Show a people as one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become," said the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her thought-provoking talk on the danger of telling a single story, which she gave at TED, the non-profit organisation devoted to spreading ideas.
Two recent reports brought this to mind. The Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing declared that the sector must stop using stereotypical images of old people as vulnerable and needy ("half-dead Ethel"). And Sheffield Hallam University concluded that homelessness charities should continue to use stereotypical images of homeless people on the street because they work best for fundraising.
There has long been debate about how charities portray those they work with, most vocally in the areas of disability and poverty. The charity sector is grappling with this itself right now, anxious about critical media and hostile politicians misrepresenting charities, and how public perceptions are affected by an incomplete understanding of how they work.
Ngozi Adichie poses questions about the responsibility to tell more than a single story, about what it means to be authentic; about what is representative, if anything. This is at the heart of the communications challenge charities face. The answer, probably, is that nothing is representative – nothing, in essence, can convey the complexity of the whole. What we communicate is filtered by what we want to say and to whom, why we're saying it and what we want people to do. People don't need to understand the whole picture to act, and don't seem to want to either. Superficial, in-brief items are how we consume information these days. In a world of busy messages, saying one thing over and over again is effective.
So what should that one thing be? One of crushing helplessness and dependence that provokes pity and patronising help? Absolutely not. An important distinction has to be made between how we represent an issue and how we represent people. The context of the problem people face is central to the story a charity needs to tell, as well as the story of overcoming it. It's a large part of the story for those living it, and plugging the gap between need and success is the difference supporters can make. That does not mean people have no dignity, initiative, fight and agency, nor that they are always miserable. All upbeat and rosy isn't the whole picture either; nor do people respond to it. There's no need.
A picture is worth a thousand words, so we have to take as much care choosing it as in writing them. I suspect we don't. We choose images lazily, as signposts. In our fast, visual age we subconsciously learn and understand the semiotics, even if we don't stop to think about it, or what else is being said.
There's no perfect answer. We have to, at least, do no harm to the representation of people – then do better, while also doing all we can to represent the issue in a way people will engage with. Ethel isn't lonely because she's old. But she is lonely. As one of the commissioners behind the ageing report, Ken Burnett, told me: "No one ever suggested fundraising would be an easy job. But it must be based on sound values."
Matthew Sherrington is a consultant on strategy, fundraising and communications at Inspiring Action Consultancy