Section 2

Why do we need an EDMF?

ACFID requires all Members to develop an Ethical Decision-Making Framework (EDMF) for Communications, as outlined in its Quality Assurance Framework’s Compliance Indicator 6.2.1 and Compliance Indicator 8.1.2 of the Quality Assurance Framework.

Due to the rapidly changing nature of communications and publishing, an EDMF for Communications is an important way for NGOs to ensure their communications are ethical and lawful, and protect their stakeholders.

As part of their work, NGOs share some important – yet difficult – stories. Sometimes their stories show injustice and harsh realities. While these are important stories for the world to hear, inherent in undertaking these activities is a level of risk. The impact of unconscious bias is also pervasive and, by its nature, very difficult to remedy. Yet it also creates risk in the storytelling and publishing process.

Misunderstanding cultural norms and mismanaging storytelling content can harm both the people NGOs strive to support, as well as their organisations. For example, asylum seekers may be targeted for sharing stories about human rights abuses. Children may be targeted by people seeking to abuse them. The personal reputation and confidence of people who’ve shared their stories may be damaged if their stories are misused and they may face retribution from their community. Their organisation may suffer damage to their brand and reputation if they publish insensitive materials. These are just a few possible risks.

An EDMF is one element in a suite of tools to reduce these risks, as far as possible.

How have communications changed over the last decade?

The communications and publishing landscape has dramatically changed during the last decade. The widespread use of smartphones (with high-quality cameras) has created an avalanche of ‘storytelling content’ in the form of photographs, videos and text, while the swift development of social media platforms has, in tandem, created a speedy way to publish and consume this storytelling content. Nearly 90% of Australians now own a smartphone and nearly 80% use social media.

Why are stories so important?

By their very nature, stories are deeply connected to our values. Stories help us to connect with others, empathise, and discern ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Stories are also extremely powerful tools for influencing society. The rapid influx of powerful stories, particularly over the last decade, has added considerable complexity to our society’s conversation on ‘right and wrong’, which in turn has strong influences on consumer behaviour.

As a result of these changes, content marketing is rapidly growing. In North America, more than 80% of consumer-focused businesses use content marketing. Of these, more than 95% use content for social media. More than 80% of consumer-focused businesses plan to increase or maintain their current spending on content marketing, while content marketing gets three times more leads than paid search advertising.

How NGOs have been affected

NGOs have not escaped these radical shifts. They’ve had to change the way they promote themselves and communicate with their supporters, and they’ve had to change the way they collect and store storytelling content.

This rapid influx in – and desire for – storytelling content has meant more values-based decisions need to be made more rapidly at NGOs, regardless of their size. With little guidance on how to make values-based decisions for storytelling content, some NGOs have struggled to appropriately face the risks associated with unethical, unlawful and higher-risk communications content.

Why trust is so important for the NGO sector

The international development and humanitarian sector is unique because it’s reliant on the goodwill and trust of its supporters more than other sectors. While for-profit companies exchange tangible goods and services for money, international non-government organisations (INGOs) trade something intangible. In essence, INGOs trade a promise of work done, in exchange for donations. While the product of the donations is very tangible – goods and services delivered to beneficiaries, or advocacy work on their behalf – these don’t land in the hands of those who parted with their donation. The value of the INGO’s promise, therefore, is weighed in the currency of trust. Their donor’s trust in the INGO’s abilities, honesty and ability to follow through on their promises is therefore crucial to the viability of their organisation.

INGOs are also unique because they work with the world’s most vulnerable people and communities. By their nature, Australian INGOs are often backed by governments, multilateral organisations, corporate donors and (comparatively) wealthy citizens – making them powerful in relation to their beneficiaries. This power difference – between the helpers and those being helped – is fertile breeding ground for ethical dilemmas and possible abuses of power. Regulation in this sector is therefore extremely important.