How we portray people in fundraising matters

This week I have spent some time reflecting on how people who receive support from charities are portrayed in their communications.

Back in 2014, one of Human and Hope Association’s Microfinance borrowers was angry because we had shared a photo on Facebook with her photo. The photo was accompanied with a caption that stated she had borrowed funds from us to expand her business. One of her neighbours saw the photo on Facebook, and mocked her for it. When the Microfinance borrower complained to us, I pointed out that she had signed a contract that stated we could use her photo for fundraising purposes. So yes, legally, we were covered. But ethically? I tend to think no. To get this loan, the borrower had no choice but to sign the contract that allowed her photo to be used. She wasn’t given a choice. So many people aren’t. Since then, we have changed the way we work with community members and use their photos. 

This week the team at Human and Hope Association began distributing emergency food packs to their community members who have been hit hardest by the economic impact of COVID-19. Unlike most charities, they chose not to take photos that showed the faces of the families they support. I am sure you know what I am talking about. Every day I come across photos where vulnerable Cambodian families are standing next to other Cambodians or foreigners who have just provided them with a lifeline. And in these photos the families look sad, often depressed, whilst having to pose for a photo that highlights just how impoverished they are for the benefit of donors and social media followers. These photos invoke pity, which sometimes lead to more donations so more families can be helped. 

I think back to the 1996 movie ‘Loch Ness’, where Ted Danson says to the girl in the film “I have to see it before I can believe it.” The girl responds with “No, you have to believe it before you can see it.” It’s the same with the current fundraising landscape. To compel people to act, they want to see photos, they need to have an emotion sparked inside them to be able to believe that someone needs help. But wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get people believing in the need, without having to see people at their most vulnerable?

At Human and Hope Association we have never been okay with showing our community members in their most vulnerable situations. In 2016 when a film crew from Singapore asked to film some of our beneficiaries in their dire situations, we said no. This is because every person has the right to privacy, and although some people might agree to having videos and photos taken of them, they most likely don’t fully understand what the media will be used for, how they will be portrayed, and the repercussions of this.

Showing people at their most vulnerable takes their dignity away from them, and also puts them on show. Furthermore, many of our community members are on Facebook and those families receiving food packages could be easily identified, causing embarrassment or shame. Our community members don’t like to feel helpless or desperate, and we certainly won’t portray them this way in an effort to secure more funding. 

We believe in treating everyone with dignity and respect. It doesn’t matter whether you are a billionaire or have one dollar to your name, you should be able to have a say on your image being used. 

I only hope that other charities begin to see their beneficiaries not as a commodity, but as real humans with feelings, values and dignity. By changing the narrative, we can influence the fundraising landscape and work towards a fairer society, without an ‘us and them’ but a ‘we’.