Why is fundraising considered “poverty porn”?

I’m going to show you one of the top reasons nonprofits have a hard time getting and keeping donors. It’s an attitude. A belief that donors should respond to need without real connection to the need. That the need for connection is a kind of moral shortcoming on the part of donors.


You can see this clearly expressed in a post titled Poverty porn and fundraising at Owen Abroad, a blog written by Owen Barder, an aid worker in Ethiopia.


Yes, you read that right: “poverty porn.”


Owen’s issue is largely with fundraising programs that connect donors with beneficiaries on a one-to-one level. Programs like child sponsorship. The problems with this are:



  • They cause the poor “to prostitute themselves by writing letters of gratitude to their sponsors.”
  • It’s “wasteful of time and effort.”
  • It is “degrading to those involved.”

While he concedes the fundraising effectiveness of these connections, he says it’s the outcome of a deeper failing:



Their behaviour is the result of a broader problem, with the citizens of rich countries, who seem to be unwilling to sacrifice a tiny part of their income to help a fellow human being unless they feel some sort of personal connection with the recipient. This is charity of a Dickensian sort: not a system of social justice and protection, but throwing some coins to a beggar in the street and expecting to be lavishly thanked.

Before I comment, let me say that I don’t know Owen, but I’ve had the privilege of meeting many others in his profession, around Africa and other parts of the developing world. These people are heroes. The work they do under tough conditions, their strength, ingenuity, and service ethic they demonstrate set them apart.


That said, Owen’s beliefs about donors — and he is not at all alone — are utterly corrosive to nonprofit work.


Pardon me, but since when is human connection a form of prostitution?


Connection is central to the human condition. Without it, hatred, xenophobia, and apathy grow and thrive. With connection, it’s a lot harder to start wars or perpetuate oppression. Personal connection across geographic and cultural boundaries shows us as fact what we know in our hearts to be true: We’re not that different from each other.


Organizations that promote connection aren’t just doing smart fundraising. They’re helping their donors become better, smarter, deeper, more aware people. More connection means not just more money. It means more understanding, more caring, more real change of thinking and behavior.


I wish the professionals in the field would embrace connection between the poor they’re working with and the rich who can fund the work. I wish they’d help invent even more ways to connect in deeper and broader and more meaningful ways. (And I know for a fact than many of them do believe in connection.)


Because as long as we think that connecting donors with the problems and lives of those we help as something shameful, a failure, a necessary evil, a sort of pornography, we are going to be three steps farther away from the solutions our world needs.


Thanks to Give and Take for the tip.


Comments

12 responses to “Why is fundraising considered “poverty porn”?”

  1. I agree with you. My daughter isn’t an orphan in Africa, but she does have a disease that will kill her. I ENCOURAGE people to become connected with her! I’d better not think of that as non-profit prostitution! I think Owen went too far. I’m sure it’s frustrating for him being “over there,” but it’s good for all of us to find that connection.

  2. I agree with you. My daughter isn’t an orphan in Africa, but she does have a disease that will kill her. I ENCOURAGE people to become connected with her! I’d better not think of that as non-profit prostitution! I think Owen went too far. I’m sure it’s frustrating for him being “over there,” but it’s good for all of us to find that connection.

  3. Thanks, as always, Jeff. I’m particularly impressed with the nonprofits that are linking donors directly with the beneficiaries. Organisations like http://www.epicchange.org (you can follow the Tanzanian kids and their teacher on Twitter). Simply awesome. And http://www.childsifoundation.co.uk where the ‘i’ stands for interactive. They genuinely want you to connect with the beneficiaries, because they know that will bring the greatest impact.

  4. Thanks, as always, Jeff. I’m particularly impressed with the nonprofits that are linking donors directly with the beneficiaries. Organisations like http://www.epicchange.org (you can follow the Tanzanian kids and their teacher on Twitter). Simply awesome. And http://www.childsifoundation.co.uk where the ‘i’ stands for interactive. They genuinely want you to connect with the beneficiaries, because they know that will bring the greatest impact.

  5. I’m with you 100% Jeff! We need those sad and troubled stories from the field. We need the aid workers and missionaries to understand the importance of these stories. And yes, it’s possible for the workers back home to write the stories instead of the children receiving the aid. Or they can hire outside professionals to write their fundraising letters.
    But connecting one-on-one in a personal way with another human in need is scarcely a form of “prostitution.” Cold “rigorous evidence” alone doesn’t raise enough money. Since the beginning of time humans have responded to well-told stories. And they respond best to a lead character in the story. So we can’t limit our fundraising to mass statistics and plights of nations if we want to do our best.

  6. I’m with you 100% Jeff! We need those sad and troubled stories from the field. We need the aid workers and missionaries to understand the importance of these stories. And yes, it’s possible for the workers back home to write the stories instead of the children receiving the aid. Or they can hire outside professionals to write their fundraising letters.
    But connecting one-on-one in a personal way with another human in need is scarcely a form of “prostitution.” Cold “rigorous evidence” alone doesn’t raise enough money. Since the beginning of time humans have responded to well-told stories. And they respond best to a lead character in the story. So we can’t limit our fundraising to mass statistics and plights of nations if we want to do our best.

  7. I think True North Aid is one organization that fits under ‘proverty porn’umbrella. I am a resident of Nain Nunatsiavut, and am fimiliar with the living conditions and the Whalens. Nain is nothing like the community in despair and certainly not in the third world conditions as depicited by TNA. There were cedrtainly not ‘hundereds’ of people at the giveaway. The capacity of the existing community centre that they used for the give away is barely 100. It is the blatant falsehoods and extreme deceptions of the writers of these blogs canvassing dollars to make themselves feel better that are frustrating. There are some residents in Nain who are not well off and who may be struggling financially, but not unlike any other community/town city in the world. Nain does not need the like of TNA, Ray Whalen or any other self serving do gooder using inaccurate and exagerrated falsehoods to advance their own agendas.

  8. I think True North Aid is one organization that fits under ‘proverty porn’umbrella. I am a resident of Nain Nunatsiavut, and am fimiliar with the living conditions and the Whalens. Nain is nothing like the community in despair and certainly not in the third world conditions as depicited by TNA. There were cedrtainly not ‘hundereds’ of people at the giveaway. The capacity of the existing community centre that they used for the give away is barely 100. It is the blatant falsehoods and extreme deceptions of the writers of these blogs canvassing dollars to make themselves feel better that are frustrating. There are some residents in Nain who are not well off and who may be struggling financially, but not unlike any other community/town city in the world. Nain does not need the like of TNA, Ray Whalen or any other self serving do gooder using inaccurate and exagerrated falsehoods to advance their own agendas.

  9. It’s true. Fundraising can be manipulative.

  10. It’s true. Fundraising can be manipulative.

  11. Hi Jeff
    Thanks for reading my article and taking the time to comment on it.
    With respect, I don’t think that describing this as “human connection” makes the issue go away. You could describe prostitution as “human connection”. The reason that many people object to prostitution is that it is a connection in the context of a very unequal power relationship. In the case of prostitution, one person is able to exercise the power of being very wealthy to satisfy their needs for connection with the other person, who participates not by unconstrained choice but because they desperately need the money. We find this human connection between a prostitute and client very unsettling (as we do in other unequal relationships such as between adults and children or between a boss and an employee).
    I am strongly in favour of growing connections between people in different countries and communities, and as you will have seen from my website, I actively encourage people to come on holiday here in Ethiopia, to visit the country and to get to know the marvelous people. That can be a genuine human connection.
    But I don’t think you can describe it as “human connection” to ask children to write letters to people in America in return for money. That is exploitation, and I think the analogy with prostitution or pornography is much more compelling than you are willing to acknowledge.
    Kind regards
    Owen

  12. Hi Jeff
    Thanks for reading my article and taking the time to comment on it.
    With respect, I don’t think that describing this as “human connection” makes the issue go away. You could describe prostitution as “human connection”. The reason that many people object to prostitution is that it is a connection in the context of a very unequal power relationship. In the case of prostitution, one person is able to exercise the power of being very wealthy to satisfy their needs for connection with the other person, who participates not by unconstrained choice but because they desperately need the money. We find this human connection between a prostitute and client very unsettling (as we do in other unequal relationships such as between adults and children or between a boss and an employee).
    I am strongly in favour of growing connections between people in different countries and communities, and as you will have seen from my website, I actively encourage people to come on holiday here in Ethiopia, to visit the country and to get to know the marvelous people. That can be a genuine human connection.
    But I don’t think you can describe it as “human connection” to ask children to write letters to people in America in return for money. That is exploitation, and I think the analogy with prostitution or pornography is much more compelling than you are willing to acknowledge.
    Kind regards
    Owen

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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