The Charity Bug

Natalia Shuvalova / Agency for Social Information

Year after year, surveys about NGOs show little change in people’s attitudes. Russian NGOs are as distant from the people as they have always been. What is needed is a publicity campaign to let people know what do the NGOs really do, who do they help and why, and to overthrow distrust and stereotypes that plague NGOs.

And this is why a group of NGOs came together under one tent: the promotional campaign “It’s That Simple!” which was launched in 2009, after a year of preparation. Research to clarify in detail what arguments and approaches can shift people’s “non-participatory” stance and what do NGOs expect from such a shift, was done. And the first Russian code of ethics for NGOs — NGO Coordinates — was developed. It declares the principles of transparency and accountability. Over 250 NGOs signed this code, which means, that at least that many organizations that work in Russia share the transparency and accountability values and understand them in the same way. But the most important thing is that the campaign strategy has been defined. And the interest has been huge, because all NGOs — big and small, prosperous and just starting — realize that the third sector needs to involve the general population.

What do the results of the surveys show? For starters, there is some reassurance that things are not completely hopeless. Yes, just one person in three says that s/he heard something about charities and NGOs. Yes, just 18 percent were able to name at least one such organization — and usually named not a specific NGO but a general type. But names such as Chulpan Khamatova and Dina Korzun emerged on this list for the first time. For the “Make a Gift of Life” Foundation this is a huge breakthrough. Even if the respondents were not sure exactly what these people do, they had still heard about them. This confirms that it is possible for NGO promotion to bridge the distance that separates ordinary people and NGOs.

The numbers may not look very positive, but interest in NGOs are quite high: Over half of the respondents would like to learn more about NGOs, and about three quarters of them say that their attitude toward NGOs is generally positive. To tap this potential, NGOs must meet people halfway, and learn to explain their stance in simple and clear terms and offer accessible forms of involvement.

“When trying to raise awareness,” says Olga Drozdova, ASI Project Manager and one of the campaign developers, “you should start with simple things: with visible and clear activities where everyone can get involved without any risk. Currently we are implementing such activities with our regional partners. It can be an exhibition, a concert, anything at all. You do not have to say bluntly: let’s do good, let’s help others. It is much more important to give people a positive emotional attitude.”

Over 30 activities took place under the “It’s That Simple!” banner from March to August 2009; one more visible among them was the “Spring Week of Kindness”. It launched the campaign and involved over one million volunteers from all over the country. Its events attracted attention of thousands of people in Moscow. The first large charity event was a children’s festival in Sokolniki Park called the Ice-Cream Day.

The “It’s That Simple!” Charity Village opened its doors during the Afisha Magazine Picnic on August 8th. The Charity Village gathered many NGOs under its roof; its main idea was to show that doing good is simple and that you can help others right now and easily. The event gathered tens of thousands of visitors, including 16 people in wheelchairs. On a bulletin board with information posted on what good deeds one can do right here and how (help with renovations in children’s activity center; adopt a homeless dog; sign up as a volunteer etc.) the picnic visitors could offer their help to the ones who needed it. A screening of eco-shorts provided by the WWF Russia and films about disabled people from Cinema without Barriers collection of Perspektiva NGO was taking place nearby. Funds collected during this action will help a real school for these children.

Even a little bit of help matters; it is important to contribute to common causes regardless of time, effort, or money spent. Each person helps to the extent of his/her ability and preferences and perhaps here lies the secret of real involvement. When NGOs offer a wide a range of opportunities to help, people begin to realize that the mysterious and distant NGOs do not always operate in abstractions like “promoting development” or “supporting institutionalization”, but actually do basic, clear and obviously necessary things.