Rosie Chinchen: As fundraisers, we must listen to David Lammy

We have to weigh up the positives of raising awareness and money with the negative effects of the 'white saviour' image

Rosie Chinchen
Rosie Chinchen

The debate around Comic Relief’s celebrity-led fundraising in recent weeks took me back to a conversation I had with my now 12-year-old, mixed-race daughter when she was about seven.

The conversation was sparked by a direct response TV advert from an international development charity that featured a malnourished African child and asked for donations to provide medicine and nutrition.

My daughter asked if we could phone to donate because "all the people in Africa are poor and need our help".

My shock at her use of the word "all" was met with her open-mouthed disbelief when her dad and I corrected her impression, informing her that the continent is as diverse as it is vast, with people who are wealthy, own businesses, work in professions and jobs of all sorts, as well as some people who are desperately poor.

She challenged us on this, arguing that "all you see on TV about Africa is about poor people". And she had a point.

You don’t have to have a black or mixed-race child to be concerned about such warped views of Africa.

But it does get personal when you realise that your child’s own self-image and impression of the continent half her heritage originates from could be negatively shaped.

But what is a fundraiser to do, when testing and research have led to an understanding of the optimum combination of image and message to generate the highest donation response rate, average value and return on investment?

Comic Relief won’t have developed its formula without some serious insight into what performs best, and the vast sums it raises are testament to its expertise. 

Fundraisers are driven to grow their charity’s income because they know that means increasing the impact and reach of the charity’s work. Fundraising is the enabler, not the purpose.

So should we risk our winning formulas out of consideration for the negative impact the cumulative whole might have on sections of society? Can we change our approach and still generate the funds our charity needs? (Might we even raise more?)

In my role at Amnesty International UK, where fundraising is the sole source of funds, I talk about achieving our human rights investment, rather than our net income targets.

They’re the same thing, but it helps as a reminder of why we do what we do. Do I have the authority to adjust my own charity’s fundraising communications – potentially risking performance – out of consideration for the potential cumulative negative impact? What if that means less money for the work my charity does? What is the negative impact on those who would otherwise have benefited? And does that negative impact outweigh the positive one?

The cumulative impact of international aid and development DRTV adverts on my daughter was to leave her with a warped impression of Africa.

Does the blame lie with the charities raising funds? Do our schools, popular culture and the media have a share in that blame?

I don’t know the answers to my own questions and the only insight I have to offer is this: if you don’t and can’t have personal experience of the impact of negative stereotypes, listen to those who do.

Living with my partner, a black man, for more than 25 years has helped me to gain an understanding of why David Lammy spoke out against the "white saviour" connotations of Stacey Dooley’s image.

Her support for Comic Relief means funds will be raised and good work will happen. But the image is loaded with meaning that, as a white woman, I cannot understand personally.

What I can do and have done is to gain understanding by listening to those who live with the impact of these stereotypes. Those of us who can't personally experience the damage that is done have only one job: to listen and try to understand.

David Lammy presented us with an opportunity to listen. Let’s use it and consider our responsibilities as fundraisers – to our charities, our beneficiaries and to wider society.

Rosie Chinchen is director of fundraising at Amnesty International UK

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