“Poverty porn” vs. fundraising: Let’s get serious

What would you think of a fundraiser who said this:

Shame on you, donors! We’re glad you give us money, but we’re deeply disappointed with your motivations for giving. It stems from your ignorance and flawed character. Your motivations are frankly disgusting. Please — get your act together.

I’d say that fundraiser needs to find work in another profession, fast!

Poverty porn has to be one of the most insidiously arrogant concepts in the history of fundraising. Think about it: They’ve labeled fundraising that shows that negative impact of poverty as a type of pornography — morally repugnant imagery that titillates and preys on the weaknesses of certain people.

Let’s make this clear: Those who call fundraising “poverty porn” are telling us that our donors are titillated and excited by images of suffering — and we are pandering to their emotional pathology.

If that were true, it would be reprehensible indeed.

But it’s not even close to the truth. If you know any donors, you know that they hate those tough images of poverty. But rather than whine about it, they do what they can to change the picture through charitable giving. It is a completely wholesome, empowered, and healthy response. Not a twisted, repulsive reaction like some kind of pornography addiction.

The “poverty porn” line of thinking shows a breathtaking disrespect for real-life donors.

Worse yet is the “solution”: To avoid creating poverty porn, we should do ineffective fundraising. Fundraising that doesn’t work because it doesn’t let donors know there’s a problem they could help solve.

The poverty porn line is displayed here at the White Fuse blog: Poverty Porn: Should Fundraising Override Dignity?

Images showing celebrities comforting children in the midst of disaster, or half-naked children with flies in their eyes only tell one side of the story. The voices within these communities are not heard, their perspectives are not sought, and the picture painted of them is one of need rather than dignity.

The dignity argument: Somehow, the images we show in fundraising can undermine the dignity of people.

If you’ve ever met poor and suffering people — especially those in the developing world — dignity often is their most notable feature: deep personal dignity that simply overshadows their poverty. Your little fundraising message can’t put the smallest dint in their dignity. You couldn’t touch their dignity if you tried to.

The dignity is not fragile and doesn’t need heroic Westerners to protect it.

But their suffering does need to be addressed, and effective fundraising can be part of the solution.

While ineffective fundraising that spends all its energy protecting dignity and avoiding the painful truths is just a big waste of money and effort.

If you’re serious about raising funds, you aren’t going to waste your time trying to change the way donors think. They don’t need your change. There’s no reason they need to be more like you. They’re just fine. And you don’t need to protect anyone’s dignity but your own (and probably not that either).

Poverty porn is not a real thing. But poverty is. Let’s spend our energy fighting the real problem, not the fake one.


Comments

8 responses to ““Poverty porn” vs. fundraising: Let’s get serious”

  1. Tom Ahern Avatar

    It’s come to this: we now have to defend donors from the charities they support. Bloody hell.

  2. Tom Ahern Avatar

    It’s come to this: we now have to defend donors from the charities they support. Bloody hell.

  3. Dignity? Ha. I think it is more akin to us fretting over our “First World” problems like poor cell phone service and having to select “English” on our ATM. Heaven forfend our comfortable Westerner lives should be discomfited by un-PC images and stories of suffering. To the “poverty porn” folks, the demonstrable fact that more people give to fight evil than they do to promote good is, apparently, a fiction. But that’s not surprising.

  4. Dignity? Ha. I think it is more akin to us fretting over our “First World” problems like poor cell phone service and having to select “English” on our ATM. Heaven forfend our comfortable Westerner lives should be discomfited by un-PC images and stories of suffering. To the “poverty porn” folks, the demonstrable fact that more people give to fight evil than they do to promote good is, apparently, a fiction. But that’s not surprising.

  5. Daniel Moore Avatar
    Daniel Moore

    I’m so glad you brought up the dignity argument! Before you got there, that’s what I was thinking about. In my nonprofit work, I hear more about maintaining dignity and confidentiality than criticisms of ‘poverty porn’. (Tho I have heard the term a few times.)
    You are completely right. It’s a flawed analogy — especially when applied to viewers who respond in good faith to social problems they are shown in powerful images. I couldn’t agree more that unless we are shown a real problem, the motivation to support charitable work will never get off the ground. (I’ve learned this from reading you and Tom Ahern!)
    Still, I can’t help but feel wary of using images that are so stark, for the lack of a better word. Here are a few of my own inner debates (in no apparent order):
    1. It’s hard to find an image of first-hand suffering that everyone agrees is their responsibility to change. (I’m thinking of images of poverty in first-world nations. So often the response we hear is, ‘They don’t look like they missed a meal to me!’)
    2. When working for a local nonprofit, confidentiality issues can put a full stop to showing images of people who are homeless, poor, abused, or marginalized. This makes it easier to show images of change instead.
    3. Okay, I’m restoring to the dignity argument here… But looking at an image of a person at their most vulnerable is an insertion of the viewer into that person’s life. When I look at images of children in developing nations, I often think how unlikely it is that they gave permission for their photo to be taken, or understood how it would be used. (Don’t get me wrong: I still agree using that image to create change is the best possible use of it.)
    4. Even when someone living in poverty gives us permission to take their photo, it’s impossible to predict who will see that image, and the effects its publication will have for that person.
    5. On the other side of things, we usually can’t guarantee that showing their image will lead to any real improvements in their situation. The donors who respond to that image may be far off in the future. In many cases, when we take a photo we’re asking people living in poverty now to help us prevent this from happening to other people…
    But I suppose that’s still a very reason… Maybe both fundraisers and donors would have fewer criticisms of ‘exploitative’ images if they kew there was a genuine partnership between the photographer and the person in need. That they were working together, deliberately, to make change possible. And that the person in the photo was fully supportive of the charity who was going to use it!
    When I take a photo, that’s how I try to explain it… Tho I doubt I do a very good job.
    If you have any thoughts, please share. I’m just thinking aloud.

  6. Daniel Moore Avatar
    Daniel Moore

    I’m so glad you brought up the dignity argument! Before you got there, that’s what I was thinking about. In my nonprofit work, I hear more about maintaining dignity and confidentiality than criticisms of ‘poverty porn’. (Tho I have heard the term a few times.)
    You are completely right. It’s a flawed analogy — especially when applied to viewers who respond in good faith to social problems they are shown in powerful images. I couldn’t agree more that unless we are shown a real problem, the motivation to support charitable work will never get off the ground. (I’ve learned this from reading you and Tom Ahern!)
    Still, I can’t help but feel wary of using images that are so stark, for the lack of a better word. Here are a few of my own inner debates (in no apparent order):
    1. It’s hard to find an image of first-hand suffering that everyone agrees is their responsibility to change. (I’m thinking of images of poverty in first-world nations. So often the response we hear is, ‘They don’t look like they missed a meal to me!’)
    2. When working for a local nonprofit, confidentiality issues can put a full stop to showing images of people who are homeless, poor, abused, or marginalized. This makes it easier to show images of change instead.
    3. Okay, I’m restoring to the dignity argument here… But looking at an image of a person at their most vulnerable is an insertion of the viewer into that person’s life. When I look at images of children in developing nations, I often think how unlikely it is that they gave permission for their photo to be taken, or understood how it would be used. (Don’t get me wrong: I still agree using that image to create change is the best possible use of it.)
    4. Even when someone living in poverty gives us permission to take their photo, it’s impossible to predict who will see that image, and the effects its publication will have for that person.
    5. On the other side of things, we usually can’t guarantee that showing their image will lead to any real improvements in their situation. The donors who respond to that image may be far off in the future. In many cases, when we take a photo we’re asking people living in poverty now to help us prevent this from happening to other people…
    But I suppose that’s still a very reason… Maybe both fundraisers and donors would have fewer criticisms of ‘exploitative’ images if they kew there was a genuine partnership between the photographer and the person in need. That they were working together, deliberately, to make change possible. And that the person in the photo was fully supportive of the charity who was going to use it!
    When I take a photo, that’s how I try to explain it… Tho I doubt I do a very good job.
    If you have any thoughts, please share. I’m just thinking aloud.

  7. No matter if it poverty porn or fundraising, it is important to extend our help for others.
    Joelle Wyser-Pratte
    Managing partner of Ounavarra Capital Partners, LLC

  8. No matter if it poverty porn or fundraising, it is important to extend our help for others.
    Joelle Wyser-Pratte
    Managing partner of Ounavarra Capital Partners, LLC

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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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