Careful communications and government engagement

9 July 2024
SERIES Political philanthropy 7 items

When engaging with governments, philanthropies face an ongoing dilemma: How much should they say? And when and how should they say it?’

This dilemma largely stems from a low public understanding of their motives, goals and beneficiaries. 

In the context of engaging with governments in the Global South, the public misconceptions of both philanthropies and government partners are even greater. 

And when we add in the historically charged Global North–Global South dynamic, competing ideologies, huge public sway and the rise in authoritarianism, navigating government engagement becomes a quagmire of complications. 

It’s no wonder that philanthropies tend to remain quiet about their work with governments, preferring to work ‘behind closed doors’.

Despite these concerns, the reality is that a lasting impact on the lives of citizens requires systemic change, and government reform is a huge mechanism through which change can happen. 

At the same time, there’s a growing consensus that philanthropies can no longer avoid engaging with the government if they want to pursue meaningful change, nor can they afford to be as opaque about such engagement when it happens. 

As philanthropies begin to contemplate why, how, with whom and when to engage with southern governments, they need to reflect on how to communicate in a way that doesn’t detract from the impact they’re trying to make.

Five communication principles 

By embracing the five principles outlined below, philanthropies can begin to usher in a new era of transparent and impactful collaboration with governments.

1. Prepare for the worst 

Given the propensity for being misconstrued, most philanthropic organisations are understandably discrete in their external communications around government engagement. 

However, despite this discretion, information related to current or past actions that are unpopular or liable to misunderstanding could still enter the public domain, causing considerable damage. 

The consequences go beyond mere reputational damage, including putting the lives of in-country staff, government partners and grantees at risk; a breakdown of trust with strategic partners; and, in some cases, being barred from operating within countries. 

Therefore, being prepared for the worst means adopting a proactive stance to get ahead of such damage. For example, through:

  • Conducting comprehensive reputational risk assessments 
  • Establishing clear communication response strategies and plans 

Monitoring media and online platforms before, during and after embarking on a government engagement.

2. Commit to value-addition and values-alignment 

Careful consideration needs to be given to how a philanthropic organisation engages with a government. 

Often, these engagements can be perceived as undermining national sovereignty or imposing foreign interests. To counter this, philanthropies should be intentional about seeking to engage in ways that both align with and add value to government priorities and people’s needs. 

Value addition and alignment not only safeguard the reputations of both philanthropic organisations and government reformers alike, but it also amplifies the positive change that such partnerships can create for communities in the Global South. 

Furthermore, this foundation of purpose provides clarity to any messaging, making it easier to communicate the rationale of an engagement in a coherent and consistent manner.

3. Prioritise contextual understanding 

The Global South is incredibly diverse, with a wide range of cultural, linguistic and governance systems, even within countries. 

Given this variety, being able to respond well requires a combination of contextual grounding, sensitivity to nuances and up-to-date messaging. 

Staying informed of specific government priorities, evolving political dynamics and cultural sensitivities also helps to instil a solid foundation for relationship-building, localised messaging and risk mitigation. 

When planning for government engagement, teams working on communications should consult, or, better yet, include people with strong contextual understanding, particularly around advisory work. 

They should also consider allocating adequate resources to localised messaging, accessing local media and translating content.

4. Be consistent and invested 

Despite the sense of urgency and pressure to push for quick wins, it’s crucial to recognise that government reform is a lengthy process, which involves constant learning and needs a long-term perspective. 

Part of effective systems change is reliant on narrative reframing. This can be reinforced by maintaining a consistent thread across all communications, supporting an overall positive narrative around government–philanthropic partnerships. 

Specific activities may be time-bound; however, the framing of communications should emphasise how these actions are situated within the long-term efforts towards sustainable reform. 

Being consistent in tone, accuracy and transparency can further cement both the philanthropic organisation and its government counterparts’ reputation for trustworthiness.

5. Be ethical, clear and sincere 

Vagueness can easily lead to misunderstandings when dealing with highly politicised spheres. 

Although avoiding any miscommunication and misinformation is impossible given what is often at stake with government engagements, crafting messages that are clear and concise, leaving little room for misinterpretation, is key. 

An ethical priority is ensuring that you protect the dignity and rights of those mentioned, engaged or targeted by these engagements. 

Moreover, a humble, sincere and open approach, which is based on a clearly defined purpose of engagement can help to bolster its impact and render it more effective in its execution.

Adopting open, honest communication may be challenging, but with careful planning and clear ethical grounds, it can serve to amplify the positive change that such engagements can create for communities in the Global South.