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There is an increasingly heartfelt debate within fundraising about the use of so-called ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ imagery. Derek Humphries argues it is time to move beyond these simple notions to develop an approach that can unite fundraisers, programs teams, policymakers and everyone else in the sector.


fundraising reframing the imagery debate

People talk of ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ images as if the myriad and messy complexities of trying to make the world a better place can be put into neat boxes. The debate is far from exclusive to humanitarian development causes, but it is here that it is most vociferous.

I’ve heard of images of children in extreme need described as ‘old-fashioned’, and I can’t help feeling that it would be wonderful if such images were truly old-fashioned instead of real children who we have the chance to help today. I’ve heard of film of malnourished children described as ‘poverty porn’. It’s a phrase I find horribly trite.

Images matter. But they can’t and shouldn’t be judged in isolation. We need to reframe the debate. Fundraising is primarily the art of sharing stories of need in a way that offers people the chance to help. The emphasis of the story, and the balance between need and solution, will differ depending on the people you are talking to and what you are asking them to do. A story in a humanitarian disaster press appeal will be very different to the story you tell to a prospective donor in a face-to-face meeting.

Good causes must start from the position that emotionally engaging stories are a prerequisite to good fundraising. And the safeguarding of the people whose stories we tell must be paramount.

Once you’ve accepted that you have to tell stories, you have choices to make in terms of how you tell those stories. There is a vast body of evidence from over many years and across a range of causes and media that need-driven stories will inspire more giving. That doesn’t mean anything goes. Nor does it mean that all fundraising must be as hard-hitting as possible. It does mean that the choices you make will have consequences in terms of how much income you generate and therefore how much good work you can fund.

If an organisation chooses to communicate solely through stories of success, this is not necessarily a good or bad thing. But it is likely that such an organisation will find certain forms of fundraising a waste of money, and overall will raise less money and therefore be able to fund less good work.

It’s vital that we consider stories more holistically – words and images – rather than simply focusing on details of imagery alone. I find some of the stories I encounter immensely distressing, but that should not be an excuse for me to censor them and thereby have that nonprofit raise less money for the field to start making a difference. Are there exceptions? Yes, of course – for example, in emerging peer-to-peer social media fundraising – but as a general rule, people give to meet a need.

Good causes need to find a way to communicate that balances a wide range of issues. The following list is not exhaustive, but should be a good starting point:

•    Gather stories in a responsible manner. Strict standards and procedures need to be in place in terms of how stories and images are collected. Story collection (and gaining permission to share those stories) has to be about exposing the reality of a situation. It must never be about manufacturing a story or an image simply because it will work.
•    Deploy those stories in a way that is acceptable to those featured.
•    Provide context so that we recognise that these stories are not abstract fundraising collateral but about real people.
•    Ensure that the stories told do not in any way harm those who are featured or undermine other work that is done on behalf of them by the cause.
•    Tell stories that are representative of work that the charity does. It must be the truth.

Is that the end of the story? Of course not. As we move forward, and as standards and professional practice in this area develops, we all need to strive to be less adversarial.
Whether you are a fundraiser, program person, policy advisor or CEO, you are working to make the world a better place. It’s crucial in doing this that we all build on our shared values, rather than focusing solely on the places where we disagree.

Image: Drinking water with a smile in Malawi in South Eastern Africa. Image by Peter Muffett.

Derek Humphries

Derek is Creative Strategist/Director at the DTV Group. He is a founding partner of Rogare, a fundraising think tank that is delivering a project around the ethics of imagery in fundraising. If you have views on these issues, contact him at [email protected].

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