Most beneficiaries understand why charities use images in their fundraising materials that depict them suffering but would prefer not to be depicted exclusively in that way, according to new research from Save the Children.
Speaking at the International Fundraising Congress in the Netherlands today, Jess Crombie, deputy director of creative content at Save the Children UK, shared findings from a two-year research project on how beneficiaries felt about how they were portrayed in the charity’s communications.
"Research participants agreed that images of suffering should be used for fundraising purposes," said Crombie. "However, there were preferences for images and stories that also showed resilience, solutions and people speaking for themselves.
"They said: ‘We understand the power and purpose of those images, but we don’t only want to be shown in that way.’"
Crombie said most participants were satisfied by their portrayal in the charity’s materials, "even those that featured in some of the most shocking imagery depicting their or their children’s suffering."
But she said research participants in the UK and Jordan, who had greater access to visual media than other subjects, expressed concern about the potential negative consequences of their images and stories being published.
Crombie said the research also showed that although beneficiaries featured in Save the Children materials were universally familiar with the concept of consent forms, in some countries – Jordan, Bangladesh and Niger – people had only a limited understanding of why the charity wanted to film or photograph them and how their images and stories would be used. This called into question the validity of the consent they had given, she said.
Crombie said Save was in the process of making major changes to the way it portrayed beneficiaries, including ensuring their dignity was respected not only in any images which are used, but also in the image-making process.
She said that in the past footage had been taken of people who would not then see the finished material – but this was changing.
She also said the charity, which plans to publish a report on its research later this year and hold a series of public debates to discuss the findings, was also starting to change the focus of its materials from lots of nameless children to a particular child or family who told their story themselves.
She said the charity wanted to tell the stories of the same individuals across various media in order to provide a richer experience for both the beneficiaries and the public.
Delegates also heard from Ian MacQuillin, director of the fundraising think tank Rogare, who said charities faced an ethical dilemma in how they portrayed beneficiaries.
He said that although it might appear that portraying them with dignity and in a way that challenges stereotypes was the ethical thing to do, that was not necessarily the case because it could result in less money being raised for good causes and therefore fewer people being helped.
MacQuillin said there was no easy answer to the dilemma and this was a decision that needed to be taken not by fundraisers but by charities’ senior management teams and trustee boards.
He urged charities that were concerned about the potential negative impact on their income of certain portrayals to carry out tests to measure whether they were truly damaging.
A third speaker, Anshu Gupta, founder of the India-based NGO Goonj, said he hoped a time would come when the sector would stop "massaging the egos" of donors and conducting workshops on how to thank them.