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When Effective Fundraising Means Reinforcing Negative Stereotypes


By Sean Chisholm

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

After working at Classy, but I find the body of research on the psychology of charitable giving interesting. And I’m sure that many development professionals feel the same way. It’s one thing to send out a fundraising appeal and haphazardly see what works.

It’s quite another to get scientific insight into what motivates people to give before you even start planning your outreach. Research like this is important to nonprofit marketers and to the nonprofit community as a whole. It holds out the promise of connecting with audiences more effectively and, by extension, raising more money.

If you spend time reading through some of these studies, you may start to feel a certain moral tension. After a while a question tends to creep into mind: isn’t this somewhat manipulative?

People are not machines. And when you start getting empirical insight into what creates emotional reactions, what motivates altruistic feelings, and what makes people part with their money, it can start to feel like you are just trying to pull a series of levers to make the desired behavior happen. In fact, in a way, you are doing exactly that.

However, if you raise money for an organization doing good, it’s easy to get over these hang ups. As long as you’re honest and authentic in your messaging, this is nothing more than smart marketing. Pay attention to what the data says about the motivations behind giving.

Despite it all, there is one area where the moral concern over the use of empirical research in fundraising cannot be put so easily to rest.

Perpetuating Societal Stereotypes

In the past several months I’ve come across a few thoughtful articles that have explored a similar issue. How should nonprofits respond when the most effective fundraising appeals are the ones that tend to reinforce negative social stereotypes?

What is the nonprofit’s obligation to consider more diffuse, and unquantifiable effects, like reinforcing harmful norms? And what amount of good generated by programs, if any amount at all, will outweigh such harms? These are not easy questions, and I certainly don’t have a straightforward answer to them. But I do think they are valuable to think about.

In Five Reasons Poverty Porn Empowers the Wrong Person, Emily Roenigk makes the case that presenting depictions of destitute individuals to Western audiences in order to raise money to help the “poor” actually does more harm than good.

She writes, “we need to pause and ask ourselves whether it is ethical to depict the graphic qualities of a human being to Western audiences for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional experience and ultimately, money. It is a practice called poverty porn, and it does almost nothing to address the real structural problem of poverty.”

It’s a well written and thought provoking article, and I’m thankful it was shared with me. It was responsible for kicking off this mental exercise. At the end of the day though, I found myself disagreeing with several of her points. As I worked through some of the arguments Roenigk made, I came away with the feeling that certain concessions to reality have to be made.

To illustrate, in one passage she writes:

Poverty porn fails to produce both a deeper understanding of the issue of poverty and the necessary structural changes that must occur to effectively address it. Instead, poverty porn says that material resources are the problem and the solution, where poverty can be addressed through a simple phone call or monthly donation.

She goes on to say:

Poverty doesn’t only look like a starving child with flies on his face. In fact, poverty doesn’t look any particular way. It is multi-faceted and should be depicted as such.

Finally she concludes:

There’s a reason this depiction of poverty has become so popular among humanitarian aid organizations. When it comes to profitability, poverty porn delivers on its promise…This raises an important question – is the profitability of poverty porn worth the perpetuation of false ideologies and stereotypes? I say no.


There are solid points in the article. As a marketer, and someone involved with nonprofit fundraising, passages like this leave me scratching my head. Is a fundraising appeal the proper forum to produce a deeper understanding of the issue’s complexity?

Educating supporters on the full scope of the problem may be an important part of an organization’s overall communications strategy, but it seems impractical to make your fundraising appeals the conduit for that message. Additionally, “material resources” may not be the entirety of the “problem and solution” but they do fund programs, which if properly conceived and validated, can be a big part of the march towards an overarching solution.

I am sure that there are images of the poor that I would personally find gratuitous if I received them in a fundraising appeal and I suspect that most people would too (even if they marked that line at different points). From a development professional’s perspective, however, should they have to confine themselves to demonstrably less effective methods of raising money when (a) that’s their job and (b) the organizations they work for are doing great work?

If the organization is being truthful in their messaging and takes care not to be exploitive in the imagery it selects, I think they can use images like these. In my opinion, presenting the reality of the suffering you are addressing is an acceptable way to raise money.

I think this is true even if your fundraising appeals only present one aspect of that reality (as they almost necessarily do). In other words, I come down on the other side of the line from Roenigk. However, as this next example shows, that’s not always where I land.

A Bridge Too Far

In a blog post titled Charitable fundraising: wise as serpents, innocent as doves Fred Clark discusses an experience a friend of his had while working at a large relief organization. As he tells it, the organization found out that “the imagery that produced the largest response from donors — by far — was a picture of an older, benevolent white man surrounded by poor dark-skinned children. The whiter the man and the darker the children, the bigger the response.”

This is obviously troubling. The most effective appeals in monetary terms were the ones that relied on a blatantly patronizing and racist subtext. As I read through this, I couldn’t help but wince a bit. If I worked at this organization, I would not hesitate to pull the plug on these types of images. But that reaction got me wondering. Why did I feel so differently when I read the earlier piece about “poverty porn?”

I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that one message reinforces a perception that is truthful but partial, while the other reinforces one that is entirely false. Destitution and suffering may not be the whole story of poverty, but they are certainly a part of it. The mental and social construct that places one race as the savior of another is completely false.

The objections in the “poverty porn” piece center on the fact that poverty is a complex topic. As I pointed out above, I think fundraising appeals are an odd place to search for this level of nuance.

Also, organizations can share a range of other communications with supporters to help rectify the partiality of their fundraising messages. A fundraising appeal that places white Westerners in the role of savior, on the other hand, reinforces a damaging falsehood that can’t be mended by simply passing along “additional information.”

A Challenge for Development Professionals

Whether you agree with my assessment of the issues raised by these articles or not (and I’m sure many will not!), I think we can all acknowledge that in an age of increasing access to empirical research some thorny ethical problems are emerging in the fundraising space.

When does using the fruits of research cross the line into something that looks more like manipulation? Do the ends ever justify the means if your messaging is reinforcing stereotypes? Share your opinions in the comments or on social media. We’d love to hear how people are addressing such challenges!

The Pocket Guide to Fundraising Psychology

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