NEWS: Charities should have ethical policies on their use of service user stories and images, new approach to framing ethics recommends

  • New approach to ethics of framing of service users 
  • Framing is ethical when it is based on the voice and agency of service users/contributors
  • Published in the fundraising ethics special of the Journal of Philanthropy and Marketing.

All charities should routinely develop and implement ethical policies for how they collect and tell stories of their services users in fundraising and marketing materials, just as most already have ethical gift acceptance/refusal policies.

The recommendation is made is a new paper in the Journal of Philanthropy and Marketing that argues for a new way of thinking about the ethics of the framing of charity services users.

Written by Ian MacQuillin (director of Rogare), Jess Crombie (London College of Communication) and Ruth Smyth (Boldlight and a member of the Rogare Council), the paper argues that the consensus about how services users ought to be ‘framed’ in marketing and fundraising has proved elusive, because arguments gravitate towards two antagonistic poles.

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

At the other pole is the ‘Values Frame’, which argues that charities ought to 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.

The solution presented in the new paper is to base ethical framing in whether services users have exercised ‘agency’ and ‘voice’ in telling their own stories, thus becoming ‘contributors’ to charities’ fundraising as well as users of their services.

  • Voice is the as the ability of individuals to participate in deliberative processes to give an account of their life and its conditions.
  • 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.

The formulation of framing ethics advanced in the paper is:

Framing in fundraising is ethical when it provides a way for service users/contributors to use their voice and agency to contribute to their own framing and the telling of their own stories, and unethical when it does not.

This puts an onus on charities to consult with and include their service users about their marketing and fundraising communications to enable them to become contributors, and the paper outlines some ways in which this could be accomplished by drawing on the literature of “co-creation” of services.

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

Jess Crombie says: 

“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.

“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 includes a literature review of the research into the efficacy of positive (whether messages are presented as gains) and negative (messages presented as losses) in fundraising materials.

Ruth Smyth says:

“The perennial debate about whether fundraisers should use positive or negative frames for their appeals has been hard to resolve. In this paper we suggest a different way to look at the issue and propose a co-creation approach to develop fundraising communications. To use this approach it’s important to understand how donors respond to different methods so we’ve also reviewed research into what helps to raise the most money. Hopefully taken together this will give fundraisers an approach and the background information to raise more for their causes and carry out fundraising in an ethical way.”

Ian MacQuillin says:

“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. Ethical framing is now contingent on whether service users/contributors have exercised voice and agency in contributing to their own framing and telling their own stories. Other things being equal, fundraising frames are ethical when contributors have choice in what stories are told, and get to tell their own stories, and unethical when they do not.”

The paper – ‘“The sweetest songs” – Ethical framing in fundraising through the agency of service users/contributors to tell their own stories’ – is available through open access* on the Journal of Philanthropy and Marketing website.

It is the culmination of the fundraising think tank 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.

The previous papers from Rogare’s project on framing of service users are available for download on the Rogare website.

Rogare will now adapt the Journal of Philanthropy and Marketing paper into two new papers that will bookend the existing Rogare white papers and close this project, which we aim to do during the Northern summer.

The paper is part of the JPM’s special edition of normative fundraising ethics, which is edited by Rogare’s Ian MacQuillin, with co-editors Heather Hill (Chapel and York US Foundation/chair of the Rogare Council), Cherian Koshy (Endowment Partners LLC/member of the Rogare Council) and Lesley Alborough (Nottingham Trent University).

* We are grateful to Kingston University for enabling this paper to be available through open access.

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