In this article, I highlight the main critiques of “poverty porn,” or as I call it: exploitation in fundraising communications.
Over the years, any organizations including nonprofits, media outlets, and corporate entities, have been criticized for using exploitative language and imagery to inspire action. These communications are seen as taking advantage of the differences (access to resources, lived experience, race, geographic location, etc.) between the audience consuming these communications and the people portrayed in them. They amplify stories of misery and suffering to shock and sensationalize the audience for many purposes: to entice giving, to generate more clicks, to sell a product or promote a brand.
While we in the nonprofit sector are quick to fiercely criticize the media for its click-bait tactics or corporate entities for overstepping in their sales methods, something prevents us from fully condemning this exploitation and appropriation when conducted by nonprofits, by ourselves.
I truly believe that some in our sector remain unaware of the damage done by these communications. I believe that they believe the outcome of raising money justifies the means and that people accusing them of “poverty porn” are being picky or absolutist.
I want to pull back the curtain and show you that’s not the case.
For those of you well-versed in this topic, you’ll find my approach quite different. Rather than tell you what to do or what not to do, I prefer to use the power of questions to elicit action.
This list is not an edict—it’s an invitation.
Exploitation creates or perpetuates inaccurate assumptions
When we see enough protruding bellies of starving black children in Africa, we begin to write our own narratives about them—we begin to stereotype them.
“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, The Danger of a Single Story, TED Talk
Single stories lead to assumptions, and assumptions lead to actions, and those actions have consequences.
The problem with assumptions about people who look like helpers is that we stop asking for solutions from people who look like victims.
“When people portray us as victims, they don’t want to ask about solutions. Because people don’t ask victims for solutions.” Theo Sowa, Chief Executive, African Women’s Development Fund
The main retort that I hear to this critique is that these stories are real. We have to show our donors the reality of the situation. We are not trying to play into people’s stereotypes. We can’t control our audience’s assumptions, right? This is what people look like. This is what they are experiencing. This is really happening.
I know. I believe you. I don’t think you staged the scene or fabricated information. I know you are trying to capture this with integrity and authenticity. But what else is happening?
Is this the only story?
Some say we shouldn’t tell stories like this at all. But I will diverge from my contemporaries on this issue. I don’t believe the danger lies in the stories we are telling but in the stories we are not telling. So I ask:
What stories are we not telling?
Whose truth is being portrayed? Whose is being left out?
Exploitation simplifies (or hides) the real issues
In the nonprofit sector, we are solving problems we didn’t personally create. We often shy away from directly mentioning the systemic issues that affect our clients’ experiences.
We might talk about needed to raise money for a shelter to house women who have experienced domestic violence. But that’s the symptom, not the disease. We wouldn’t need a shelter if intimate partner abuse wasn’t so pervasive, if it wasn’t downplayed by the media or disbelieved by so many people, if inaccurate assumptions didn’t exist about the type of people who experience domestic violence.
I believe we have a duty to talk about all of that. But I see nonprofits hesitate to talk about the root causes because we don’t want blame anyone—after all, we might need them as allies one day. But there are all kinds of hypocrisy and inefficiency hiding in this fear of blaming, and I’m not sure the fear is rational enough to warrant our silence.
The way I frame this issue, which I feel like welcomes people into the solution instead of blaming them for the problem is this:
What would solve the problem, besides more money?
What help are you not providing—that you couldn’t provide—even if money were not an obstacle? If all we are asking for is cash, over and over again, we have lost sight of the bigger picture. Our work is also about providing our audiences with opportunities to affect real change in the cause they believe in, through more than just money.
How are you not helping? What couldn’t you do, with all the money in the world?
Exploitation portrays a dishonest path to change
For six cents, you can feed a hungry child. Again, why is she hungry in the first place? But in addition to simplifying the issue, messages like this are problematic for a few more reasons.
We all know it costs more than six cents to feed a child – anywhere in the world. We know that a lot of people have to give six cents for us to even be able to implement our programs. But I understand we want to make the barrier to giving low so that many donors can participate in philanthropy at all levels. And we want them to feel like their gifts are meaningful, because if they look at our $500,000 program budget, they will feel like their contribution is insignificant.
But portraying the path to change so cheaply and easily will come back to bite us. Here’s one set of questions a donor could (and, reasonably, should ask): What is your salary divided by six cents? How many children could I have fed for the price of your position? Are you worth that many children?
This kind of thinking is what informs some very harmful practices in our sector, such as Restricted Giving (requiring that money be spent on specific programs or even specific things within a program) and The Overhead Myth (the organizations with the lowest overhead have the biggest impact). These ideas did not just occur to people—we are responsible for them. We feed them when we put out communications like the “six cents” one. So, my question to us is:
What role do we have in shaping our donors’ expectations?
Exploitation creates an unhealthy self-image
When we tell the same story over and over again, it’s not just our donors who are seeing our messages. Our program participants see them too. They hear themselves in our stories, and their world-views are shaped by them.
I already mentioned the danger in withholding sad stories, but I also want to talk about the danger in withholding positive stories.
When we tell positive stories, we are not simply trying make light of a bad situation or find the silver lining—we are doing so to show people what’s possible for the future.
Everyone needs a role model, someone to aspire to be like. And they need models who embody their own identities. The for-profit sector, TV, music do a lousy job of providing diverse role models. In fact, they send the opposite message: that happiness is only possible if you look a certain way, if you have certain means. It has to be our job to combat that.
Just like I asked about our role in shaping the expectation of donors…
What role do we have in shaping our program participants’ expectations?
Exploitation re-traumatizes and further marginalizes people
In our culture, we praise the bravery of people who share their “survivor stories” publicly, even giving them standing ovations. We view theirs as a noble and brave act and believe that when we approach our own program participants to offer them the opportunity to share their stories, we are providing them with a gift of honor. The things is, often years have passed before those survivors on Oprah and TED face the public, and they have had tremendous support in their healing process in the meantime.
In April 2019, the Nonprofit Quarterly podcast interviewed Sophie Otiende, a staff member at an organization in Kenya that helps women who have been trafficked. She is also a survivor of trafficking, and in this interview, she powerfully described how sharing her story some days is fine, while other days it triggers something that takes her two to three days to get over. The healing process is lifelong.
With our work, we are on the front line. We may be the first place a person has turned to in their time of need. We might be the first person to hear their story, and we want to turn around and say, “Great, could you repeat that for some of our donors?”
So, my last question is:
How are our stories really impacting the people we help?
In this this article, I have invited you to consider how some of what we call “poverty porn” harms not just the people in the pictures but our industry as a whole. When donors have an inaccurate understanding of the problem and solutions, they are less likely to make meaningful investments that carry the work forward. These are not simple changes that can be fixed through replacing words or images. We have to work with our program participants in new and equitable ways to share stories that more authentically and effectively portray the challenges we are tackling