Anna Taylor: A strong case study speaks for itself

The best case studies focus on what can be done as well as the need, says our columnist

Anna Taylor
Anna Taylor

As fundraisers, it is drummed into us that using human stories helps donors connect to the cause. But we need to remember the risks.

There is a danger of objectifying project beneficiaries. The wellbeing of those featured can be damaged if private information about their lives is revealed. At a society-wide level, negative stereotypes can be reinforced, such as the idea that poor families in Africa are helpless without the assistance of western donors.

So what can be done to ensure our well-intentioned use of personal stories doesn't cause unforeseen harm? The most important step is ensuring that case studies reflect the dignity of the people featured.

Efforts should be made to recognise the beneficiary's involvement in overcoming the challenges they face, and perhaps even their efforts to reach out to others facing similar situations.

The language used should be evocative but never derogatory or patronising. We should not only focus on the need, but also write about what can be done and how to achieve it in practical terms so that donors do not simply despair.

When case studies are respectful and not focused on detail that is too sensitive, such as sexual abuse, it can be more powerful to use real first names rather than pseudonyms. This requires informed consent from the person featured - but so should any case study.

Charity staff should be open about why they want to hear a person's story. Beneficiaries appreciate that the organisation needs to raise funds. Most are happy for their stories to be told if it is clear that the purpose is not primarily to elicit pity, but to demonstrate the importance of the work and the impact of the project being undertaken.

There is also a strong argument for allowing subjects to tell their stories in their own words. If project workers provide case studies, there is a risk that certain details, told to them confidentially, will be used in a well-meant effort to make a strong case for support.

A first-hand account is more immediate and potentially empowering: it enables project beneficiaries to advocate change and recognises that their voices need to be heard.

The internet makes the use of case studies more risky by increasing the chance that programme beneficiaries or their friends, relatives or acquaintances will stumble across 'their stories' online and feel uncomfortable about how they have been used.

Technology, however, also offers exciting opportunities. Many mobile telephones have a voice recording feature and pretty much every digital camera and smartphone now has a facility for recording micro-video clips.

The use on websites of video featuring project beneficiaries enables potential donors to hear about the impact of an initiative directly from the lips of somebody whose life it has touched and can bring the charity's work to life.

Anna Taylor is a fundraiser, writer, researcher and former director of Children in Need India

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