Homelessness charities should stick with stereotypical images of beneficiaries, report says

Jon Dean of Sheffield Hallam University says accurate representations of homeless people could lessen the impact of fundraising campaigns

Most people think of the homeless as lone, bearded men, report says

It would be risky for homelessness charities to use less stereotypical images of homeless people in their fundraising materials because they would not match up with the images in the minds of potential donors, according to new research.

According to a report published last month in the journal Sociological Research Online, Jon Dean, lecturer in politics and sociology at Sheffield Hallam University, said he'd found that most people think of homeless people as being lone, bearded men begging and sleeping on the streets. He concluded that it could have an effect on a homeless charity’s income if it produced fundraising literature featuring more accurate and contextual images.

Dean conducted focus groups in which he asked 41 university students to draw what homelessness looked like to them. Of the 41 images produced, 24 were of men, many of whom had beards or stubble and a dishevelled appearance. More than three-quarters of the drawings showed someone sleeping rough.

"The findings clearly show images are centred on patriarchal, isolated, roofless and individualised depictions of homelessness as a social issue," said Dean’s report.

This meant it could be a risk for homelessness charities to deviate significantly from the images that had formed a basis for many of their campaigns because "stereotypical, individualised and depoliticised" images were more likely to stimulate recognition and generate donations from the public, it said.

"Given the homogeneity of the images produced in this research, and further studies that show complex, contextual information can lessen the impact of a fundraising campaign, we could argue that charities are acting rationally in continuing to fundraise in such a way, even though in rooflessness they are focusing on a relatively small element of the overall problem of homelessness," the report said.

But the report expressed concern about providing a rationale for fundraising strategies that continued to use stereotypical images, because this, it said, perpetuated inaccurate understanding and a lack of empathy among the public.

Dean wrote in a blog that if efforts to "critique, politicise and de-individualise" homelessness as an issue could not take place in fundraising literature, they should take place in the classroom and in other spaces.

"While social media and new technologies give fundraisers a more diverse set of tools to spread their charity’s message, we should not expect the traditional images associated with homelessness fundraising literature to disappear any time soon," he wrote in the blog.

Asked if his findings could also be applied to other cause areas, Dean told Third Sector there was something very specific about homelessness and the images people associated with it.

He said that he planned to test whether other cause areas, including alcohol and drug addiction and mental health, conjured up similarly stereotypical images. He said he had already tried this with international aid and it elicited more diverse reactions.

The study builds on previous research by Dean and Beth Breeze, from the University of Kent, which found that homeless people were willing to be misrepresented by charities using stereotypical images if it maximised charities’ potential fundraising.

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