Selling Condoms in the Congo and other mission-driven dilemmas

Appearances to the contrary, I’ve been blogging for many years. Every now and then I look through the archive and pull out some of what I think are the best posts, and the posts that are still worth talking about today. In this post I ask some questions about mission.

Amy Lockwood: Selling condoms in the Congo | Video on TED.com.

In the four minute talk embedded above, Amy Lockwood talks about the mistake that many donor agencies have made in trying to get the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo to use condoms to stem the spread of HIV. Lockwood blames the problem on marketing to the donors and supporters, instead of the people that you are trying to serve. If you are able to figure out what the people who you are trying to serve want, and shape your service accordingly, you’ll probably be able to do some good.

On one hand, I completely agree with her, and see this mistake in far too many churches and nonprofits. We do the things that fit with the culture and mores of our donor/preexisting members and not the people who we are trying to reach. While serving those within our circles is important, we must not do so at the expense of our mission to those outside.

But that brings up another question. What if the thing that conflicts with our mission, is our mission. What if our organization is trying to stop the spread of HIV, and also trying to change the perception of women as sexual objects? Do we put semi-clothed women on the packages of condoms to save more lives, in spite of how that portrays women? Or do we refuse to compromise the way we portray women, even if it means we are less effective in getting condoms in the hands of others?

I don’t believe there’s a single answer for that, but I believe that every organization and every church has their own version of this question and that it’s a good measure of the clarity of your mission, whether or not your staff and volunteers agree on the answer.