Charities urged to draw up ethical policies on the use of service users in fundraising

Charities should draw up ethical policies on how they use their service users’ stories and images, academics have concluded. 

A new paper, called The Sweetest Songs – Ethical Framing in Fundraising Through the Agency of Service Users/Contributors to Tell Their Own Stories, examines the debate surrounding the use of service users in fundraising activities. 

The paper says the issue has tended to be dominated by the “fundraising frame” at one extreme and “values frame” at the other. 

The former argues that fundraisers need to present images and tell stories that will motivate people to give the most money to provide services, even if this means showing distressing images of service users – an approach the paper says is often pejoratively referred to as “poverty porn” by opponents. 

The “values frame” says charities should present more positive stories and images of service users to protect their dignity and challenge stereotypes, even though there is a general acceptance that this will likely result in less money being raised.

The paper, which has been written by Ian MacQuillin of the fundraising think tank Rogare, Jess Crombie of the London College of Communication and Ruth Smyth of the fundraising agency BoldLight, says all charities should routinely develop and implement ethical policies on how they collect and tell stories of their services users in fundraising and marketing materials, just as most already have ethical gift acceptance/refusal policies.

It says charities should base ethical framing on whether services users have exercised agency and voice in telling their own stories, meaning they have become contributors to charities’ fundraising as well as users of their services.

“Framing in fundraising is ethical when it provides a way for service users/contributors to use their voice and agency to contribute to their own framing and the telling of their own stories, and unethical when it does not,” the paper says. 

This puts an onus on charities to consult with and include their service users about their marketing and fundraising communications to enable them to become contributors, it says.

A key recommendation is the development of ethical policies that codify the rights of service users to consultation and fundraisers’ duties to ensure this happens.

Smyth said: “The perennial debate about whether fundraisers should use positive or negative frames for their appeals has been hard to resolve.

“In this paper we suggest a different way to look at the issue and propose a co-creation approach to develop fundraising communications. 

“To use this approach it’s important to understand how donors respond to different methods, so we’ve also reviewed research into what helps to raise the most money. 

“Hopefully taken together this will give fundraisers an approach and the background information to raise more for their causes and carry out fundraising in an ethical way.”

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