Ian MacQuillin: While we debate what’s in the best interest of charity beneficiaries, has anyone asked them?

Forget money and ‘dignity’, it’s the agency of service users that is the key ethical consideration

Last month I wrote about the "modern fundraising dilemma" – how to raise money while representing service users/beneficiaries appropriately.

It’s a difficult challenge that perhaps generates more heat than light in what is an often polarised discussion.

One side argues that fundraising text and images that focus on suffering are disempowering, othering, perpetuates stereotypes, doesn’t tackle the root causes of problems and ultimately harms the people it is supposed to help.

The other side (mainly fundraisers) argues these types of stories and images raise the most money that can be used to help people in need, and there is little evidence alternative approaches work better (a point their critics tend to agree with).

Essentially, we have two sides arguing about what is best for charity beneficiaries.

Has anyone asked those beneficiaries what they think?

While both poles in the debate claim to be doing what is in the best interests of service users/contributors, the dearth of research on the matter suggests neither is in the habit of asking service users what they think (and nor are researchers, for that matter).

In a paper for Rogare last year. Jess Crombie, Save the Children’s former global director of creative content, who is now a lecturer at the London College of Communications – could find just nine pieces of research that had explored how beneficiaries view their own framing.

There is a strong school of thought that service users should be included in both the governance of charities and the co-production of services – see this paper as an example.

And in a session at the International Fundraising Congress in 2018, a senior fundraiser called for “direct democracy” of INGOs involving their beneficiaries.

Last year, a team from Glasgow Caledonian University set out to conceptualise the different approaches to service user involvement in NGO governance and decision making.

They found that many charities’ attempts at this were little more than tick-box exercises with little real engagement. The described this scenario as one of "low inclusion and low engagement".

In the ideal scenario (high inclusion - high engagement) – which doesn’t happen that much – charities enable service users in designing and co-producing their own services. (There are two other scenarios in the paper: high inclusion - low engagement and low inclusion - high engagement – it’s worth a read.)

With a few exceptions, we’re in low inclusion - low engagement territory in terms of how fundraisers "frame" beneficiaries.

But where do the arguments against "poverty porn" and negative framing sit on the engagement-inclusion 2x2 grid?

Can (non-rhetorical question) the proponents of this position legitimately claim they are in the ideal scenario of including service users/beneficiaries in the construction of this narrative?

The clash between the different poles of this framing debate has been documented since Live Aid in 1985. It seems like an intractable ethical problem.

One of the reasons is seems intractable is because the ethical debate is being waged absent the input of the people who are its subject. We have two poles that both claim to represent what is right for beneficiaries.

It’s equally paternalistic for either group to do that without at least canvassing the views of the people they claim to speak for.

And neither will we achieve consensus while one side argues that the right thing to do is raise most money and the other side gainsays that by saying the right thing to do what protects beneficiaries’ dignity.

The right thing to do is what beneficiaries want.

That means shifting the entire ethical framework away from money on one side and dignity on the other to the agency of service users.

What is ethical in matters that affect charity beneficiaries is the agency those beneficiaries have in contributing to the decisions that affect them.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare


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