Truth or Charity? The Lure of Poverty Porn for Nonprofits

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Homelessness

March 16, 2015;Third Sector UK

NPQ has written previously about the hazards of poverty porn—using false or exaggerated images in donor appeals as a fundraising tactic. Previous stories have shown that the falsity of poverty porn can actually backfire among donors. Indeed, these tactics can wholly undermine the premise of genuine fundraising for a cause. However, new research on homelessness charities suggests that the reasons why people use poverty porn may be that is “resonates” with false perceptions already held by the public and as such is a relatively easy sell. In homelessness this “perception” is very simply what is easily observed rather than the whole of the problem.

The British journal Sociological Research Online published research last month that detailed a case study exploring how people envision the homeless. The study asked 41 university students to draw what they believe homelessness looks like. Out of the 41 images, 24 depicted old men with beards or stubble and a disheveled appearance. Many also depicted a person sleeping on the streets. At least in the United States, while 44 percent of the homeless population is male, families constitute a significant 36 percent, with 222,197 in 70,960 households last year. And while 35 percent of the homeless are living on the streets, the majority are more hidden, diverse and largely indistinguishable from many of the rest of us.

The pervasiveness of the more recognizable image of homelessness led the researchers to conclude:

“It is a risk for homelessness charities to divert significantly from the images which have historically formed the basis of a large proportion of their campaigns. Given the homogeneity of the images produced in this research, and further studies which show complex, contextual information can lessen the impact of a fundraising campaign, we could argue that charities are acting rationally in continuing to fundraise in such a way, even though in rooflessness they are focusing on a relatively small element of the overall problem of homelessness: ‘the public must be given what they appear to want: images of charitable beneficiaries that fit comfortably with widely held stereotypes about ‘victims’ and which prompt the largest amount of donations.’”

Thus, it appears that the researchers see the choice as between reinforcing a set of beliefs that may be neither true nor properly respectful of the population or raising a bit less money.

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In fact, they say:

“Charities and agencies have the power and ability to frame narratives and images of social issues such as homelessness, with publicity often a charities’ ‘lifeblood,’ crucial for fundraising success. In this light, it may be that we see the findings of this research as potentially worrying, providing a rationale for fundraising strategies which continue to use stereotypical images and communicate only a small element of the realities of homelessness.”

They go on to write that there may be a trade-off between education of the public and appealing successfully for donations:

“The evidence presented above suggests that stereotypical, individualised, and depoliticised images are those most likely to stimulate recognition and, potentially, donations from the general public, yet perpetuate inaccurate understandings and a lack of empathy. This unfortunate contradiction reflects [the] assertion that homelessness charities (the ‘homelessness industry’) are riven by internal contradictions, a source of both division and unity as they seek to balance educating and engaging the public, continuing to exist and provide services and ceasing needing to exist and provide services.”

Many charities, of course, refuse to trade donations for a respectful depiction of those with whom they work and manage to raise funds nonetheless. This may be a choice between the “easy” way of fundraising and the respectful and social change–oriented way of fundraising. In a recent interview, Susan Nall Bales of the Frameworks Institute says that it is important to understand public perceptions, but she has “argued for 20 years that communications for nonprofits should be a front-end activity. It’s not about dissemination. It’s about understanding the way that people perceive your issue, and that needs to be part and parcel of your work on an issue right from the beginning.”

“You have two sides of a coin,” Nall Bales continues. “You have the actual social analysis of what the problem is and what would improve conditions, but you also have the way that people perceive that problem and what they perceive the solutions to be—and those things are joined at the hip.”—Shafaq Hasan