Mumbai: Communication is key to the cause of philanthropy and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) need to communicate more effectively to spread the message to society, says Murray Culshaw, an independent development worker who works with NGOs in India. A 74-year-old Bangalore-based British national who has been working with NGOs for 25 years, Culshaw believes that while many NGOs lack communication skills, they are best placed to advocate the causes that they are passionate about. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What is the current state of communication between NGOs and the society in India?

The NGOs have not learnt to communicate their work. My argument is that they are the best people to communicate. If you believe in something so passionately, then you are the best person to communicate it. The snag is that they are passionate about the cause but not about communicating it. So you are left with India having some fantastic people who do great and diverse work but who haven’t understood that their job is not only the cause but to communicate the cause. They must inform society.

For instance, I work with an organization called Sense India which works with the deaf-blind. Many people have not even heard of a condition called deaf-blind. If they just get grants, and the money comes and goes to the NGO, the society does not know that there are around 500,000 estimated cases of deaf-blindness in India. Therefore that NGO, like every other NGO, is morally bound to communicate and the society must know what is going on.

What kind of challenges do NGOs face in terms of communication?

The first challenge is the people who have passionately started the NGO do not communicate the cause to the society. The leadership does not understand that their job as a leader is half tackling the problem and half communicating it. We don’t have a network or a wonderful bunch of leaders who believe in communicating their cause.

Second, the grant system does not give money or even allow to come in and help that organization communicate. The challenge is that the NGOs do not have any money to invest, so you have no people to communicate. The grant system has slowed down the development of communication.

We don’t have staff who have good communication skills. Many NGOs have spelling mistakes and grammatical errors in their writing, they can’t write a decent article. You ask an NGO to say what it wants to do in a short sentence, they can’t write it in 20 words. They cannot summarize their conviction in few words.

Is there a talent crunch?

Yes. We haven’t got the money to recruit people because they are all professionals. The grant system doesn’t allow it, so where do you get the money from?

We also have the challenge of a mental framework. The public says all my money must go to the cause, it must not be spent on administration. But for me administration is management. The public does not want to give their money to the management, they want to give money to the “child". So you have got a perception problem that the public does not understand that tackling social causes requires communication.

How much of this inefficient communication affects the fundraising?

If people don’t know where your money is going, who will give their money? NGOs are facing an attitude in the society whereby the people don’t trust you, because there is so much corruption in the country and because of a few bad eggs, people think all NGOs are corrupt.

How can we change this?

There is a growing number of NGOs who have realized that they need to communicate, many are recruiting communicators, are building communication teams. Despite the fact that they are not getting money for communications, they are squeezing their budgets to set up these teams. There is definitely a changing attitude amongst the NGOs.

You have to bring about a change slowly, bit by bit. The director needs to get it. We have to bring new types of people from the media, from the corporate sector, from the fund-raising background.

Some NGOs are now beginning to change their boards, to get a better balance of people. You have quite a number of people from the professional communications world to look at the NGO sector. But they don’t find it so easy to adapt their corporate communications environment to the NGO sector. So they need training, mentoring and advising.

What are some of the avenues for communication other than the traditional means?

Events like marathons provide opportunities for NGOs to communicate. In this case, you don’t need fund-raising teams, you have one person running who will raise money for you. They create opportunities for NGOs to go out and talk about their work.

I am pretty passionate about this, because my view is that the Indian society should know about cause of injustice, of deprivation. The government rarely talks about it, but NGOs do.

What is your view on the current state of accountability among NGOs in India?

Everybody is sceptical in India. I believe NGOs serving the society need to be accountable to the society. Part of the whole subject of learning to communicate and raise resources is being accountable for those resources. So it is a part of the package—you communicate, raise resources and you become more accountable. You must be transparent. The simplest model is to publish an annual report and make it freely available. It should be readable, interesting and have a summary of accounts. I am working with a group called Credibility Alliance which has established pretty tough guidelines for good governance and public disclosure. For example, those guidelines say that you are supposed to say what your chief executive earns.

How many NGOs have adopted this?

There are not many NGOs who are following these strict guidelines. And partly because they don’t want to put in writing the salary of the chief executive and it also asks the salary of the next person and the lowest earning salary. It asks other things like how many times a board has met, who is on your board and how many times have they participated in meetings, etc. And of course, it asks for your income and spending. But increasingly the NGOs are realizing the value of these disclosures.

Also I believe impact is more than money, so that should also be included in the report. NGOs must learn to communicate the long-lasting impact.

Are you seeing a shift in awareness?

The awareness for communication among NGOs is growing but the NGO sector needs support organizations. We are going to get stronger, but I don’t know how long it will take.

How can the government and corporates help?

I think there is more that the government can do to encourage philanthropy in general. The government does call charities for discussions but is it a part of the overall policy in the country?

As for the corporate sector, there is a little bit more awareness in them that they should be more involved in the society. But it is really not their business. They have to make profits for their shareholders.

What is the one message that you always give NGOs?

Communicate or die is the message. And please communicate, because the society needs you.

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