abandon all of your brainstorms and swiftly run in the other direction. The truth is that there are better ways to channel your lust for making a difference than making one more well intentioned acronym to add to the global alphabet soup of good deeds.

I’m not writing this to rain on anybody’s parade but to lend my support to the idea that the way that humanitarian work is done is truly changing and the future does not need any more MONGOs (My Own NGOs) to flourish. I am also not saying this because I regret starting my own or because I think others have been mistakes. But the way we do things even since I founded my first 5 years ago has changed drastically. We collectively have learned a lot and we’re at a tipping point where things must change to improve and even maintain the prestigious reputation that humanitarian work has held in the past. We have learned a lot from the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and all of the failures that followed. We have learned a lot from Greg Mortenson and Somaly Mam and Yele Ayiti and Invisible Children. We’ve learned a lot from MONGOs that weren’t equipped to handle fame and recognition and the support that comes with it to carry out their grand visions. We’ve learned a lot from MONGOs with very big ambitions and even bigger hearts but absolutely no cultural or professional expertise.

IMG_1219-001I, personally, have learned a lot from all of the ego inflating highs and the soul sucking lows that I’ve gone through myself in my MONGO experience. Luckily I’ve been able to make it through all of those highs and lows, as have the organizations that I’ve been involved with, while maintaining some hope still for the future, but there have been too many days along the way where I have seen the humiliating gateway to failure looming dangerously close. And although I and the orgs have survived in the big picture, there have been too many smaller failures in the process of learning to survive that make the bigger picture much less enjoyable to believe in. (Somewhere in there there’s a metaphor about seeing the forest for the trees.)

The truth is that you shouldn’t start an NGO of your own because in order to succeed you have to give up too much of yourself and You are too precious of a thing to sacrifice so completely to some greater abstract notion of altruism. I know, I know, cynical old crabby doom and gloom. But here’s the glimmer of hope, the crocus pushing up through the cold, icy snow: You can make a difference! But in order to do so, You have to remain the beautiful creature that you already are. The beautiful creature that believed it was possible to do something great in the first place. That beautiful creature that dreamed of a world better than the one they knew and thought that they could play a role in making it come true. Be that beautiful creature and don’t destroy it by trying to start another NGO. It’s the most guaranteed way to crush those beliefs and suffocate those dreams. The people that you think will be there to support you and encourage you along the way will end up being the ones doubting and ridiculing and criticizing you. Or you might find that you get so much support you don’t know what to do and the next thing you know you’re wandering in the street naked babbling like a crazy person while someone videotapes you in secret to share with the world.

So, now if you decide to follow through with your idea for an NGO anyway, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Maybe you’re just a little masochistic like me and are drawn to the suffering. This is one of the reasons I refer to myself as a green mango. They’re masochistic little fruit. Mangoes actually need some sort of trauma to thrive. When nature is the harshest, mangoes love it. And in order to maintain the right kind of crazy to run your own NGO you have to have some of that attitude where you welcome the pain and the failures and turn them into opportunities to thrive. Welcome the bitter reality and still find a way to turn it into something sweet. But even then, even if your desire to help others trumps the logic that says it’s not possible, there are better ways to follow through in this day and age than by starting your own NGO.

And yet, I realize that sometime’s it’s simply safer to stick with what we know. And for years we’ve been told that NGO’s are part of the answer to the world’s problems. That’s a large part of the reason why I am standing at an impossible intersection that leads to building another MONGO right now. Despite everything, it’s what I know, and it would be a shame not to apply everything that I’ve learned in the past 5 years to something that means so much to me. You want to know more about it? Check out the Facebook site for The Mountaintop BAZ Foundation. Make a donation if you want. As far as MONGOs go, I think this one’s pretty damn sweet.

But, I repeat, just because I’m doing it doesn’t mean you should. Especially if you are new to the NGO world, I urge you to carve out a different path than the one that I and many others have found to work. The fact is that it won’t work forever, it may not even work for much longer, and I know that you’d rather be a part of the future. Create the future if you have to. Make it one full of more beauty and dignity and less institutionalized begging and pathetic logos and websites. Make it more about justice and less about charity. Make it a future that down the road, old fart humanitarians like me can say we were proud to be a part of when we were.