Andrew Taylor-Dawson: Consider the implications of framing in communications

As fundraisers, it is our responsibility to consider the social impact of our imagery and framing

Andrew Taylor-Dawson
Andrew Taylor-Dawson

Any fundraiser or communications professional knows the power of imagery and framing. We carefully select each word and image for maximum impact, to tell a story, to motivate and, ultimately, to convince the donor to part with their money.

Whether raising money for projects or campaigns, our fundraising appeals and activities are capable of representing beneficiaries or affected communities as passive recipients of help or in a more empowered fashion.

Over the years the way we seek to frame the people that we help or campaign on behalf of has changed significantly. You only have to look at images used in relation to famine in the 1980s and 1990s to see the difference – but there is still further to go.

In 2011, the Finding Frames report demonstrated the role that imagery plays in shaping the views of donors and the general public on global poverty. It became influential within the ongoing discussion about how we frame issues around poverty, human rights and social justice.

In the mental health sector, the Time to Change Campaign has sought to recast how the media portrays mental illness by giving guidelines for choosing imagery and avoiding negative and stereotypical "head-clutcher" photographs.

Having worked as a fundraiser for a range of causes, I understand the importance of demonstrating need to motivate potential donors. But this should be done with sensitivity and consideration of the context in which the fundraising campaign or activity exists.

As well as considering the campaigns that we are running and the important work of our organisations – be it lobbying for change or providing vital services – we should also think about the contribution that we are making to public understanding of a subject. This can make a significant contribution to how a community or group of people is perceived.

The fundraising scandals of recent years have got us all thinking more than ever about best practice and transparency. They’ve led to the forming of the new regulator and the Commission for the Donor Experience. The thinking that has been done on fundraising culture and putting the donor at the centre of our work is hugely important, but I believe that the logical extension of this is ensuring that our imagery doesn’t reinforce negative stereotypes or misperceptions that exist within society.

It’s also worth mentioning compassion fatigue at this point. Exposure to numerous shocking, uncomfortable or negative images can easily switch a donor off or create a feeling of disempowerment or hopelessness when it comes to the issues that we work on – which is clearly something that we should avoid.

If we want our organisations to play a truly transformative role within society, then the framing we use within our fundraising activities cannot be looked at in isolation. It is more important than ever that our fundraising work is as integrated as possible with wider organisational and advocacy aims. Fundraising materials are often a route in for an individual to learn about an organisation or an issue. While of course we can’t ignore the bottom line and the need for our fundraising to be effective, we must also consider the wider social implications of our framing.

Andrew Taylor-Dawson is development manager at the human rights organisation Liberty

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