Aid Watch Grinch Edition: Are We Mean to Ask that NGO Ads not be Simplistic and Wrong?

In the spirit of the holidays, let's ponder the strategy of using forlorn children and their bellies for fund-raising, which seems to intensify each year around this time.

I was introduced to, a new marketing effort of the Children’s Hunger Fund by a friend over Thanksgiving dinner. I was pulled in by the simple message “Skip something. Feed a child.”

To illustrate this, the site has a video of plates of gourmet steak and veggies being transported from a table at an upscale restaurant to starving children in another country – still on their pristine white plates, served by a smiling waitress. If this bore any relationship to what CHF actually did, Aid Watch could evaluate the number of children served, how their parents were involved, whether these children grew up to grow their own food, the effectiveness of serving children on white china, etc.

Of course, aid veterans, although not the general public, know that direct donor-to-child transfers never happen because of high transaction costs, so the ad is already misleading in a very well known way. But then we find out that the reality is that CHF is not even primarily a food distributor. According to their website, they do send “Food Paks” around the world to needy families, not just children. The photo of a Food Pak features an American diet, including saltine crackers and animal crackers, intended to feed entire families.

However, according to Fred Martin, Communications Director at CHF, “In fact our Food Pak program is a small portion of what we do. We highlight it because it is our flagship program that we’ve seen work very well in building relationships with the poor so that deeper needs can be uncovered and responded to.” I learned from Fred they also provide beds in eastern Europe and medicines in Asia, which are not identified on their website or their annual report to donors (only the totals of aid given by country or region). By reviewing their financials (IRS form 990), one sees of the extent of their non-food work: 85 percent of their donations are, in fact, medical supplies and medicines; they also collect and distribute toys, bicycles, beds and millions of dollars of clothing (a form of aid that NGO critics like Good Intentions are Not Enough is critical of).

I believe in helping people with supplies that make a difference, so, why do I sound like a Grinch? Because I believe in honesty in conveying what a charity really does. This ad seems to take us back to the simplistic and wildly inaccurate Sally Struthers “save a child” world, long since discredited. Can we please hang onto progress in aid transparency when we make some?