NEWS: How ought beneficiary stories be told? Evidence gives ‘tentative’ support to negative framing

The first report from an initiative that aims to “close the ideological gap” between fundraisers and service delivery teams charity beneficiaries in marketing materials has been published by the think tank Rogare.

The first in a series of six green (discussion) papers looks at what the academic evidence says about the use of positive and negative framing in a fundraising context. It has been mainly researched and written by Rogare International Advisory Panel member Ruth Smyth, of charity creative agency BoldLight in the UK.

Smyth points out that although fundraisers tend to understand positive and negative framing typically as referring to ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ images, the academic research considers framing as whether something is presented in terms of a ‘loss’ or a ‘gain’:

  • Positive framing – the positive impact your donation will have (e.g. 10,000 people can be saved from starvation)
  • Negative framing – what will happen if you don’t donate (e.g. 10,000 people will die of starvation).

But Smyth adds that there has been little research that has looked at framing specifically in the context of fundraising and charity advertising – the paper reviews just 12 published studies.

Smyth says:

“What research there is lends tentative support the commonly-held practitioner belief that negative framing, especially sad imagery, elicits more donations through engaging people’s sympathy – and negativity bias means people pay more attention to negative information.

“Research also mostly supports the idea that negative imagery using sad faces tends to elicit more donations when there is little other information, or limited time to process this.

“But the evidence is not overwhelming.”

The paper suggests that:

  • Negative framing may work best for donor acquisition, where new donors must be ‘attracted’ to the cause through an emotional punch
  • Positive framing may work better in donor retention, where fundraisers are trying to build lasting relationships with donors who are already engaged with their causes.

However, this is a hypothesis and not a recommendation, and would need to be tested through academic or practitioner research.

The entire project – ‘You’ve been reframed: How ought beneficiaries be represented in fundraising materials’ – seeks to develop a new ethical consensus about the best way to represent beneficiaries in charity marketing and fundraising.

Rogare’s director Ian MacQuillin says:

“The underlying issue is that fundraisers and service delivery staff often have opposing views and attitudes about how beneficiaries ought to be portrayed in advertising, marketing and fundraising materials.

“Fundraisers tend to favour those images that they believe will maximise income. These images tend to show in quite stark context the plight and suffering of beneficiaries. Service delivery staff – and others at charities – tend to favour images that reflect more ‘positive’ values about beneficiaries, maintain their dignity and focus on the solution to the problem.

“We believe that adherents of both frames have become polarized in the discussion and debate, which has become increasingly adversarial and may in fact be ‘ideological’. Our objective is therefore to ‘reframe’ this whole debate to close this gap and achieve a new ethical consensus on this matter.”

Rogare is planning to publish six green papers as part of the project:

  1. Review of the ‘philosophy’ behind approaches to this topic to establish the philosophical/ideological nature of the debate
  2. What works and why it works in positive and negative frames (the paper that is published today)
  3. Beneficiaries’ attitudes to how charities tell their stories and use their images
  4. What are the best ways to talk to beneficiaries and service users to get their stories?
  5. What the existing codes of practice say about using images
  6. A final report presenting a normative argument about how beneficiaries ought to be framed in fundraising.

Although papers 1 and 6 bookend this project, there is no requirement that each paper is published in order (except paper 6) and we shall publish each paper as and when it is completed.

The next to be published, in May 2020, will be Paper 3 – written by Save the Children’s global director of creative content Jess Crombie. Crombie was the co-author of Save the Children’s 2017 People in the pictures research into what their service uses think of the way the charity collects and uses their stories.

Further reading

  • Download Positive and negative feedback, Green Paper #2 from the ‘You’ve Been Reframed’ project, here.
  • Critical Fundraising blogs providing an overview of this project: part 1 and part 2.

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