Charities should have policies on the use of service user stories and images in fundraising, a new approach to framing ethics recommends.

Poverty porn, victimising, othering, non-consensual, white saviourism not a list of words you’d want associated with your fundraising, and yet they exist as part of an intensifying angst about the way we tell stories to secure donations.

The stories in question are the narratives of people nonprofits exist to help and, for some time, two sides have been emerging with opposing ideas about how these narratives should be portrayed.

1985’s Live Aid charity concert stands out as a momentous example of a fundraising effort that is synonymous with both raising an incredible sum of money (£150 million) and sharing distressing imagery (in this instance, the gaunt faces and starved bodies of famine-stricken Ethiopian adults and children). The opponents of Live Aid’s approach which they’d describe as a ‘negative’ angle say they’ve had enough of the subjects of fundraising material being painted as voiceless, helpless victims who can only be saved by us, the fundraisers and donors. Others say that criticism is all well and good, but positive imagery and storytelling raises less money and you can’t save the world if you don’t raise a whole lot of cash.

It’s a discourse that has been brewing for decades, and at the middle of it is a glaringly obvious elephant in the room that the people NFPs seek to support are given little or no agency in telling their stories or contributing to their solutions. Black Lives Matter and the disability civil rights movement are just two examples of communities telling us loud and clear that people without their lived experience, making assumptions on their behalf about how their stories should be told or their needs communicated, is unacceptable.

A hopeless situation with no winners, right? Wrong. There’s a third viewpoint, according to a new paper. And that is to involve the people your nonprofit supports, ensuring they are equipped with a clear understanding of what your fundraising is trying to achieve and collaborating with them on how to get there.

The paper, published in the Journal of Philanthropy and Marketing and written by Ian MacQuillin (director of fundraising think tank, Rogare), Jess Crombie (London College of Communication) and Ruth Smyth (BoldLight and member of the Rogare Council), described this new way of thinking as ethical framing. 

Before we consider the ethical frame, let’s explore the two frames at the centre of the debate between fundraisers and their critics.

Poles apart  

At one pole is the ‘Fundraising Frame’, which argues that fundraisers need to present images and tell stories that will motivate people to give the most money possible to provide services, even if this means showing distressing imagery of services users. This is often referred to as ‘poverty porn’ by critics.  

The pros of the Fundraising Frame are that it calls attention to real needs, builds awareness, mobilises action, and is effective at raising money. It is generally acknowledged, even by its critics, that the approach is more effective at securing income than positive images and that a shift away from the Fundraising Frame could result in a fall in donations. Evidence that positive framing raises more money is scarce.  

“The Fundraising Frame… argues that fundraisers need to present images and tell stories that will motivate people to give the most money possible to provide services, even if this means showing distressing imagery of services users.  

The Values Frame… argues that charities should tell and present more positive stories and images of services users, which protect their dignity and challenge stereotypes, even though there is a general acceptance this will likely result in less money raised.” 

Arguments against the Fundraising Frame are that it undermines human dignity and fuels racism (advocates of the Fundraising Frame claim that it is the situation depicted in the image rather than the image itself that is undignified) and perpetuates destructive myths about development.  

It is argued that the Fundraising Frame demeans the person in the photo, takes them out of context, and reinforces the stereotypes the NFP is often trying to counter, thereby undermining the NFP’s mission.  

A further criticism of the Fundraising Frame is that it ‘others’ service users of charities by promoting a view of them as helpless and passive, and those who help through nonprofits as wise, active and helpful – an issue often discussed in the context of ‘white saviourism’.  

While acknowledging its efficacy at raising money, critics say the Fundraising Frame fails to stimulate interest in, or engagement with, development issues by promoting a shallow understanding of the forces that generate the conditions that NFPs are trying to remedy. Advocates of the Fundraising Frame say it is not possible to get across such a complex and nuanced narrative in the type of communications needed for successful fundraising, but critics respond that this initial lack of context makes it more difficult to subsequently communicate complex issues.  

At the other pole is the ‘Values Frame’, which argues that charities should tell and present more positive stories and images of services users, which protect their dignity and challenge stereotypes, even though there is a general acceptance this will likely result in less money raised.  

So, Fundraising Frame = negative imagery and stories, more money raised. Values Frame = positive approach, dignified portrayal of service users, less money raised.

But frames aside, what do the service users themselves want and think? Is anyone stopping to ask them? Because the responses may not always be what fundraisers or their critics think.

Words matter – a note on terminology  

Notice the absence of the word ‘beneficiary’ as we discuss the debate and research set out before us? It’s no accident. While the standard terminology for a person supported by a charity is ‘beneficiary’, the paper acknowledges that this term can make them appear passive and without agency, which is one of the charges against the Fundraising Frame. The terms ‘service user’ or ‘contributor’ is a more accurate description of exactly what people supported by nonprofits should be – users of NFP services, and contributors and co-creators of their stories and programs. 

Ask us first 

There has been minimal research into the attitudes of how service users feel about how they framed or how their stories are told. In other words the service user voice is missing in the research about how the service user voice is missing! While both poles in the debate claim to be doing what is in the best interests of service users, neither is asking those service users what they think is in their best interests.

One of the paper’s authors, Jess Crombie, argues that the goal of eliminating ‘poverty porn’ is “based in a belief structure where the opinions of those reviewing content are prioritised above the people who tell their own stories.” She adds that the idea that removing certain types of images will imbue dignity on those who are depicted “assumes there is one universal way to experience dignity, and that it is possible to gift it to those who suffer.”

Contrary to the (critics’) belief that negative imagery always victimises or ‘others’ service users, (limited) research has shown that, as part of proactively contributing their story, service users may, in fact, want to include negatively-framed images and stories. 

Research also rejects the blanket assumption that those who feature in NFP content are not also consumers of these communications. Rather, much of the research shows that service users have a sophisticated understanding of the content collection and generating process, indicating that they are regular consumers of these types of media, and demonstrate empathy and sympathy for those whose plights are depicted, responding to sad images in the same way as donors.

There was an awareness and acknowledgement amongst service users/contributors that raising money is a priority and that if nonprofits are placed in a position of having to choose between raising money and other goals, then maximising donations has to come first. Furthermore, service users are comfortable with images and stories that show the problem as it exists. They do not like sad images because they empathise with the person in the image but a preference for images that do not show suffering “should not be misconstrued as contributors not wanting these images to be used at all,” says Jess.

Putting it into practice

Now we understand the arguments for and against the Fundraising and Values Frames and that, what is more important than both, is asking for the input of the people we seek to frame. With this in mind, what is a real-world strategy that nonprofits can use to empower both sides of the fundraising-service user relationship?  

The paper presents an ethical lens through which to view the framing of service users in charity fundraising and marketing activity. Rather than consider the ethicality of framing according to whether it raises money (Fundraising Frame) or whether it portrays people in a respectful and dignified manner (Values Frame):  

“…the ethical lens… considers ethicality to be contingent on the degree of voice and agency that service users have in telling their own stories and contributing to how they are framed.” 

When services users have exercised ‘agency’ and ‘voice’ in telling their own stories, they become ‘contributors’ to charities’ fundraising as well as users of their services. 

‘Voice’ is the the ability of individuals to actively participate in providing the account of their life, and ‘agency’ is the socially-produced and culturally-generated ability to act in specific spaces, providing a choice to act in a way that makes a pragmatic difference.  

A key recommendation is the development of ethical policies that detail the rights of service users to consultation and fundraisers’ duties to ensure this happens. 

“Many charities, as a matter of course, have ethical gift policies to guide them about when to accept, refuse or return a donation. We have these policies so we can pre-empt those ethical issues and have an ethical decision-making framework for navigating any that do pop up,” says Jess.  

“In the same vein, charities should also have ethical contributor policies that stipulate the processes and identify ethical dilemmas in gathering service user/contributor-generated content.” 

She adds that a key component of such policies “must be the implementation of a genuine consent process rather than one that merely legally protects the organisation.”

The paper also suggests a co-creation approach to developing fundraising communications, which acknowledges both service user contribution and the need to raise as much money as possible. Hopefully this can give fundraisers an approach to raise more for their causes while telling stories an ethical way.

You can find several recommendations in the paper for incorporating contributors into the content-gathering process. These include enabling service users to become image-makers themselves, investing in multiple stories over time with the same individuals, dedicating time to follow-up with contributors, and ensuring there is clear and informed content processes for both adults and children.

“With this paper we have moved the discussion about framing ethics beyond a play off between money raised against whether services users’/contributors’ dignity has been protected,” says co-author, Ian MacQuillin.  

“Ethical framing is [instead]… contingent on whether service users/contributors have exercised voice and agency in contributing to their own framing and telling their own stories.” 

An entire organisation approach

The question that forms the crux of the ethical dilemma – do the ends (most money raised to help service users/contributors) justify the means (negative images/framing of service users)? – cannot be solved by fundraisers working in isolation. Rather it must be addressed by the entire organisation. 

Because one problem is that fundraising is isolated. Fundraising serves a distinct function from the rest of a nonprofit organisation – one of attracting or acquiring resources as opposed to allocating them. This division of function is split around a focus on donors (for fundraisers) and on service users (for the rest of the organisation). 

Organisations must support their fundraisers to gather content and communicate messaging that is inclusive of, and driven by, service user contribution. An obvious example that comes to mind is client-facing program managers working in collaboration with fundraisers to enable clients to tell their stories in a safe, consensual setting. 

And we should be mindful that the ethical frame applies not only to the widely-discussed example of international aid, but to a huge range of humanitarian cause areas including environmental degradation impact, homelessness and housing, refugee and asylum seeker services, sex worker support and disability rights, the latter of which pioneered a term that seems fitting to close with: ‘nothing about us without us’.  


The paper – ‘“The sweetest songs” – Ethical framing in fundraising through the agency of service users/contributors to tell their own stories’ – has been made available by Kingston University on the Journal of Philanthropy and Marketing website here and is the culmination of Rogare’s project to explore the ethics of the framing service users. 

Previous Rogare papers from this project have considered the evidence for and against negative framing (by Ruth Smyth) and a review of studies that have investigated the voice of contributors in fundraising (by Jess Crombie). Both papers are available on the framing ethics page on the Rogare website – 

To learn more about an example of a nonprofit putting their service user voice front and centre, read about the National Justice Project here.   

To read about June Steward’s take on white saviourism, click here (F&P subscriber article).  

To hear more ethics fundraising join June Steward and Karen McComiskey for their session 7 Ethical Dilemmas and How to Navigate Them  at the Fundraising Forum 2022 from 30 August – 1 September in Sydney.

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