NEWS: Beneficiaries’ voices should be central to NGOs’ story- and image-gathering processes

  • Beneficiary voices are as important as those of donors
  • ‘Dignity’ is as much located in the image-gathering process as it is in the content of the image
  • Including beneficiary – or ‘contributor’ – voices a “massive missing piece” of the ethical jigsaw.

The voices of charity beneficiaries should be given more prominence in how NGO’s gather and tell their stories, the latest report from fundraising thing tank Rogare recommends. 

Written by charity communications expert Jess Crombie – a senior lecturer at the London College of Communication – the paper argues that discussions about how to maintain the dignity of the people NGOs set out to help focuses often focuses only on what those images show by describing much fundraising as ‘poverty porn’.

Crombie – who was formerly head of global content at Save the Children – says: 

“The issue of framing needs to be rethought and reframed. The locus of human ‘dignity’ often resides in the image itself. However, the locus for addressing dignity should move beyond the image-making process toward the recognition that a contributor makes to the process as a stakeholder. This shifts the focus from an imperative to remove images of suffering, to focusing on how we include the contributor in the process of telling their own story. 

“The notion that by removing certain types of imagery, or stories, we will imbue ‘dignity’ upon those who are suffering is problematic as it assumes that there is one universal way to experience dignity, and that it is possible to gift it to those who suffer. Both ideas are based in the assumption that there is one, Euro-American centric world view, and that this is the ‘right’ way to tell stories.”

And yet for such important stakeholders, there is very little research into what charity beneficiaries think about the way they are framed; and Crombie’s Rogare paper – Putting the contributor centre frame: What the people in our pictures think about the way we tell their stories ­– reviews just nine such studies.

Crombie argues that the relative absence of the voices of service users is partly due to the prioritisation of donor voices in NGO narratives, which are constructed to represent what donors and Northern publics expect and want to see.

But she says that charity beneficiaries – or “contributors” as they are termed in this paper, because they ought to contribute to their own narrative – should be recognized as being as “important as donors in providing us with the wherewithal to carry out our work”, and so charities should “treat them and their opinions accordingly, investing as much in seeking their input on all areas of our work as we do in eliciting donor opinions”.

Rogare’s director Ian MacQuillin says that including the voices of charity beneficiaries is a “massive missing piece of the ethical jigsaw”. 

“That is why this paper by Jess Crombie is such a vital contribution to the debate on this thorny topic. Jess reviews and interprets the little research that has been done on this topic, and suggests how we might use that to move this issue forward, by allowing charity beneficiaries to speak for themselves – to become contributors to their own narrative rather than have someone else construct it for them.

“If we claim to be an ethical profession, it’s the least we should be doing.”

This latest paper is part of Rogare’s project to review the ethics of how beneficiaries are ‘framed’ in fundraising materials. It follows the review of the evidence around positive and negative framing in fundraising, written by Ruth Smyth and published in 2018. More information about Rogare’s beneficiary framing project can be found on the Rogare website.

Further reading

Download the paper – Putting the contributor centre frame: What the people in our pictures think about the way we tell their stories.

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

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

NEW IDEAS: You’ve been reframed, Part 2 – how we need to rethink the question of beneficiary images.

KNOWLEDGE: Academic research into framing of beneficiaries in fundraising.

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