Are you representing or stereotyping the people you serve?

“Show a people as one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become”, said author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her thought-provoking TED talk on the danger of telling a single story.

She asks questions about the responsibility to tell more than a single story, about what it means to be “authentic”; about what can be representative, if anything. This is at the heart of the communications challenge facing charities, and in particular, fundraising.

The answer is probably nothing – nothing in essence can convey the complexity of the whole. What we communicate is filtered by what we want to say, to whom, why we’re saying it and what we want people to do. People don’t need to understand the whole picture to act, and don’t seem to want to either. Superficial “in-briefs” are how we consume information these days. In a world of busy messages, saying one thing, over and over again, is effective.

And in an increasingly fast, visual age, images matter more than ever. Since a picture paints a thousand words we have to take as much care choosing it as writing them. I suspect we don’t. We choose images lazily as signposts. We subconsciously learn and understand the semiotics, even if we don’t stop to think about it, or what else is being said. I’m sure we can do better, just by being more conscious of the choices we make.

Where does that leave fundraisers and their responsibility?

Two recent reports brought this to mind. The Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Aging in the UK declared that charities must stop using stereotype images showing old people as vulnerable and needy (“half-dead Ethel staring sadly out of the window”). Meanwhile, a British university concluded homelessness charities should continue to use stereotype images of homeless people on the street (“lone, bearded men”, to be precise) as they work best in fundraising.

But throwing the stereotype word around is easy and not that helpful. You’ll remember the 2012 student spoof Radi-Aid video, Africans sending radiators to freezing Norway. “Imagine if this was the only information they ever got about Norway”. A fair challenge – I once had to teach Oliver Twist in a provincial school in Sudan, where my pupils’ experience of the world barely extended to the next town. They were appalled children in England might sleep in coffins. Except in reverse, charity fundraising isn’t the only information people get, not even from the charity. The media plays a bigger role and arguably, has a responsibility to tell more of the story.

Charities are there to tell the stories of those they work with. And this is key – both the Radi-Aid students (with their Radiator Awards) and this recent v-blog on stereotypes, “We don’t want your stinky t-shirts”, make just this point – the importance of allowing people to tell their own stories. Fundraising at its best does just this, connecting people to the experience of people. The difficulty of course, is that often, that experience is not rosy but one of hardship. For the person involved, it is still “authentic”, isn’t it? And yet the challenge remains about perpetuating generalised stereotypes, and it is one to reflect upon.

The Radi-Aid ads are amusing, their awards interesting, but they do miss the mark by comparing apples and pears in terms of charity communications. They don’t consider the purpose of the piece. Those they like are campaign and corporate comms videos designed to get people thinking and tell a wider story (but not drive response); those they don’t are generally fundraising ads. Their premise “we believe that these images create apathy, rather than action” is a subjective assertion, ignoring all evidence of what people respond to.

You’ll have seen Save the Children’s stunning Syria video (this year’s Golden Radiator Winner for the best charity ad) because it’s been viewed almost 50 million times. But a Save the Children fundraising ad was also nominated for the Rusty Radiator, for the worst. Different objectives. You might not have seen this brilliant and mischievous video by Whizzkidz, who set disabled kids free with the help of a wheelchair. It ends with a couple of kids wheeling behind the bike shed for … well, what did you do behind the bike shed? It’s a great reflection of the charity’s attitude and aspiration for the children they work with. It’s not what raises them money.

Plenty of charities have tested images to determine which best increases response. The RNLI (the UK’s voluntary lifeboat or coastguard service) has famously used a bearded lifeboat man for over 20 years (even if today’s beard is a bit more hipster than it used to be). Is it representative? Probably not – there are women in the service too – but it’s what people identify with the RNLI and what they respond to. Is the fundraising ad the place to challenge those perceptions, or should it just provide a recognisable sign-post?

I recently asked a South African newspaper about it tweeting about Africa Day with an image of tribal dress. “But it was just one of the thousand we posted!” came the reasonable if defensive reply. Exactly.

What critics of charity communications – generally fundraising – get enraged about is the simplest and most basic image and message– the recruitment ad, where charities are crafting a path of least resistance. If people don’t stop at the shop window and come inside, there’s no chance of them experiencing what else you’ve got to show and tell. And reasonably, they highlight the worst examples.

But if critics already don’t like what’s in the shop window, they will never see, never mind review, the totality of a charity’s output – the bigger story that comes through updates and newsletters, and increasingly through videos and social media. These tend to be overwhelmingly upbeat. They also aren’t thinking about the purpose of different communications. Supporters want to know more of the story because they want to know their contribution makes a difference. The videos critics like serve this purpose. Horses for courses. Charities should want to tell the bigger story of progress for this reason as well as to just tell a more rounded story of the issues.

Where does this leave fundraisers and their choice of images?

There’s an important distinction to make between how we represent an issue and how we represent people. Presenting an issue or problem isn’t inherently a negative stereotype. The context of the problem people face is central to the story a charity needs to tell, as well as the story of overcoming it. It’s a large part of the story for those living it, and plugging the gap between the need and success is the difference supporters can make. It does not mean they should be presented as saviours. It does not mean people should be portrayed with no dignity, initiative, fight and agency. It does not mean they are always miserable. But everything up-beat and rosy isn’t the whole picture either.

There’s no perfect answer. We have to at least “do no harm” to the representation of people, then do better. We must do all we can to represent the issue in a way those who support us will engage with, and those we serve will be comfortable with.


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