Aid work as a business?

Have aid and development work become a commercial business? Aid organizations are in many areas enforced to act similar as a profit business, to keep up with customers’ behavior and requirements. Two points that are getting more similar to a profit-making business is that aid organizations have needed to adapt strategies for marketing and the way how to promote their achievement. Within a profit and aid company/organization results are highly important but the kind of results are different. The customers are highly important for both and they have achievement strategies for marketing and promotion. Both categories of customers want quality for their money. Therefore, it is important to see donors as customers. This have led the developing aid work to use similar strategy as a commercial company to make sure that the donors will continue to contribute with funding’s. In the same way as a company needs to show a positive result to stay on the market, aid organizations need to do the same to keep the donors. It is not only about showing the result, it is also about using different ICTs (Internet Communication Technologies) to keep up with the relevant media that the society uses. Not only to promote their work, but to report what actually is being done and what they have archived. Specially in today’s society where transparency is highly important to be recognized as trustworthy.

Following trends are important to stay relevant and be able to “make the customer want it”, or in this case make the people feel like it is obvious that they should be a donor. This is necessary in order to keep donors and gain new ones. It is needed to understand the costumers path in social media to be able to grab their attention and to offer the customer the right “product” that appeals them. Different forms of marketing to address a broader target should be used, but the information can differ depending on target and the technology that are used. There are benefits of embrace new technology and use it strategically, even for non-profit organizations. One example of this is shown in a research done a couple of years a ago. The research showed that over 63 % of the people that open emails in their phone close them if they are not responsive (adjusted for the screens format and size). It also showed that 41% of the emails that were sent was opened in a smartphone (Szabo, 2013).  This shows the importance of using right technology to be able to deliver a message, in this case in the format of an email. I believe that these numbers have increased as time has passed by and we are using the phones and tablets wider today.

Facebook posts made by MSF – In the left one MSF is telling that aid is needed and in the right one they give an example on how they work.

To use internet and mobile to advertise is essential to meet the target groups on their field. Advertisements appears often in for example my social media channels, which I think have to do with that I am searching and reading on internet a lot about development and that the internet is trying to match my interests with suitable commercials or suggestions. A method commonly used where companies buy a service to optimize the views of the advertise. This shows that the aid and development needs marketing as much as any other company to retrain customers (donors) and are using the same methods and tools. The part that divides commercial business advertisements from aid and development is that their advertisement in social media are more focused on showing what the organization have achieved or that your involvement can contribute to development. Often playing on feelings and morals but that is hard to stay away from the subject is aid.

This subject can be discussed a lot more. In some cases, I believe there is many similarities between commercial companies and aid work organizations, or particularly in development organizations.  I will leave you with one question to think about; Is it more important to make the givers satisfied than making the most beneficial for the beneficiaries if you must choose where to put the money, on the project or the “marketing”? It is not an easy question as a major part among the non-profit organizations are depend on donors to be able to accomplish aid or developing work. 


Reading used for this article:

Krause, Monika, 2014, The Good Project: Humanitarian Relief NGOs and the Fragmentation of Reason. London: University of Chicago Press Ltd.

Van Voorst, R. and Hilhorst, D. 2017, Humanitarian action in disaster and conflict settings-Insights of an expert panel, Rotterdam: Institute of Social Science & Erasmus University

Arora, Saumya, 2016, How Marketing and Communication Strategies can help NGOs achieve Fundraising Success, [2017-09-27]

Krige, Kerryn, 2010, Marketing for NGOs – Strategies and Tips, [2017-09-27]

Szabo, Julie, 2013, Six Mobile Marketing Strategies for Nonprofits, [2017-09-27]

Thomas, Tracy, 2014, 7 Tips for Effective Marketing for NGOs, [2017-09-27]



  1. Ali Ababneh

    Hello Sara,
    Very interesting topic and well-articulated. Though I totally agree that it’s important to respond to the donor’s requests/ strategy etc. However, it seems that the AID work is shifting far from the main purpose and become pure business for many aid organizations. I may also assume that the way the fund is managed and cash flows into the wrong direction such as publications, websites, media, and other marketing tools.
    If I think about the closure question you have I will say that we need to think about the end beneficiaries first and design our programs to maximize the services provided to them than marketing and donor’s stratification.
    It might sound inelastic, but this is the problem, donors have political agendas, and by seeking their satisfaction, AID organizations are becoming political arms and business makers…

  2. Clara Axblad

    Interesting, Sara! You have captured very clearly how aid organizations are becoming similar to any business organization when it comes to marketing, especially on social media. As you raise in the concluding question and as commented also by Ali, I believe the most important issue here is to look into how this trend is affecting the operational reality of these organizations, on ‘the ground’.

    Your comparison between donors and customers is quite challenging in this regard. As a ‘customer’ in a world where what you show is often considered more important than what you do, will the main goal of my purchase be to have a quality good or service delivered, or to be able to show it off in the most effective way? In the case of donations, will it be more important that the service delivered not to me but to a ‘distant other’ is effective and respondent to actual needs, or that I can easily show off my ‘goodness’ on social media?

    I very much agree with you that transparency is of outmost importance to enforce aid organizations’ accountability both to resource- and receiving partners, but we definitely need to ask ourselves whether organizations are actually strengthening and encouraging a trend of showing rather than doing.

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