Ian MacQuillin: Should fundraisers use images of suffering beneficiaries?

It's a polarised and complex debate that is often left solely to fundraisers to solve

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

"The overall impression is a mass of contradictions, arising from the different and even opposing aims of different departments… Messages of justice and equality were countered by messages of philanthropy and patronage."

This is a conclusion from a report into the relief efforts (which included Band Aid and Live Aid) for the African famine in 1984/85. 

Things don’t seemed to have changed much in 30-odd years (the African famine report is so old that it was written on a typewriter), and sentiments that charities peddle "poverty porn", promote a white-saviour complex, perpetuate stereotypes and demean beneficiaries’ dignity are endemic, and periodically burst into the headlines, as they have done now.

A few years ago at the annual conference run by the NGO umbrella body Bond, a participant in a panel discussion claimed that fundraisers and service delivery staff stood at opposite ends of an ideological spectrum on how to "frame" beneficiaries in marketing collateral.

But they don’t. Regarding international aid, libertarians and social contract theorists are at opposite ends of an ideological spectrum. Fundraisers and service delivery staff are fundamentally on the same side. They are both social contract theorists engaged in a fraternal dispute about the best way to help the people who need aid.

In a nutshell, the fundraising argument is that you can’t help without money, so you need to show the images most likely to persuade people to give money.

The opposing argument is that using such images is likely to cause longer-term harm by failing to promote justice and equality.

That argument has plenty of validity and I’m not pretending it doesn’t. But there is an assumption made by many that it is simply the "right" side of the argument and that the fundraising side of the argument is simply "wrong".  You’ll hear comments such as "fundraisers will use any image just to raise the most money", as if raising money were some kind of – ooh, what’s the phrase I’m looking for? – necessary evil.

So why haven’t we moved on in 30 years, if this is such an important topic?

If the arguments against using these types of image are so obviously right, why do fundraisers keep using them?

One reason might be that these images work at invoking the emotions that lead people to donate, as practitioner wisdom claims. This is a claim to which what little academic research has been done lends tentative, but not overwhelming, support. But even if overwhelming evidence could be found to support such "negative" framing, it’s unlikely to win round those who are opposed to it in principle.

So what might be another reason?

How to frame beneficiaries is a holistic, strategic challenge for the whole NGO. Yet it is one that is often left only to fundraisers to solve.

Fundraisers have short-term targets to raise the money needed to alleviate the short-term distress suffered by beneficiaries.

Rarely are they required achieve other organisational goals, such promoting their beneficiaries’ long-term good by changing a stereotypical perception of them – goals that would come with targets and guidelines about the types of images that could and could not be used – assuming such goals even exist.

So fundraisers – quite naturally – prioritise the objective of raising money. They would be hugely, and justifiably, criticised if they failed to raise enough money to help beneficiaries.

To achieve these (often) short-term objectives, they neglect questions about the most appropriate long-term framing of their beneficiaries. For this, they are also criticised, even though any attempt by them to answer these questions might well result in less money raised and potential short-term harm to beneficiaries.

This is a complex issue. But it is one that has become polarised, and attempts at consensus are not helped by one pole deciding that the issue is not complex at all and that fundraisers should simply stop using images that starkly and graphically illustrate the suffering of beneficiaries.

If this is your view, then what would you have them use in their place? Justify you answer using theory and evidence, while avoiding a mass of contradictions.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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