NEW IDEAS: You’ve been reframed, Part 1 – are fundraisers and programme delivery ‘ideologically’ divided about beneficiary images?

The tension between fundraisers and programme delivery staff about how to best portray beneficiaries in marketing materials has existed at least since Live Aid and shows no sign of being resolved. In a two-part blog, Ian MacQuillin says the whole question needs to be reframed away form the simplistic notion of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ fundraising images.

Fundraisers are blamed for lots of things. Mostly they get blamed for doing ‘bad’ things to donors. Rogare’s whole approach to fundraising ethics has been that ethical decision-making and fundraising regulation has been skewed in favour of the donor at the expense of the beneficiary. And so we are trying to bring the beneficiary back into the ethical and regulatory frames.

However, there’s one area where beneficiaries are firmly at the centre of the ethical picture. And once again, it’s fundraisers who are the bad boys and girls, this time for the supposedly unethical practices towards beneficiaries.

I’m talking about the question of how beneficiaries are portrayed – or ‘framed’ – in marketing and fundraising materials.

The argument goes that the images that fundraisers use to raise money (those which most starkly show the urgent need for donations) are injurious not just to long-term sustainable development, but because they stereotype beneficiaries and perpetuate negative public perceptions about the lives of beneficiaries. The solution is therefore to foreground positive values and images of beneficiaries rather than negative images that are designed to elicit from donors responses based on negative emotions such as pity.

Essentially, this is the argument presented in the 2011 Finding Frames report from from UK’s umbrella organisation for aid agencies, Bond, and in more pejorative terms in any number of blogs and media articles about so-called ‘poverty porn’, not to mention the Rusty Radiator Award for the fundraising ad that uses the most stereotypical images.

So from this ethical and philosophical perspective, this image, from a Save the Children DRTV ad, represents the wrong way to do fundraising:


While this image, from Oxfam, represents the right way to do fundraising:


The accusation about the Save the Children image is that it contains a ‘degrading’ image of a child, though I would argue, as would many others, that what is degrading is the situation that the child is actually in, not the visual representation of that situation (a case of shooting the messenger?).

A problem with the Oxfam image is that the campaign of which it was a part raised very little money – nowhere near the sums an organisation such as Oxfam needs to solve the problems that were not actually depicted in this fundraising campaign.

Although the academic evidence about whether stark and graphic images are more successful in securing donations is sketchy – principally because there hasn’t been that much done – practitioner received wisdom says that they are.

This has established a schism in the nonprofit sector about how to frame beneficiaries, with one pole side of the divide focused on using images that will raise most money, and the other pole advocating the use a ‘values’ frame that challenges stereotypes and protects beneficiaries’ dignity – a schism that dates at least as far back as Live Aid in 1985 as recorded in the Images for Africa report. This debate is usually presented as relating to beneficiaries of development charities but in theory it’s applicable to all beneficiaries of all types of charities, including animals.

This divide has been described as being ‘ideological’: at the Bond conference in November 2014, Jehangir Malik, the ceo of Muslim Aid, said that campaigners and fundraisers were at “opposite ends” of this “ideological spectrum”.

Fig 1. The supposed ideological divide between fundraisers and programme delivery staff.

The differences between fundraisers and programme delivery on the framing of beneficiaries may well be ‘ideological’ (and I suspect they are). But I think we are a long way from having a ‘spectrum’ on the matter, since the debate is pretty well polarised in to two conflicting and adversarial positions, rather than there being a multitude of different viewpoints spaced along this spectrum (see Fig 1).

If there is an ideological spectrum (from an international aid perspective), it’s more likely to be based on the role of NGOs in assisting beneficiaries and how best to do that. At one end would be the likes of Libertarians who believe they have no duty or obligation to voluntarily do good with their resources, people who think that NGOs fail at best or make the situation worse, and those who contend that ‘charity begins at home’ and donations should go to home charities rather than overseas. At the other end of this spectrum are those who want to help – relevant government departments, donors and everyone working at NGOs, including programme delivery staff and fundraisers. Seen like that, the difference about framing is simply an internecine difference of professional opinion about how best to help beneficiaries rather than a massive ideological gulf (see Fig 2).

Fig 2. Where the professional difference of opinion between fundraising and programme delivery sits on the true ideological spectrum in the delivery of international aid.

And yet this dispute persists, shows no signs of going away, and is pretty adversarial, with fundraisers being accused of behaving unethically, and their pleas that they are trying to do what is needed to raise money falling on deaf ears.

When an issue stagnates or falls into a state of inertia as the issue of beneficiary framing has, then it’s time to bring some completely new thinking to the party. To move this issue forward and depolarise it, we need to reframe the whole framing debate.

This is what we’re doing at Rogare as a subproject of our review of fundraising ethics, working with Bond and our Associate Member, creative agency DTV. We’ll announce more details about this shortly.

Rogare recently published a white paper that described a new normative theory of fundraising ethics, which we call ‘Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics’. As fundraisers and beneficiaries both have certain rights, so fundraisers have duties to both groups. Fundraising is ethical when it balances these rights when they conflict, so that the resolution to an ethical dilemma doesn’t significantly disadvantage either donors or beneficiaries.

We’ve presented it as a balancing act between donor and beneficiary rights because most ethical dilemmas in fundraising occur when there is tension between what the beneficiary needs a fundraiser to do (ask for help on their behalf) and what the donor often wants a fundraiser to do (ask less, ask in different ways or at different times, or just not ask at all).

But that’s not the space in which all ethical dilemmas in fundraising occur – how beneficiaries ought to be framed is one such ethical dilemma that doesn’t fit into the donor-beneficiary spectrum.

Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics can be used to balance the rights of all the stakeholders fundraisers need to deal with, such as media, regulators, other fundraisers, peers and colleagues etc. In any dilemma, fundraising would be ethical when it strikes the right balance in any tension or conflict between fundraisers’ duties to two stakeholders, ensuring that any resolutions don’t significantly disadvantage one stakeholder vis-à-vis the other.

Part 2 of this blog will explore whether we can use Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics to reframe the question of beneficiary framing and so close the ideological divide between programme delivery and fundraisers.

AM logos May 2016

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