Ep 25: Wendy Chamberlin: Does Poverty Have a Marketing Problem?

On this episode of Marketing for Good, Wendy Chamberlin joins Erica to discuss the marketing of poverty. They talk about poverty graduation programming, the static picture of poverty (and why it is important to change that frame), and myths around poverty marketing. Wendy and Erica talk through poverty porn, mission-centered funding, and philanthropy’s voice at the table. They also discuss why organizations claim victory prematurely and ask the question: Are you proving it or improving it?


This is a transcript of Erica Mills Barnhart’s interview with Wendy Chamberlin on the Marketing for Good podcast. You can listen to the episode here and listen to more episodes on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you enjoy listening to podcasts. Enjoy!


poverty, people, donors, philanthropy, marketing, constraints, solution, problem, communities, money, markets

Erica Mills Barnhart  00:13

Well, welcome to the show, Wendy. You do such interesting, very interesting and very important work. The more I learned about it, the more I was like, wow, this is fascinating, and this is needed. So we’re going to talk about whether or not poverty has a marketing problem. We’re going to get there. I’m wondering if you’d be open to it, can we start just by hearing how you got into doing what you’re currently doing with the Boma Project from Kenya? How’d you get there?

Wendy Chamberlin  00:46

Um, there’s two stories. The one that goes back like 25 years is when after college I had a volunteer teaching assignment in northern Kenya and I got a chance to teach in part of East Africa that I knew nothing about. And I also learned how difficult it was to, for entities and NGOs to operate in the area because the area is characterized having like really low infrastructure, the only part of the A2 highway from Cairo to Cape Town that wasn’t paved ran through northern Kenya. It was known for having a lot of banditry and just tensions between communities and was very prone to droughts, and other just reoccurring environmental experiences that left communities in a lot of shock. And so I left northern Kenya thinking a lot about that experience trying to understand how to get into development, and eventually found my way working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and was doing a Google search, this is about seven years ago saying who the heck is doing work in northern Kenya. It’s really hard for stuff to stick there and not have it just be humanitarian response. And I stumbled across this organization called the Boma Project and got really intrigued by their work, partly because it wasn’t an outside NGO bringing in a solution, it was an NGO that was focused on having local talent, people from the community delivering a solution in a way that was really contextually appropriate and responsive to the needs of the community that it was working in and I got really hooked on that. And through a series of interventions, the Boma Project ended up winning, being one of 19 awardees for a big RFP at the foundation. And I got to know them closely on the donor side and fell into this world of understanding or trying to learn I should say about something called poverty graduation programming and, and poverty graduation programming is much of what Boma does which is it has a this approach, a multi sectoral approach, in what we say, to addressing the pernicious sticky issues around extreme poverty. And instead of saying, oh, if a person just has a bank account, then they’re no longer poor. And we know that not to be true. It looks at what kind of person pay for their school fees, their kids school fees, can they do they have money so they can pay for health care? And if a drought comes and wipes away their livestock, can they still be resilient and withstand that shock. And that’s the type of approach that poverty graduation undertakes is to build resiliency, through job skills, training and ongoing mentoring and coaching for a period of time. And being a bit of a data geek, I wanted to look at the research behind it. It turns out there’s a whole host of randomized control trials that look at the effects of this type of programming to say yes, this works even in the long term, even after you and your intervention and sure enough, the results show that at scale that, you know, seven years after somebody goes through this type of programming, which I can explain in a bit, they they still are considered resilient, their savings grow, their assets grow, and their family is able to absorb shocks, which is really what you want to see happening when people are taken through a type of intervention to help move them from one point to another point. I found that working in northern Kenya, and I just got sold on it. I also wanted to move my family to Kenya and I wanted my kids to have a chance to live overseas and grow up in a different country for a period of time. And I wanted to understand, I’d spent a lot of time looking at philanthropy and understand funds. I wanted to understand the implementation side. And I also needed to kind of put my money where my mouth was, I spent a lot of years on the philanthropic side saying go and scale and go work with these partners and now that’s exactly what I’m doing and I am feeling it directly. So long answer, but that’s how I am where I am. We moved to Kenya a year ago and we’re learning to adapt and adjust to a new environment.

Erica Mills Barnhart  05:11

And you made a choice to stay there when COVID was becoming a thing and you’re still there.

Wendy Chamberlin  05:19

And we’re still here. And we’re glad we’re still here because we have, well, Kenya has its challenges. At the same time, we were privy to consistent communication about how what’s happening with the spread of the virus. There’s just a lot of adoption of approaches to keep people protected. And honestly, it’s, my kids get a chance to be outside in a completely different environment and culture and see things and do things that they don’t have access to, which is an enormous privilege. And it gives me, the work I do a chance also to work firsthand on like, really relevant solutions and how we respond in light of COVID-19 too, that would be harder to do where I am in the US.

Erica Mills Barnhart  06:13

Yeah, and you were saying that, that they that Kenya, like shut everything down after three cases.

Wendy Chamberlin  06:19

Yeah, it was March 13. Kenya had like around three cases and the government shut down all the schools. And then they went through even more restrictive measures across the country. We had a geographic lockdown, which meant we couldn’t leave Nairobi, the evening curfew still in place. Like stock markets are closed. All kinds of restrictions were put in place and a large majority of them were just lifted last month. But it was really meant to contain the spread because most of the virus has been concentrated in population dense areas like Nairobi, Mombasa, other areas.

Erica Mills Barnhart  06:53

And you were saying before we get to poverty, I want to talk about the marketing of masks. Just for a moment. Will you just, will you share the messaging that came out around masks very early on?

Wendy Chamberlin  07:07

Yeah. You know, around actually was around Easter time because I remember we were, we were on a drive and the ministry of health was coming out with public announcements. They were actually quoting scripture which I don’t remember what it was, but it was essentially wear a mask, you know, do this in service of your neighbor because you care about, you know, we care and take care of one another, and wearing a mask is a way that we can show each other, you know, we can do that humbly and serve one another. And that’s honestly how a lot of people talk about wearing a mask here is like, I would of course, wear a mask because maybe I have been in touch with someone who has it and so I want to protect you and those around you. And the side version of that is like we we live in a country that has a health system that was working to respond rapidly to the spread of the disease, but is nowhere ready at full scaled to responding to people know that these interventions will be life saving. And so they’re willing to undertake those interventions. And so you don’t have the same sort of pushback of like, people feeling like a mask, wearing a mask is taking away their personal civil rights.  Yeah, yeah.

Erica Mills Barnhart  08:19

Yeah. And it sounds like I mean, I don’t know if this was what they were quoting, but that’s like, the super old  school messaging around, which is do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  So thank you, I’m just I’m appreciating hearing how different you know, within the US, obviously, lots of different approaches. But I really appreciated hearing you know, these international perspectives and it does so frequently go back to the marketing of individualism which is just part of the DNA of the United States. So watching that play out is super interesting.

Wendy Chamberlin  09:06

It’s interesting from here, because people ask me or tell me, well, you made a really good choice not to go back to the States, what’s going on? And that’s telling, and that’s people who have a different set of means that I have, but who would be are really, really concerned about the state of things happening in the US.

Erica Mills Barnhart  09:25

Yeah, yeah, really fair. Okay, so that makes me think of othering. Right, and how we all we all sit from our place of, you know, our lived experience, and we make all sorts of assumptions about other people. And then I think that that gets amplified because I think the further away you go from what you know, your assumptions become probably further from the truth. Just because you because you don’t know. And so I think that’s really relevant to this question, which was the subject line of the email that you sent me said, does poverty have a marketing problem? And honestly, as soon as I read it out loud, it’s just me in my office. I was like, yes, it does. And I thought this for such a long time, because way, way, way back when I did work in micro-finance. And one of the things that was always shocking to people was to learn and just to open their mind to the fact that people who happen to be living in poverty were actually excellent credit, I am air quoting, risks. They were really credit worthy. And so you know, when I when I talked to donors about that, or just was chit chatting with people about micro-finance, they were like, but what, how is that even possible? And I think that says so much about the marketing problem that poverty has, which is that we do have all these preconceived notions about it. Like with so many things, we bring our own biases to the idea of poverty, our own privilege, our own lived experience, or lack thereof, as it relates to poverty. And then we make a bunch of assumptions. So I had to look up where the word poverty came from because I love etymology. That’s, you were talking about your data geek streak. That’s my dorky streak, as listeners know. So I learned that it came the word poverty came into the English language in the 12th century. I don’t know what happened prior to the 12th century about how we would talk about poverty or not, but an immense misery or wretched condition. So not a strong start. Then we get poverty stricken in 1803, poverty line in 1901, and poverty trap in 1966.

Wendy Chamberlin  11:41

Oh interesting.

Erica Mills Barnhart  11:42

Yeah. So I just think the, so where it came from, does say a lot I would say about how we think about it. And that combined with this idea of many of us, myself included, do not have you know, we haven’t lived it and we have a lot of people assumptions about it. So that meant, you know, a piece of marketing there’s always this like for whom are we optimizing? How do I get into their mind and heart? So there’s that like projecting itself into other. But with poverty, there’s just something different that’s happening. So what made you ask this question about does poverty have a marketing problem?

Wendy Chamberlin  12:26

With COVID 19 oh, a few things. So, where I work in northern Kenya, the communities in which I work, they’re called pastoralists. Pastoralists are people who earn their livelihood through livestock, and they are semi nomadic, which means they are, their houses are temporal. And so and that has been the prominent livelihood activity of people who live in northern Kenya, which is an arid, semi arid land area. It’s like it is the desert. So people, know livestock, and that is livestock is their full way of life. And it’s an area also that in the 1963 constitution that Kenya adopted after left colonialism, they made a commitment that basically said, we’re not going to invest in this area economically, we’re just going to leave it be. And that didn’t change until the 2012 Constitution when they rewrote an article and said, we will now invest economically in this area. And this is an area that it covers more than the country of Ireland in size and is about 6 to 8 million people. So it’s not like a small area and there are northern Kenya is everywhere. In Sub Saharan Africa. They are characterized as being last mile, which is really if you imagine the last mile of a road, it’s where the road might cut off because there’s no infrastructure. There’s areas where there’s no electricity, there’s no, there may be buildings, but they are not completely finished. And so that context matters because it sets the scene for also understanding what typically might be in place for economies to thrive and continue to grow. And when you have infrastructure, when you have investment in communities when you have a tax base that can contribute as part of this too, that means you get schools with teachers, and you have industries that are attracted to an area and all these other things that grow and grow and create jobs and create opportunities. When you don’t have those things, and when we talk about this under investment that took place for such a long time, it means that it has what we see happening is that people have been sort of removed from the opportunity equation because of a lack of these things being in place, and so many of the people who live in northern Kenya are characterized as being extreme poor, and the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals, even SDG one has a definition around extreme poverty, which is, you know, people who live on $1.90 a day or less, but people who are extremely poor don’t walk around saying I have $1 and 89 cents I’m extremely poor. It’s really meant to like capture that there’s this massive I mean, it’s, it’s there’s very, very few resources that they earn on a regular basis, and probably a better measurement tool, in my opinion might be like, the Oxford Multidimensional Poverty Index, which looks at not just monetary value that a person has, but also that ability to mobilize resources to take care of their basic needs. And globally, there are about 700 million extreme people in the world. That number was reducing pre COVID, that number is increasing post COVID and in northern Kenya, the reason I try, it’s important to me to focus on it is because I think it shows both the opportunity that can be realized for the extreme poor, it also shows what constraints need to be addressed in order to overcome some of the barriers that are consistently persistent. And COVID-19 really amplifies or exacerbates what those barriers are.

Erica Mills Barnhart  16:30

Yeah. Do you find it to be true, so one of the things about poverty, when we think about the US context is there is this residual thinking from the Elizabethan poor laws, which came across the water with us when people came over way back when on the Mayflower, and part of that was saying that if you poor, it was your fault, there was something you had done. So I just wonder when people hear constraints, and opportunities, but I’m gonna start with constraints. So when we hear that, I could imagine some folks being like, well, you know, constraints you kind of put on yourself as opposed to societal constraints, structural constraints in your context. I’m just curious if in Kenya and northern Kenya in this last mile zone that’s as big as Ireland, good gravy-

Wendy Chamberlin  17:27

And beyond.

Erica Mills Barnhart  17:28

Yeah, and beyond. That’s real big. So it’s just like, I think for listeners to be last mile to this really big space. When people talk about poverty and constraints there is, is there this idea of like, well, they kind of did it to themselves? It’s kind of their fault?

Wendy Chamberlin  17:46

In this particular context, no, because the decisions were made during colonial times, in some cases to both how you even geographically delineate the areas or partition the areas to begin with, and then how and then post-colonialism how you choose to invest or not in this area. Um, so it’s not, that was less of a like they did it to themselves and even then and I you don’t see this sort of you either pull yourself up by your bootstraps sort of mentality or not that kind of spills over into that people widely recognized in Kenya, Kenyans themselves, widely recognize that the North is really challenged by constraints around infrastructure and environment around really distinct ethnicities that are different than what you see in other parts of the countries that impacts language, that impacts culture, and a host of other things. And so, people don’t look at it like I should have done better, that doesn’t carry over.

Erica Mills Barnhart  18:54

You just pull yourself up from your bootstraps. It’s like if you don’t have boots, there aren’t bootstraps. Right, like, yeah, you got to get to the point of having the boots even so. Okay, so when you think about constraints, and then you were saying that there’s a lot of focus on opportunity. And, you know, part of marketing, many things, but definitely in the marketing for good space, is painting this picture for people, particularly for people who aren’t, who are living a different experience of here’s the problem and here’s the better, brighter future world, right, that together, we can work together, we can get there. And so then how do we bridge that gap? How does that picture get painted in your context? So I think there’s there’s both kind of it’s actually why I wrote you that question, too. There’s kind of the mythological side of that. And then there’s there kind of the reality you know, there’s, there’s perceptions people have about that marketing of like oh people are poor in these areas, they are passively poor and they’re waiting.  What is passively poor, what do you mean by that?

Wendy Chamberlin  20:09

Passively poor means just like a person is just sitting waiting for something to be given to them

Erica Mills Barnhart  20:15

Oh, okay, okay.

Wendy Chamberlin  20:16

That is what passive poverty would be and they’re just waiting. They’re just there’s nothing there, they’re this this kind of image is created, there’s nothing there until somebody comes and brings in something to them. That’s both a marketing of poverty and I’d say it’s also a myth about poverty too. And that myth gets extended to, maybe there’s no markets that are happening. And maybe that all that can be done in this area is just time after time humanitarian response. And people do respond to that and it has generated interest and it has generated thinking about what to do, solutions. But what we see long term is that that belief structure around that type of marketing of poverty creates almost a static picture of what it means to be poor. And it fails to recognize, in my opinion, that in fact, people are pretty entrepreneurial by nature.

Erica Mills Barnhart  21:26


Wendy Chamberlin  21:27

And that there are markets that exist, they may not be in markets that one can compare to a savvy market, but they exist. And often the failure has been actually around the responsibilities of the state. And I would, I would also say, large scale donors who have made commitments to reach that further end. And so and that’s what we see play out what I mean by that, so a few things in, northern Kenya has experienced a huge amount of humanitarian crises one after the other, especially in terms of drought and it’s not even just like one offs. This year we had like a flood, drought, flood, locusts, and the COVID 19 phenomenon.

Erica Mills Barnhart  22:13

Oh yeah, the locust, it was biblical.

Wendy Chamberlin  22:17

And it’s still going, and they are huge and they’re, you know, they’re terrible. But we have cycles of experiences. And so that creates one image of like, okay, we got to do something now, drop food aid, do this like one time one shot thing that that is necessary at times, and I would never say it’s not necessary. But when these cycles of crises become predictable, because drop cycles are predictable, there are now there’s so much that is done around predictive analytics on when we know that there’s another drop is coming, we need food insecurity as part of that. When there’s predictability, you can create longer term solutions. That are responsive to the overall needs and constraints. And the same goes for when, well, let me pivot here and just say part of that is then entities making commitments to know more about what’s going on on the ground with communities as opposed to saying there is a problem here, we’re going to solve it, and we’re out. But having staying power and being in communities and being from the communities really matters. I mean, the communities need to have a voice in solutions and that voice by paying attention to that voice, that voice alone tells you that there’s a lot more going on than a static picture of poverty. And there are also I would say, a lot of premature declarations of victory against and around poverty. And this is part of the myth piece that goes on where, you know, we see examples where commitments around electrification, putting electricity into rural communities where towers are put up but they are not cabled for like years.

Erica Mills Barnhart  24:07

But victory is claimed because the tower is up.

Wendy Chamberlin  24:09

Exactly, the tower is up. A health clinic is built and it’s been paid for by somebody, multiple health clinics but they’re not staffed but you have that built and so the accountability to fully see efforts that are funded at a large scale play out and have their intended impact is missing from the picture. And that gets dismissed and put into the it’s just really hard and they’re just poor and there’s nothing else there sort of bucket of you know, that’s how it is there versus it’s hard, it’s complex, and it takes more stickiness to address these issues because they are very now we’re in the tangly, tangly mess bit of really impacting with is causing all these ingredients that are causing poverty.

Erica Mills Barnhart  25:04

Yeah, you used the word pernicious earlier which stuck out because I love that word, pernicious, it almost you know, I don’t know it feels almost like an onomatopoeia. Pernicious problems are messy, and therefore they require sticky solutions to it. What I’m hearing a bit of what you’re saying is how these, you know, victories are marketed toward donors, perpetuates and actually makes things messier, not cleaner, and definitely not better. And I’m curious you know, I mean, I have my own opinions about like, why is early victory claimed? Why is it claimed and if I mean that’s those examples right when we hear them like that was goofy to claim victory. That’s, that’s goofy. That’s a public health clinic that is isn’t making anybody healthier because it’s just a building. Why does it happen?

Wendy Chamberlin  26:08

There’s one of the other myths, I think that happens around poverty is a lot like that movie Field of Dreams of if you build it, they will come. If you create the solution, it will trickle down, right? By building a building, they will be educated, or are the teachers there? Are they capacitated to teach all those things? Somebody else has got to focus on that. That’s not my problem. Right? So that’s what I’m saying is that one of the challenges we have in the field of development is this very siloed approach to addressing poverty and poverty is not siloed. Poverty is not just siloed or on the line to like it’s an agriculture thing, it’s an education thing, it is a complex thing. And yet, donors are not organized in that way in how they respond. They’re not organized to fund in multi sectoral fashions, they’re focused organized funds sectorally and by virtue of that NGOs are oftentimes organized to operate sectorally as opposed to multisectorially. So if I am a donor and I prioritize agriculture, and I give out grants for improving agriculture, I’m looking for entities who can do that thing. And so that’s part of the problem. That’s part of the challenge that we see is that kind of siloed thinking as to how to address a problem.

Erica Mills Barnhart  27:36

Right? So I have a hammer so I’m looking for a nail.

Wendy Chamberlin  27:40

 Exactly. And we all do this right? I will say one more thing is that, the, what was I gonna say? The other part of this is patience. So and,  kind of like, I won’t say sexiness probably. That’s terrible to say I’ll say like, patience and like attraction to like, this is the thing I want do and hold up as my, my beacon. So people want to fund the thing that they feel like is the most catalytic in their silos, right? And so maybe that’s building school buildings, maybe that’s rolling out laptops, it could be a host of other things. People do not really tend to want to fund or have the staying power for like what happened five years after you did that? They’re looking for somebody else to fund that. And that’s where you have to ask, that’s where we actually need more focus and attention to say, well, you didn’t actually electrify the towers so nobody got electricity, or you gave people a bank account, but guess what, they didn’t use it as you thought and they’re still struggling. And so more attention needs to be put on these so what factor of poverty solutions, or maybe just as much and to many organizations credit, this is happening, but sometimes it has to, we either get so caught up in the like it has to happen in this only methodological way to being able to like, let’s just ask ourselves honestly isn’t working, I can look at the building, I can see there’s no lights, and it’s clearly not working. I don’t need an RCT for that. I can tell you that that’s not happening.

Erica Mills Barnhart  29:16

Yeah, I go back to this question that Beth Kanter asked many years ago, and we were doing a panel discussion about data and transparency. And the question she posed somewhat rhetorically was, is it are you proving it or improving it? And I  come back to it frequently from a from a marketing perspective to say, oftentimes we get and then there’s some structural reasons for this very focused on like, look, I’m proving it, there’s a building, there’s a laptop, there’s this or that or that, but does that improve the situation? And I think it’s that next question that would really inform things like Annual Reports. I point, I wiggle my finger at annual reports, because similar to like the electoral timelines, you know, so if it’s two years and four years, you’re kind of like, what can I get done? And it’s very frenetic. I feel like in some ways annual reports are a disservice because they perpetuate this approach to funding and to doing when you’re the NGO, because you have to have something to put in the annual report, you know, to show people whoever those people may be, the funders who gave you money or whatever, whatever the case may be. What’s happened? And am I saying do away with and reports entirely, I’m not ready to go there. But I would love to see an evolution of them to acknowledge exactly what you’re talking about, which is, here’s the bit that happened this year. What else needs to happen? How can we improve it? We can prove that we did it this year, how are we going to improve going forward? And if there was that type of framework, well then that becomes I think a positive. But as it is, I feel like we’re all kind of stuck in the development field for a long time it’s been stuck. I also think some colonial roots and historical things play into this for sure. And also for the first time I sort of for the instances where it’s a US based agency that’s coming in this like pull yourself up from your bootstraps kind of plays out, which is like, well, you have a building we gave you a jumpstart, okay, let’s see what you’re gonna do. You know, like it’s, I just hadn’t thought about it in that way. So it was interesting to hear you talk about that. But there has to be, you know, you can’t like marketing can’t solve all the problems unfortunately. But these but it, plays out these perceptions. And so it seems to me like we need to shift some perception in order to get the structural changes to start happening, that would downstream impact marketing.

Wendy Chamberlin  32:06

Totally. And  we see this play out, so about 60% of our program participants and business women we work with, they receive government cash transfers, or safety net payments. I want to use this example because one of the things is, so when they receive those payments, that the equivalent of like $20 a month, it’s not a lot of money. And it’s proof alone, that subsidy from a government by itself will not support you, as you know, as an individual. They spend almost the exact same amount to go to the distribution point to receive those funds, which almost cancels out that payment completely. The banks will not offer their services locally to them, because they have been told these myths that there is no businesses here. People aren’t entrepreneurial, they’re passive recipients, and there’s no market and so what we have been trying to do as an organization that supports entrepreneurs and tries to access them to markets and make those linkages I should say the market is we start talking to the private sector players, the financial service provider and say, there’s actually businesses here we started 11,000 businesses with these women. And we have savings groups, and there’s stuff happening. There’s livestock markets, where women are trading like crazy in goats and sheep. And when we tell that story to the financial service providers, they are like, that’s not what I knew of that area, I’ve never been to that area, but actually, that’s not what I heard about that area. And so we are there to myth bust for them to say there are markets here, people are entrepreneurial, they are like, they can kill it. And actually what is missing is you, you are not bringing the services they need to their community. You can’t offer it the same way you do say in Nairobi, you can do it differently and still have an impact and you can be a profitable on the same side. So we try and reverse the tables of communication that way to change the narrative. There is something happening here.

Erica Mills Barnhart  34:07

So you’re trying to do what we would refer to as changing the frame?

Wendy Chamberlin  34:11

Yeah. I just found out that it was called that.

Erica Mills Barnhart  34:14

Yeah. Well, yeah. And the frame often shows that you change frames. So how do you if somebody has grown up with this one frame, this one belief system around the entrepreneurial activity or lack thereof in this region, how much does it take? Like, do they hear facts like 11,000 businesses. Does that shift them? Does that open their minds to this different way of seeing it or what works?

Wendy Chamberlin  34:46

We try and use data to tell a story. So yeah, we use facts. We tell them what’s happened. We move from like you thought this was cute and boutique, and now it’s scaled. And so what we thought was a one off is now happening regularly and it means this and we can show them through the program that we offer because we do all kinds of business monitoring to monitor business growth of these small enterprises to say, here’s how they grow. Here’s what’s happening in terms of these businesses financial activity, and it fills in the blanks of a picture that was honestly blank. And it had been before populated with very sort of monochromatic flat images of what people thought it meant to live and work in these areas, and give a lot more clarity as to like, oh, this is actually, there’s a lot, there is an economy here, there is something happening here.

Erica Mills Barnhart  35:38

So sounds like you take them to a black, from black and white to like full spectrum color version of it. And I’m hearing a little bit of by mapping their language, your language to their language, so words like growth words like scale. I mean, these are bankers, so that would be the language that might perk up their ears.

Wendy Chamberlin  35:59

We think it’s important to do that with private sector players its banks, its mobile network operators, but also donors too, because we have to counter this narrative as well to say, no, there is something more here, there’s a reason for you to invest this far out in an area that has otherwise been written off, because this is what it means. And it’s also about showing that the breaking point around poverty is not the individual and their lack of aptitude or anything else that’s like super derogatory that can be applied. It’s actually about the breaking point of responsibilities that are on the shoulders of governments and those who have made commitments to service those areas as part of their, you know, jobs.

Erica Mills Barnhart  36:46

Yeah, yeah. That’s very fascinating because switching frames is tough business. That’s tough. I feel like we’d be remiss if we didn’t, if we were talking about poverty and marketing and we didn’t talk about poverty porn. Let’s talk about poverty porn. So, for listeners who are not familiar with the term, it is a term that’s been used for a long time to describe the type of marketing that has been done which shows you know, you can mentally envision the like, you know, very emaciated images, flies on faces all of that, if we are speaking about Africa, and that type of image versus a more asset framed approach to it about the possibilities and opportunities and what’s super interesting about poverty porn, is that it you see a lot more of the asset framing of you know, positive opportunity framing, around domestic marketing of sort of domestic and by domestic I mean like within the UK, within Ireland, within the US, within Canada, we see more of that positive frame. And yet what persists poverty porn persists and part of that, so there is a bit of research which says poverty porn actually works in terms of acquiring new donors. It is not as effective at retaining donors. And we all know that acquisition is way more expensive than retention. So if that’s true, why does poverty porn persist?

Wendy Chamberlin  38:32

Yeah, I think it’s such an interesting I, I’m always surprised when I I, I’ve had the experience firsthand where I was on a site visit for another NGO and I got pulled into shots of like, let’s surround yourself with children and I will throw candy in the air and they will smile and we will smile together to see faces and I was completely appalled because I didn’t know what was happening until it happened and, and yet, this was being used for this organization for that acquisition, they felt like that was super important and yet it had nothing to do with what they were trying to tell their story, I think, I think it has to do with a couple things. One is that some audiences have short attention spans for good or for bad. And they have only been given one story since the 1980s or before but especially the Ethiopia famine is you know, is exactly and so and that’s what they attribute with poverty itself, and they can’t be moved from that point, and to take audiences to a more complex conversation around what poverty is, and what can cause it and how it can be solved means that people need to be willing to commit more attention. And to understand that the solutions are not as simple as that prior image would allow them to think about and respond to. So the first image of like, this is what it looks like and it’s a static image of poverty that allows me just to always respond in one way and when it becomes more complex, that means I need to ask more questions, I need to understand that I may not, you know, this idea that maybe, you know, I, as a donor, have all the answers gets challenged. And it means that the solutions aren’t as straightforward as they were before. And so people choose, I think, between what they want to have straightforward and simple, call it good. And, or stay in the complex. And maybe that’s too reductionist? I don’t know. But that’s one way to think about it.

Erica Mills Barnhart  40:39

Yeah, what comes to mind also is that it’s not only, so those images aren’t only simple. They are so different than what most donors experience. Right. And so, you know, what we know is that donors in the United States are more prone or more likely to give to poverty alleviation in another country, as opposed to, you know, we have a lot of poverty in the United States and that doesn’t get as much of the donor resources. And part of the, one of the hypotheses about that is because that’s too close to home, it’s like, oh, but then then I can’t other enough, you know, if it’s if it’s that close to home, that could end up being me that somehow makes donors feel differently guilty, because they’re not taking care of it. And I think the further away and the more different and the more othered we make folks keeps donors feeling more comfortable. Right, it kind of, you know, perpetuates a lot of things that are maybe not too healthy. I was just having a conversation on Twitter with Tom Ahern, I don’t know if you know him, he is brilliant fundraising, direct mail message, brilliant. And he was saying there’s been this term about donor centric fundraising for a long time being the gold standard and Vu Le, I don’t know, in the last year too was like, that’s not the point. Donors shouldn’t be the heroes. So unbeknownst to Tom, Vu had said that a while ago, and Tom said, you know, what other term could we could we use? And I said, you know, because I agree with Vu very much so that we’ve sort of got ourselves wrapped around this axle of this cycle where, yes, we want donors to feel good about their donation. They’ve done something wonderful, wonderful, and I never want to take away from that. But it’s like we kind of got ourselves in this. It’s like, but that’s not actually the point. The point is what that money has made possible. And it’s the people being served. So my offering to Tom was that, you know, if we need to sort of give it another term fundraising that is and in the marketing of doing good that we will call it mission centered fundraising, because that’s the point. You know, Vu is offering this community based fundraising and I’m like, it’s often about the community, but there’s many organizations, where it’s about plants or trees or animals or you know, something that doesn’t quite fit in there. So I think that you know, this is a long winded way of saying, I think that a piece of it is complexity is hard. We know right now with COVID our brains are all so overwhelmed. So the simpler things can be, the more we’re likely to take action. But I also feel like we maybe haven’t done a great job of simplifying intersectionality around you know, addressing these like people get that it makes inherent sense when you start talking to them about how these things are related. I actually, I have greater belief that people will get that, actually think we haven’t messaged it very well, because that’s a tough concept.

Wendy Chamberlin  43:51

Do you feel like though, I wonder about that, because that makes sense to me, but then I wonder like there is still this like, but what can I do? What can I do about this? Right? And so thats where the fallback becomes like so much like, at least I can do this. I can’t solve for infrastructure. But at least I can do this over here and because they don’t know how to, they may be able to make that sort of intersectional connection that as to I think people are looking for a way to respond.

Erica Mills Barnhart  44:24

Sure, sure but could we do a better job of saying, you’ll do better with the examples? But, you know, okay, no, I can’t contribute to infrastructure, what I can contribute to is food, you know, in some way. But where I think there’s an opportunity for doing better marketing is to say, here’s how food relates to infrastructure. Here’s how it relates to education. Yes, thank you, thank you so much. Do your thing right here. Awesome. And then know how these things connect because I think in that way we might keep people more engaged while keeping it simple.

Wendy Chamberlin  45:15

I think that’s super interesting. I’m trying to put my mind, my head, in the mind space of somebody who might be a founder who’s like, I just gotta get money in the door, and how there would be attraction across around a very sort of, quote, unquote, simplistic, you know, model versus the complex one. And but I could imagine if you took that what you described as the starting point, that’d be really, you get a really interesting engagement experience with your donors. Right? And, and even in interesting conversations, or, I mean, you might even just get a different set of donors. I don’t know. I think they are, you know, those I think people are drawn to support different things. So I love that idea. That’s, that’s really interesting.

Erica Mills Barnhart  46:03

Yeah, I, my addition to it would I just want to acknowledge with it is, when you are the Founder or Executive Director, and you just need to raise money, this idea of approaching things differently would come across as pure luxury said from somebody who is not needing to raise that money right now. So I really want to acknowledge that, that the offering of idea comes from a place of privilege. And that sometimes there’s urgency and we know what stuff works and what stuff doesn’t, which, you know, unfortunately perpetuates a lot of the scarcity mindsets. And so that’s, I mean, that’s a structural issue that is going to be tough to unravel in the philanthropy side of things. And, and I, you know, I look to the philanthropy side of things to say you have flexibility how, you know, how might philanthropy in the way that philanthropy is framing things, these issues that complexities help unlock the way in which historically and you know, to this day, we’re really marketing poverty.

Wendy Chamberlin  47:09

Absolutely and to the extent that there are those philanthropies who are willing to have that conversation and that discussion and recognizing the power dynamics that are part of that conversation, because that’s where I think you start seeing the needle move forward, and not just philanthropies, but when we believe that addressing poverty needs to be done with a multi sectoral approach, bringing public sector or the private sector to the table as well, that also means that you’re creating a different kind of conversation than what’s been done before. It is no longer one entity that has the solution set, but it’s recognizing that it’s a complex problem with a complex solution set.

Erica Mills Barnhart  47:53

Yes, and then what we know about people’s minds in particular is then there’s work of breaking it down and sequencing it. And then this and then this and then this. I just, I just I sit here and I’m wondering, like, maybe we have a sequencing problem. Frequently when I work with organizations, I’m like, oh, you have all the pieces, we just need to rearrange them. Right? Yeah. I wonder maybe, you know, that is like, my hardcore optimist coming out, like, oh, if you just rearrange a couple of words in sentences will be good. I know it’s not gonna be that easy. But hope springs eternal. You were saying actually, that you’re in a Whatsapp group, which I just want to say every time I hear something like that, I’m like, wow, we are not on the Whatsapp train here in the United States, but you were saying you are involved in one that is a conversation around power, privilege and philanthropy.

Wendy Chamberlin  48:45

Yeah, I wanted to, It’s a group that has folks who represent a variety of sectors talking about this issue, and it’s it represented by people from all over the globe as well. So it’s coming from a variety, with a variety of voices at the table. And  it’s talking about, I actually brought up this topic like, what are these myths that we have around poverty that we need to address? And what was really interesting about a conversation that we were having is that even the notion of philanthropy is a challenge with it, how that money gets to be where it is, who decides how that money is used and what that money influences is part of this conversation at a huge level. And some of the belief being that, you know, ultimately, what philanthropy is trying to address are constraints and challenges that individual governments should, should solve for themselves and for their citizenry. Which means there’s a host of conversations around that around how those governments came to be, around how the power structures came to be, and what are the systemic issues within each of those context that needs to be addressed because they’re greatly imbalanced. But I think it draws out an appreciation for this. And I know, there’s a lot of folks talking about this topic right now that, how we think about the role of philanthropy and the voice that philanthropy has at the table has to be measured in this conversation. Money does not equate with solutions, per se, because whoever writes the biggest check doesn’t mean they have the best solution. Sometimes it’s the worst solution. And so it’s more that that conversation has to be a consideration of this broader piece about how we talk about unpacking and tackling pernicious problems. Because there are many, just as we see as the social issues that come to light in the US, there are so many threads that are tied to these things that you can’t look at one ting and say this is the only part of the issue that matters. You have to begin to look at all of it. And that also means there has to be a broader scale commitment to talking about all sides of the equation too.

Erica Mills Barnhart  51:10

And a broader scale commitment to being uncomfortable. Those are not comfortable conversation. So before we make any progress on, you know, substantively shifting things, it’s going to be uncomfortable.

Wendy Chamberlin  51:24

It’s gonna be uncomfortable, it’s gonna mean that people lose, who like me, you know, losing seats of privilege that maybe that people shouldn’t have had to begin with, or recognizing where that privilege comes from. And recognizing also around who decides, who decides who has the best solution? And that’s, that’s something I think about all the time.

Erica Mills Barnhart  51:47

Yeah, yeah. Who decides?

Wendy Chamberlin  51:49

So, it’s a huge conversation around power. That’s part of this too.

Erica Mills Barnhart  51:54

Yes, it is. As frequently happens, I’m learning on these podcasts like we get to this point I’m like, I know we have to wrap up, Wendy is a busy human. And of course, where I want to go now is to that whole discussion about power and privilege and marketing of those things, but maybe we’ll just have to stick a pin in it and have that as a follow up conversation. Which will give me an excuse to see your face again, which will be a blessing for me.

Wendy Chamberlin  52:25

Same as well, it is a treat.

Erica Mills Barnhart  52:27

Yes. I end every interview with the same question and it has to do with inspiration and motivation. So the root of the word inspiration means to breathe in, gives you breath. Motivation means to take action, so you need breath to take action. What inspires you and what keeps you motivated to do this really incredibly amazing work that you’re doing with the Boma Project?

Wendy Chamberlin  52:52

What inspires me? I’m cognizant of sounding trite. Honestly, though, I’ll just run that risk. I work with business women who kick ass, they are risk takers, they are super bold, they have a voice and they are creative. And they withstand shock after shock after shock. And they they keep like doing that with very minimal means. And honestly, they inspire me because I look at where they work, I look at what they do, and I think that just flies in the face of every notion about what it means to be poor, a passive picture of poverty if you. And what motivates me is that the work around this issue is not done and that’s not to suggest that I’m the solution or anything like that. I just try and think about what tools I have in my toolkit. And part of that is passion and interest. And part of that is thinking and just always analyzing, okay, what do I have? What do I do with what I’ve been given, to, to think about this challenge? And how do I work with those who also care about this topic, and I get so much energy about that from that place. And that’s, that is how I do my work on a daily basis.

Erica Mills Barnhart  54:32

 I love it. I don’t think acknowledging badassery is trite, by the way. And I did have the privilege of, not done as much work as you but some work in Cambodia and Nicaragua and other places around micro-finance. And those women are they are just they’re fearless. They’re fierce. They are so, I cannot agree with you more about how inspiring they are. And I feel like their stories are starting to be told but wow, I just our world would be a better place if more of those stories were out there so that our perceptions could be shifted. So that this mental image we have of passive poverty is eradicated along with poverty itself. I think one is the precursor to the other.

Wendy Chamberlin  55:19

Yeah, I totally I’m with you. I agree with you.

Erica Mills Barnhart  55:24

Thank you, Wendy, for doing this, relatively for me that would be relatively late at night because I’m a morning person, because you are coming to us from Kenya. Thank you, listeners for being with us today, as well, to learn about this work of the Boma Project, to get a little bit of insight into Wendy’s incredible brain and her great big heart, and about you know, maybe our path towards shifting the marketing problem that poverty has starts from our hearts and from a place of compassion and being open to looking at empathy and being open to poverty looking really, really different than we than we think it does. So thank you, Wendy. Thank you listeners. And with that, I’ll say do good, be well, and we will see you next time.

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?