How many of you can raise your hand if you’ve seen images of a child in another country? Is that child visibly malnourished? Is he or she surrounded by dry, cracked land that suggests recent famine? Is he or she extending his or her hands to the camera, almost as if begging for a hand-out?
Well, as I learned recently, images such as these (which I’m sure most, if not all of us have seen) are called “poverty porn.” Organizations (such as nonprofits) use “poverty porn” to curry sympathy, and in extension, donations from donors.
It’s pretty effective too. How many of us could turn away from an emaciated, crying child? (I have a hard time doing so).
However, how exploitative is this practice? How many organizations do it? What should fundraisers know about it?
I stepped into one module of the new course “Fundraising Ethics” to find out. This course is part of the new Certificate in Fund Raising Leadership that The Fund Raising School has designed to enhance fundraisers’ leadership skills and knowledge.
And who better to teach this new course than ethics expert Dr. Kathi Badertscher?
During this specific module, she asked the participants in the room to pull out their annul fund letters, fundraising emails, examples of social media posts, and other appeals with organizational images on them, and asked them to analyze and discuss whether or not these images could be considered exploitative or fall under the “poverty porn” category.
We then discussed several international organizations and their use of images in their fundraising appeals and campaigns. We were all surprised by some of the images used, and a bit turned off. These organizations are large and well-known. Surely someone on their large team considered the “optics” that the image produces.
Poverty porn raises questions such as, “when is it okay to use images, and when isn’t it?” Who questions the use of images in fundraising? How do we make connections to potential and current donors without images of some kind?
It also brings up larger questions about the role of philanthropy and charity in today’s world. Are we objectifying the people we help? Are we utilizing participatory philanthropy approaches, or are we proscribing solutions top-down? Do the approaches we utilize with images, and with philanthropy overall, help others long-term, or do we saddle them with incorrect and harmful stereotypes?
I don’t think there are answers to those questions, but I will say that Dr. Badertscher brought up an interesting perspective on imaging. She suggested shifting images and the messages they convey from “need” to “solution.” What solutions do nonprofits create? How do we empower people? How do we work from a “bottom-up” approach to better humanity?
While you may not have immediate answers to these questions, Dr. Badertscher did suggest looking at the nonprofit Radi-Aid for assistance on finding images that “vibe” with the work of empowered philanthropy as a whole.
Also, consider signing up for this course with The Fund Raising School, or taking the academic course “Applying Ethics” with Dr. Badertscher. You will look at images, your approach to philanthropy, and other ethical issues in a whole new light!