Since the term “poverty porn” first appeared in 1981, much has been said about the exploitation of human suffering to inspire charitable giving. Yet for all that we’ve learned over the last four decades, many organizations still struggle to communicate
their impact in a way that authentically represents the issue and preserves the dignity of those affected by it.

Websites devoted to calling out organization accused of poverty porn are endless, and so we might wonder, with all this awareness, why do organizations still use exploitative practices?

I have some theories.

Because of the (lack of) representation

The identities and lived experiences of the people working in nonprofits compared with those of the people being affected by the program can be quite different, and those differences keep us from understanding and properly portraying the communities we impact.

I don’t often encounter a situation where there would be absolutely no staff/program participant overlap in identities and experiences —for instance, an organization consisting exclusively of men and providing services exclusively for women. Usually there is some overlap in terms of gender, age, and possibly race, but it is never enough  to really say that our staff and leadership fully represent or embody the experiences of our program participants. Our sector is well aware that we would benefit from more diversity and representation in our staff and boards, but I want to caution us that there will never be a complete overlap of identities and lived experiences.

An organization fighting to end homelessness may consist of a board and staff who have all experienced homelessness themselves (it’s rare, but possible); however, they may not all embody the other identities of their constituents (sexuality, gender, race, prior experience with trauma, etc.). The range of human experience and the intersectionality of the multiple identities will always be too vast to be replicated in any one group. I have taken the trouble to explain this at length because this is where I believe a common pitfall in representation and diversity occurs: people assume that because one person embodies a certain identity, they are representative of the entire group. We cannot assume that someone on staff who has experienced homelessness can speak on behalf of all people with that experience. Just because you and I have experienced something similar does not mean we want our stories told in the same way.

 

Because we are not getting real feedback

It’s important for us to recognize that our feedback channels for fundraising communications are often ineffective. Many organizations tell me they always ask their program participants for feedback on communications. They ask questions about whether the communications accurate, culturally sensitive, and relevant. And the feedback they hear is always “It looks great!”

But let’s acknowledge that most of us are uncomfortable giving critical feedback even in the most equitable of circumstances, and program participants are not in the most equal of circumstances. When there is a power dynamic, like the boss asking for feedback or a key funder asking our organization for feedback, we are more likely to tell them something they want to hear, to preserve the relationship.

Our program participants also feel like they have a duty to please us and tell us what they think we want to hear, because we have the power to serve them or not. They may even be afraid that we will discontinue services to them if their feedback is anything less than satisfactory.

Asking directly for feedback, when there is a power imbalance, does not give us the truth. For more ideas on ways to fix your feedback channel and increase the likelihood of getting truthful responses, see my article on this.

 

Because it feels so good to help…and so bad to ask for it

We know that giving makes us feel better. Helping other people makes us feel better. Psychological research confirms that giving makes us feel good and makes us healthier.

This positive feeling of helping serves to overshadow the reservations we may have about how the people who are on the receiving end of those gifts are portrayed. When we have positive feelings about the deeds we are doing, we tend to ignore or minimize negative possibilities.

But here’s what’s interesting: While it feels great to help, it feels horrible to ask for help.

We cringe at the thought of asking someone, especially a stranger, for help. Imagine your car breaking down on the side of the road, and your cellphone is out of battery so you can’t make a call. Imagine the want it feels like to have to flag down a passerby. What if they don’t want to help us? What if they refuse, and we’re humiliated? Even if they do help us, what will they think of us?

Finally someone pulls over, and you ask a stranger to borrow their phone so you could make an urgent phone call for tow truck. They lend it to you, but immediately upon your handing it back, they ask if they take a photo of you and post it on their social feed to let their friends know about their noble deed. How would that make you feel?

Using the misfortune of others as an opportunity to highlight one’s own generosity is so prevalent that there are now satirical memes about it.

Image result for do something nice without posting

What does asking for help do to our self-image? And what does providing help do to the other person’s? You can see that these “noble” posts are all about glorifying the “hero” and humiliating the “victim.”

When we forget how much it hurts to ask for help, we put our own feeling of heroism in the spotlight.

 

Because of the research

I’m sure many of my colleagues in the fundraising world will recognize this graphic:

graphic

This graphic was taken from a study published in 2009 in the journal of the American Marketing Association. Many of the most famous names in fundraising cite this study religiously as being total justification to post wretched photos of suffering, and they show this graphic as proof. But this is where the education ends.

Most people don’t bother to read the study, but, friend, I did. The study was conducted of 151 American college students, with the average age being twenty-one. I’m willing to bet that’s quite a different demographic form your donor population.

Now, the students were paid ten dollars to show up and fill out an online questionnaire. They were told they could donate their ten dollars to cancer research. They were divided into three groups. One group was shown a campaign ad of a child smiling, another group was shown the same ad featuring a child with a neutral expression, and the third group was shown the ad with a child frowning.

The frowning child got 50 percent more donations than happy or neutral face. That’s all.

Here’s the thing: we know that people in simulations, with fake money or not-their-own money, make different choices than they do in real life with their real money. This research sample did not use people who accurately reflect the donor pool, gave them money to give away, and used photos of healthy children with different facial expressions.

Is this what we should really be basing all our communications on?

I hope this article has shed some light on why we are still seeing exploitative imagery and language in fundraising communications. I do not believe that this is an issue that can be remedied by simply replacing the words on your website or changing the photos you use in your campaigns. The way we talk about our program participants reveals very deep, ingrained issues in the nonprofit sector that will only be remedied through increased representation, more truthful feedback, more empathy, and better research. I believe we can hold ourselves to a higher standard.

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