NEW THINKING: How to solve the ‘poverty porn’ dilemma by enabling service users to tell their own stories

Advocates of the different poles of the framing ethics debate (raising money vs ‘poverty porn’) have been talking past each other for at least 37 years. Ian MacQuillin describes a new way to think about framing ethics that presents a way out of this ethical impasse.

Live Aid was massively successful. No one doubts that in financial terms, as it raised a whopping £150 million. Sir Bob Geldof exhorted people to give him their f*@king money, and they did just that (Sir Bob never actually said this!). Yet the aftermath of the fundraising enterprise revealed, perhaps for the first time so clearly, the philosophical division – even polarisation – between fundraising and the rest of the organisation. The official report described an “overall impression [of] a mass of contradictions, arising from the different and even opposing aims of different departments”. 

The crux of the problem is that fundraisers wanted to tell stories and use images that would raise the most money; whereas campaign and service delivery staff wanted to use images and tell stories that would protect the ‘dignity’ of those depicted, challenge stereotypes…well, you know how this goes, because this polarisation has been with us ever since. Similar tensions were found in studies in 1992/94 and 2017. And I’m fairly sure we’d find them in the decades before fundraising, if we looked: the term ‘poverty porn’ dates form 1981.

This has proved a difficult circle to ethically square. A few years ago, Rogare established a project that would try to do just that. Like the matchstick problems that ask you to change three squares into four by moving just two matchsticks, we need to look outside the current frame for a new solution – to reframe the entire ethical debate.

This project has now reached its conclusion in a paper – co-authored by me and London College of Communication’s Jess Crombie and Ruth Smyth of BoldLight – that was recently published in the Journal of Philanthropy and Marketing. This paper is open access thanks to the support of Kingston University. We’ll be publishing these ideas as a Rogare output later this summer. In the meantime, this blog summarises our main conclusions.

First, I look at what the ethical dilemma is and why adherents of two different arguments – the pro-fundraising side and the pro-dignity/anti-poverty porn side (that’s a bit of a caricature – it’s way more nuanced than this) can’t find any common ground.

Then I look at our proposed ethical solution. This argues that ethical framing allows beneficiaries/service users to tell their own stories and decide on their own framing, rather than have some choose those stories and frames for them.

What is the ethical dilemma? And why is it so hard to solve?

Charities need to raise money to provide services to help those who are in need to alleviate their suffering. The ethical dilemma is that the best way to raise most money is to use negative framing – according to received fundraising wisdom. Negative framing doesn’t just mean using images that show suffering and telling stories of suffering. In a more technical sense, it means presenting messages in terms of a loss: if you don’t give money, something bad will happen. We have called this the Fundraising Frame. Though it is often accepted that negative framing raises most money, the evidence, while supportive, is far from incontrovertible.

Against this is the idea that fundraising communications should use a positive frame. Rather than tell negative stories of suffering, they should tell stories and use images that show an aspirational better life – the life beneficiaries could have. Positive framing is thus portrayed in terms of gains: If you give money, something good will happen. Positively-framed communications, it is argued, maintain subjects’ dignity, mitigate othering and saviourism, and challenge stereotypes. We have called this the Values Frame.

It’s often assumed that the Values Frame is inherently better simply because it is not ‘negative’. Yet raising money is an important objective of fundraising (duh!) and the evidence is sparse that using the Values Frame will raise the money needed to provide services (many advocates of the Values Frame concede this point). Thus, both the Fundraising Frame and the Values Frame raise their own ethical dilemmas, which are represented in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The ethical dilemmas inherent in the Fundraising and Values Frames.

Moreover, adherents of the Values Frame often propose “reframing fundraising discourse” in such a way that the imperative of raising money takes a back seat, and such ideas are often more about changing fundraising into something else: awareness raising, engagement and education. One paper we reviewed said that “images should serve not only to raise funds, but should also creatively link public education to fundraising”. But in doing this, fundraising is being reframed out of the equation: these are no longer ‘fundraising’ communications, but something else that has objectives other than (just) fundraising.

As Ruth Smyth’s Rogare paper showed, the evidence supports negative framing, but overwhelmingly. But as advocates of the Values Frame concede, evidence in favour of more positive framing is scarce.

And yet, at the end of the fundraising process, these “reframed” communications that “creatively link to public education” are still expected to meet the (often short-term) fundraising targets set for fundraisers by their organisations, even though – and I stress this – advocates of this reframing concede that there is little evidence that the use of more positive framing will meet these targets.

One way to ethically square this circle, then, is to help and support fundraisers to devise positively-framed communications that both raise money and meet the demands of the Values Frame. 

Deciding to reframe the fundraising discourse this way is a decision that must be taken at an organisational level – it cannot just be left to fundraisers to do off their own bats because they have succumbed to the constant criticisms about their use of ‘poverty porn’. And there is a very real chance – at least in the short term while fundraisers find new, non-negatively framed ways to raise the money needed – that organisations will have to accept a fall in their income. It’s possible that positively framed messages that have the dual objectives of public awareness/education and raising money might never raise as much as negatively-framed messages designed solely to raise money. 

If that is a consequence of a reframed fundraising discourse, then charities that adopt such a reframing will need to accept this outcome and understand that any reduction in income, coupled with increased fundraising costs – doing the right thing doesn’t always come cheaply and often requires sacrifice – is a collective choice the entire organisation has made, and is not the fault of fundraisers and cannot be conveniently blamed on them. 

The ethical dilemma is currently (and hast been for at least 35 years) couched in the context of two opposing frames, each of which is consistent, coherent and ethical within its own terms, but provides no common ground for consensus: Adherents of the Fundraising and Values frames are talking past each other.

The organisational solution described above is one way out of this moral quandary. But there is another exit route. 

The third way – voice and agency of service users

With both the Fundraising and the Values Frames, two groups of people are in dispute over how best to serve and represent the interests of a third group of people – charity beneficiaries/service users.

The two groups of people are arguing about different ways to depict and tell stories about this third group.

Has anyone stopped to ask this third group about what stories they want to tell and what images they want to show? As Jess Crombie points out in the new JPM paper in the previous Rogare paper on which this drew, there is very little research that delves into what service users actually think about how they are framed and depicted.

The alternative ethical solution, then, is not to have the charity make a decision on behalf of beneficiaries about what frame to use – irrespective of whether that’s the Fundraising or the Values Frame – but for beneficiaries to make their own decisions about their own framing, and thus tell their own stories.

That’s what we propose in our JPM paper and it’s this new idea that, we believe, is the main contribution our paper makes to the stock of ethical knowledge.

Our ethical solution is that:

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.

‘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.

‘Voice’ is 

The ability to participate in deliberative processes.

The overriding ethical imperative is whether service users can tell the stories they want to tell, and thus become ‘contributors’.

It’s no longer about how much money can be raised by using negative framing – shocking images or framed as losses – as happens in the Fundraising Frame.

But neither is it about a form of communications that maintain or protect the ‘dignity’ of service users. Their dignity does not reside in the image itself. Dignity is not something that can be bestowed upon the beneficiaries of charities, either by using certain positive images or withholding certain negative ones that show suffering. The way we have formulated framing ethics moves the locus of dignity away the actual image and locates it in the contribution service users make as a stakeholder to the fundraising process. What is undignified is others presuming to speak on services users’ behalf.

Since the paper was published, some people have commented that the formulation of ethics we have proposed will be a corrective to the use of ‘poverty porn’ by charities, assuming that, if given the choice, service users will obviously choose positive, values-based framing. But this is not necessarily so. The studies that have been done have shown that service users are sophisticated consumers of media (why wouldn’t they be?) who understand both the need to fundraise and the fundraising process. It is entirely possible that service users, given the chance to exercise voice and agency, will choose to tell a story that is closer to the Fundraising Frame than the Values Frame: they may want to talk about suffering, and show it.

But what about the money?

But charities still need to raise money, right? And how can we guarantee that if we ask service users what stories they want to tell, then those will be the stories that result in charities raising the significant sums they need?

As I said, many service users already have an understanding of the fundraising process. But even so, we are not proposing that beneficiaries are given a veto over fundraising or that they get to dictate what types of images are used and stories told. What we are saying is that to be ethical, charities need to allow service users to exercise voice and agency as a stakeholder in the fundraising process. We are talking about the co-production of fundraising with both service users and professional fundraisers, and the paper outlines a framework for how such co-production could work, by bringing beneficiaries into the fundraising process and, ultimately, making them into fundraisers themselves.

Working out how we can do this has barely begun. However, Jess Crombie and David Gurling have recently completed a field experiment that demonstrates proof of concept – a fundraising DM pack, produced (adhering to particular guidelines) by a service user of AMFREF outperformed, just, the pack developed by AMREF’s fundraising department.

Fundraising to which beneficiaries contribute by exercising their voice and agency is still fundraising that is informed by all the professional best practice we already have and there is no reason to assume it will suddenly veer off in strange directions.

In the field test conducted by Jess Crombie and David Girling, the pack produced by participant Patrick Malachi performed slightly better than the pack designed by AMREF, being seen by donors as more ‘authentic’.

The sweetest songs

The way people have tried to square the ethical dilemma of framing fundraising has been through polarised discourse between the Fundraising and Values Frames that provides no common ground for new solutions.

One possible solution is a compromise, in which charities collectively adopt the Values Frame in the knowledge that is likely to deliver the double whammy of reduced income and increased fundraising costs, at least in the short term and possibly medium term too. 

The other is to bring beneficiaries into the fundraising process to allow them to exercise voice and agency in the co-production of fundraising and tell the stories and show the images they want to show. In the words of the Niger proverb from which our JPM paper takes its title, ‘a song sounds sweeter from the author’s mouth’.

Devising and building these co-production processes will not come cheap. But as we said previously, doing the right thing is often expensive and requires sacrifices.

“Some people have commented that the formulation of ethics we have proposed will be a corrective to the use of ‘poverty porn’ by charities, assuming that, if given the choice, service users will obviously choose positive, values-based framing. But this is not necessarily so…It is entirely possible that service users, given the chance to exercise voice and agency…may want to talk about suffering, and show it.”

Key to the ethicality of our proposed ethics of faming is that service users are able to genuinely exercise voice and agency. This means they must be fully involved in co-production and consultation process. But a superficial engagement or involvement that is that is designed to lead beneficiaries to a particular conclusion, approach or frame – be that the Fundraising Frame with its negative, loss-framed stories and images, or the Values frame, with its positive, gain-framed stories and images – would not permit the genuine exercise of voice and agency.

Acting like this, because you were worried that service users wouldn’t choose the frame that you know, deep down is the right one they ought to choose, would limit and restrict their voice and agency to the point that you had acted unethically.

If we are to trust service users with making decisions about the co-production of fundraising, we have to respect their decisions, even if they are not the decisions we might have made ourselves, whichever pole of the argument from which we approach this issue.

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