The importance of communication for NGOs

A month after completing IIED’s first virtual Communications Learning Week, Gathoni Mwai and Vivienne Wendo share some of their reflections on the importance of strategic communications to help raise local voices so they can contribute to and influence global solutions to our environmental challenges.

Gathoni Mwai's picture Vivienne Wendo's picture
Insight by 
Gathoni Mwai
Vivienne Wendo
Vivienne Wendo is a communication officer with IMPACT Kenya; Gathoni Mwai is manager of the East Africa Portfolio, Maliasili
27 April 2022
A path leads into a forest, with a tree canopy overhead

Fantastic images of nature, such as this forest trail in the Unamat forest in Peru are nice, but must be supported by effective messaging to register with their intended audience. For example, Indigenous and tribal territories contain about a third of all the carbon stored in the forests of Latin America (Photo: Marco Simola/CIFOR, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

At the beginning of March, we joined 30 participants from 18 organisations across Africa, Asia and the UK to participate in the first online IIED Communications Learning Week. We are still inspired and invigorated from all the learning, teaching and interacting with different people and organisations. 

Since then, everywhere we turn – from the beverage adverts in the airport terminal in Entebbe, Uganda, to the cell phone messages on Kenya’s top radio station – we can’t stop thinking about the value of communications.

People are exposed to thousands of messages daily, and it wasn’t until our week of learning that we understood and appreciated why and how this happens (in other words, organisations have a good communications strategy, they have mapped their audiences) and what an impact it can have (a clear call to action). Here, we share some of our reflections about this learning week.

When it comes to communications, many local NGOs will quickly point to social media and say: "Oh yes, we have Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and we post there all the time." But communications is so much more than that – and it is time our field better understood its value.

Read more about the learning weeks organised by IIED's Communications Group that were launched in 2011  

Effective communication involves knowing your audience, how best to reach them and how to tailor your message so they can understand and act. For example, we are writing this post to get more people involved in thinking about communications and to share our insights on the importance of communications.

The challenge

Very often, local voices are left out of decision making and discourse because they lack the resources, access or knowledge on how best to position themselves. With so many competing interests, how can local voices get heard?

If you don’t have land, you can’t eat – we are urging the registrar to look into our pleas.

Ann Anyango of Siaya County, western Kenya, made this request directly to the people who can make important decisions: national and county government representatives.

Along with many other community members from across Kenya, she had a platform to discuss the importance and challenges of registering community lands under Kenya's Community Land Act 2016 at the first-ever Community Land Summit in 2021. This inclusive and interactive dialogue was made possible thanks to the Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation (IMPACT), a leading local land rights NGO in Kenya.

IMPACT recognises that when communities have rights over their land and resources, they can make decisions that will benefit them, their environment and ultimately the planet. IMPACT organised this summit where those with power and influence could hear the voices of the community members whose daily lives are dependent on the land and resources. It was productive and interactive and demonstrated the importance of ensuring local voices are heard.

Recently, we’re seeing increased recognition that Indigenous People and local communities (IPLCs) play a crucial role in helping to solve our global environmental challenges. For example, in 2021, both the FAO and Filac (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) released significant reports that highlight the scope and effectiveness of IPLC conservation efforts.

These reports present the case for increased support for those efforts in global conservation policy and investments. Now is the time to optimise this recognition and get local voices heard internationally. And this is why we’re so excited about communications!

Giving local voices and actors a (much) bigger platform

As we move forward with the plan to include more local voices, it is crucial to ensure we give local voices space to shape their narratives. Part of that includes equipping them with the necessary skills to improve their communications and find channels and partners that support this. such as:

  • Media: international media outlets reach those with influence and power. We need to get local stories into those spaces. Journalists should be seeking out connections and opportunities to share the interests of local organisations and people, such as how organisations like IMPACT are trying to help people like Ann gain rights over their resources and land to be effective stewards today and in the future.
  • Influence: those with power and influence, such as big international NGOs, political figures and donors, need to be telling and sharing these stories. They should be insisting on local input and experiences. For example at Maliasili, an organisation that seeks to accelerate community-based conservation through local organisations, we use our networks and connections to raise our local partners’ voices to an international audience. We need much more of this.
  • Training: IIED’s Communications Learning Week gave us the tools to define our audiences, develop clear, concise messages and identify the proper channels to share these messages and achieve the impact we desire. Learning weeks like this are crucial for NGOs who want to upskill their staff in particular areas of communication that are important to them and collaborate and learn from this wider communications community.

The value of hearing and learning from other comms people’s experiences just cannot be overstated – Rosalind Goodrich blogging about Communications Learning Week 2022

Last thoughts

Communication is a crucial tool and an essential part of any organisation’s strategy. Being clear on the messaging, the audience and how to reach those audiences is critical. 

As local organisations become important players in international discourse and discussions, it is even more important to look for and support these voices. Powerful actors and organisations need to make sure they look for the local voices, take time to listen and amplify them where they can.

When both parts come together, it creates an excellent opportunity for change to happen and make an impact where it really counts.

About the author

Gathoni Mwai is manager of the East Africa Portfolio, Maliasili

Vivienne Wendo is a communication officer with IMPACT Kenya

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