Whether you’re a professional trying to raise millions for a large nonprofit or a concerned citizen raising a few hundred for your favorite charity, sharing stories of the people you are fundraising for is often a key part of your strategy. Storytelling is a great way to demonstrate a need while also building empathy. But there are risks that come with using beneficiary stories to raise money–risks you might not realize–particularly when sharing stories about people living in extreme poverty.
Since I first started working in the global development field, fundraising has become increasingly more complicated due to the ever-changing and over-saturated world of social media, exploding inboxes, and our exposure to a smorgasbord of content and causes that we can’t possibly digest in our increasingly busy lives. This has created a climate where we can’t seem to take in more than 280 characters at a time, and there better be an engaging photo attached otherwise NEXT.
Here’s the problem with using beneficiary stories to fundraise in this kind of content climate though: real people don’t exist within 280 characters. Their lives are incredibly complex and nuanced. But in our attempt to hold the attention of our donors and motivate them to give to our great causes, we risk oversimplifying, stereotyping, and inaccurately telling stories—unintentionally sacrificing the humanity, agency, and dignity of the very people we are trying to help.
Thus, it’s not enough to simply share stories of the poor to raise money; we also need to care HOW we share their stories. Here are a few guidelines to help you create more ethical fundraising stories.
- Word choice really does matter.
We often use dramatic language when creating fundraising stories in order to add intrigue and urgency to our cause, but there is a fine line here between creating compelling stories and sensationalizing real people’s lives. Terms you should always avoid include “backward,” “uncivilized,” “exotic” and the like. When we use these types of words to write about people who are poor, we perpetuate stereotypes that are disrespectful and just not true.
When talking about the poor, consider what kind of “poor” you mean. Just because a country is economically poor, doesn’t mean it is poor in culture, language, and all the other ways that make groups of people unique and amazing. One of the most cringeworthy terms is “3rd world,” as it places a hierarchy on countries and people groups that doesn’t capture the complexity of life, nor does it help us better understand the real challenges of poverty and how we can support good development.
Though it’s a difficult one to get away from, you may even want to consider ditching the term “developing country.” The World Bank announced it was eliminating this term from its reporting because it doesn’t acknowledge the economic diversity within countries, nor does it acknowledge that ALL countries have areas in which they are “developing.” Lumping countries together is often not accurate or useful. A good rule of thumb is to try and be specific when talking about a problem or place.
- Generalizations are not helpful.
You’d probably agree that you’re pretty different from your siblings, your neighbors, and even people who live across the country from you, yeah? So why is it that we assume people in other countries or even entire continents are all the same?
From much of mainstream Western movies you’d think all of Africa was rural huts and exotic animals, when in fact Africa has some of the most diverse landscapes, cultures, architecture, traditions, religions, and languages in the world. Acknowledging this diversity shows respect, and similar to the impact of word choice, generalizations in our storytelling don’t help us understand the unique history, challenges, and aspirations of people living in poverty.
So when sharing stories, try to be specific and personal to the actual people you are talking about. Avoid leaning on assumptions, simplistic archetypes, or generalizing narratives when creating context and background for your fundraising stories. The most compelling stories are often the ones that elevate lesser known narratives, unique challenges and triumphs, and stories that highlight how beautifully complex life can be.
- Don’t use photos that create simplistic narratives.
There’s that saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I would argue it actually isn’t. Infact, photos used to share stories of the poor often tell a very simple story, one of desperation and hopelessness. You’ve probably seen the one of the emaciated, sad looking African child. Does this picture show someone’s reality? Sometimes in the moment, yes. But there is always more to these stories.
Photos capture a single moment and cannot represent someone’s entire life. Photographers (sometimes unintentionally) can direct a photo to create a certain message that the storyteller is trying to convey. So a photo may portray a reality, but it’s important to keep in mind that it might be a one-dimensional reality.
When we continue to show these types of photos we perpetuate the incorrect image that THIS is all people living in poverty are: lacking, desperate, hopeless. We know perfectly well that one element of our life is not the whole of who we are.
To avoid this pitfall, try to include as much context for your photos as you can, and don’t use a photo if it feels degrading. You can test whether a photo feels degrading by asking yourself if the person in the photo were your child, your sister, your father, or even YOU, would you be okay with it used in this way?
- Avoid benevolent savior complex.
This might be a tough one to swallow for some. We often think that just because our intentions are to help, our motivations and strategies must be pure and good. We need to take a step back and realize that just the fact that we have the capacity and resources to fundraise, means we are in some way privileged, and with privilege comes a particular lens through which we see the world. This lens can come out in our storytelling in subtle, but important ways.
Our fundraising stories can sometimes make people who are poor out to seem helpless or incapable, and the storyteller or sponsoring nonprofit as the benevolent savior swooping in to save the day. This is particularly true in stories about anti-human trafficking work, where the dominant narrative we hear is the “rescuer” coming in to save the “victim” from the “bad guy.” The reality is anti-trafficking work is MUCH more complex than this, so perpetuating that mentality can lead to unsuccessful and even damaging anti-trafficking initiatives.
While it’s perfectly okay to share how you and your fundraising is helping people, you might consider thinking through and sharing how local leaders and beneficiaries are leading and participating. A great way to do this is to find ways to step aside and make room for local leaders, participants, and survivors to share their stories themselves through your storytelling platform. Remember that the people you are helping have their own agency. They are partners and peers in your story. And without their expertise, participation, and buy in, your project wouldn’t be successful.
- Value transparency and consent
Most nonprofits these days are good about making their financials public, such as what percentage of funds go to programs, admin, etc. This trend is important for keeping nonprofits accountable to their donors. I’d argue though, that just as financial transparency is important, so is whether a nonprofit is transparent in their storytelling. There are two main ways transparency is vital to fundraising stories.
The first is most obvious: the details of your story. This may seem fairly straightforward—just tell the truth—but it isn’t always that easy. Stories we get from our work in the field sometimes lack important details, names, places. Or maybe a story isn’t particularly inspiring or hopeful. It’s easy to make the case for adding details to or altering a story to sound a certain way, or to skip over the challenging parts of a story all-together when the goal is raising money. But altering a story about a real person’s life runs the risk of hurting the individuals who the story is about.
This doesn’t mean we can’t ever embellish a little, or alter details of a story to protect the identity of a beneficiary, but we need to use caution when adding or altering details of a story. Think carefully about whether the details change how a person will be perceived, and whether you are hiding significant parts to the story just to make it seem more inspiring. Even if the details of a story are heartbreaking, complicated and challenging, these are the details that make life beautiful, relatable, and compelling.
The second way transparency matters in our storytelling is consent. When we are collecting stories from beneficiaries to use for fundraising or any kind of communications we need to get what is called deep consent, which ensures beneficiaries understand their rights and the potential implications of sharing their story. This can be challenging sometimes, particularly when there are language or cultural barriers, as well as time constraints. But the alternative can be incredibly damaging to the person who trusted us with some of the most vulnerable aspects of their lives.
There are some great apps out there that help systematize how you get consent when collecting stories from the field, but use any resource carefully. If there are language barriers make sure you have a translator who thoroughly explains anything you ask someone to sign. The person sharing the story should be told how their stories will be used, a general idea of the intended audience, and make sure you give yourself enough time to do all of this.
- Raising money at the expense of human dignity is NEVER worth it.
I was once told by an old colleague, in not so many words, that sometimes it’s necessary to show a borderline dehumanizing photo if it means you raise the money needed to help them. To this I have to say: there is always a better way.
Let’s think about this. A photo of a context-less sad looking child with a call to action, “He will die unless you donate 83 cents right now,” minimizes that child’s pain and experience. It furthers stereotypes and oversimplifies what it actually takes to create sustainable solutions to complex problems. It’s also incredibly manipulating and dehumanizing. It’s not only dehumanizing to the child in the story, it’s dehumanizing to our donors. It says we don’t think donors will give unless we toy with their emotions and guilt trip them.
It’s true that some people may only give out of guilt, but in my experience as a fundraiser, most people give because they have an inherent desire to help people grow and thrive. They’re inspired by genuine stories of sustainable change and empowerment. They get excited when they see the agency of people, how they persevere through challenges, and the many things we all have in common.
And the stories of this work are not always going to be stories of success…but that’s okay. When we are transparent about the challenges and what we learned in the process, we create trust and understanding among donors, colleagues, and beneficiaries.
Because ethical fundraising is the right thing to do.
As someone who has worked in this industry, I will be the first to admit that using these strategies makes our work more challenging and we won’t always get it right. Creating ethical fundraising stories requires more research and it takes longer. It means sharing our successes AND failures. It means we may need to not share a photo on Twitter because we can’t give it the context it needs. It also means some of our fundraising campaigns might not be as successful. But I can also tell you that ethical fundraising does work. I’ve seen it at One Day’s Wages and numerous other non-profits that we’ve partnered with. The challenges and failures are worth it…because it’s the right thing to do.
As frontline workers, marketers, and fundraisers who honestly care about the well-being of the people we are serving, we stand on a unique and privileged platform that gives us the opportunity to shape how the masses understand poverty and charity. But with this platform also comes a responsibility to take care of the stories that are entrusted to us. Even us everyday people who fundraise on a birthday for our favorite cause, or share our favorite organization with our community on social media…each of us has a choice in HOW we do this.
We can choose to perpetuate the same damaging stereotypes and ideas that have circulated about people who are poor for centuries. Or we can use our platform to educate about what good development looks like and inspire donors to give not out of guilt, but because we are all humans under the same sun, equally deserving of a full life.
May we all be challenged to rise to the occasion.
Melissa Pack is a Freelance Writer and Florist. As a Co-Curator at Ethical Storytelling, she writes for and edits the ES blog. Melissa has worked in the fields of Philanthropy, Global Development, and Human Services for the last 10 years. She’s worked with nonprofits such as One Day’s Wages, Village Volunteers, The Center for African Education, and Cocoon House. She’s a believer in the idea that humility and vulnerability are the storyteller’s greatest assets. To connect with Melissa you can find her on Facebook or Linkedin.