What fundraising images are unethical?

I posted a couple times recently on the use of images in fundraising (Images that work in fundraising and What kinds of photos of hunger work in fundraising?).

There were several comments on the “ethics” of fundraising imagery that bear some commentary of their own.

I my experience, most of the time, “ethics” is a big, fat straw-man, used to confuse the issue: Unethical is how some people label images they don’t like. Which is fundamentally dishonest. Your taste is not a matter of ethics.

The ethics of fundraising images are straightforward:


  1. Never use images that inaccurately portray a situation. There’s no excuse that makes it permissible.
  2. Don’t use images of people who don’t want their image used.

If you aren’t violating one of those, you are probably on solid ethical ground, even if you use very negative images.

And if someone throws the ethics argument at you, you should be able to comfortably ignore them, because it’s a bogus argument. (Unless they have authority over you or your work, which makes it a different situation.)

A more reasonable (though still wrong-headed) position against negative imagery would be one of branding: Some organizations ban the use of photos of people who are malnourished, visibly in pain, crying, in squalid conditions, or any number of situations like these. They say these images are at odds with their brand.

Fair enough.

There’s a good chance that brand is hurting fundraising in this case, which is a very common situation (see How a brand change will impact revenue: Real-life figures). But an organization has a right to define itself, even if elements of its self-definition are unwise.

Just don’t call it a matter of ethics. That cheapens true ethical issues.

(I’ve written more at length elsewhere on similar topics, including the “dignity” of those we seek to help and what happens when political correctness infects fundraising.)


Comments

6 responses to “What fundraising images are unethical?”

  1. For: “Don’t use images of people who don’t want their image used.”
    What’s the nature of permission here? Is it direct: Use images only with permission first; if no permission, no images. Or indirect: Use images unless they tell you not to.
    If the former (I’m hoping), you probably won’t have the problems folks are bringing up.
    I’m not a fan of arguing for arguing’s sake, especially in blog comments, but I still feel compelled to say that ethics is important, not bogus. So is dignity, whether it’s in quotes or not.

  2. For: “Don’t use images of people who don’t want their image used.”
    What’s the nature of permission here? Is it direct: Use images only with permission first; if no permission, no images. Or indirect: Use images unless they tell you not to.
    If the former (I’m hoping), you probably won’t have the problems folks are bringing up.
    I’m not a fan of arguing for arguing’s sake, especially in blog comments, but I still feel compelled to say that ethics is important, not bogus. So is dignity, whether it’s in quotes or not.

  3. 100% agree with the point around ‘brand values’ being used as a reason for preventing fundraisers using harder hitting imagery (or videos and copy for that matter).
    Effective brands have to support ALL of a charity’s objectives including fundraising. There is always a way to use such imagery to get across impactful and ‘on-brand’ messages if you developed the right brand values etc in the first place.
    If you didn’t, the problem is more likely to be with the brand you have than the fundraisers wanting to use certain images (as long as you stick to the permissions point above and regulations/laws in your neck of the woods, that is).

  4. 100% agree with the point around ‘brand values’ being used as a reason for preventing fundraisers using harder hitting imagery (or videos and copy for that matter).
    Effective brands have to support ALL of a charity’s objectives including fundraising. There is always a way to use such imagery to get across impactful and ‘on-brand’ messages if you developed the right brand values etc in the first place.
    If you didn’t, the problem is more likely to be with the brand you have than the fundraisers wanting to use certain images (as long as you stick to the permissions point above and regulations/laws in your neck of the woods, that is).

  5. Great points as always, but I wanted to add that there can be a flip side to this. Using an image of a person or a child that is painful to look at can sometimes have the adverse effect – it can make a donor feel that the situation is hopeless and cause them to immediately turn away, close the e-mail, pitch the mailing…and go back to their US Weekly.

  6. Great points as always, but I wanted to add that there can be a flip side to this. Using an image of a person or a child that is painful to look at can sometimes have the adverse effect – it can make a donor feel that the situation is hopeless and cause them to immediately turn away, close the e-mail, pitch the mailing…and go back to their US Weekly.

Leave a Reply

What this blog is about

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.

Blog policies

Subscribe

Get new posts by email:

About the blogger

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.


Archives

Blogroll

Categories


Search the blog

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.

Recent Comments

About the blogger

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.

Blog Roll

someone’s blog