August 14, 2012; Source: The Guardian

“Images adorn our inner life and carry great power there.” This is the quotation from William Shirley that kicks off a unique and long overdue research report. With all the flap in the U.K. about “poverty porn” and the effect of sensationalized and potentially exploitive charitable advertising on the sensibilities of the public, we are glad to see that the Center for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy bothered to ask some of those who are categorically depicted in that PR what they thought. The authors, Beth Breeze and Jon Dean, hosted five focus groups in which 38 young people who made use of homeless “hostels” were asked what they thought about advertising about homelessness and the images used therein. The report detailing their responses and the researchers’ analysis is entitled “User Views of Fundraising.”

The authors frame the debate on the topic as being about the problem of potentially exploiting those meant to benefit from fundraising through reinforcing stereotypes or otherwise undermining the dignity of those being represented. But apparently haplessness, especially among the very young, sells donations. At one point, the authors assert, “Research confirms that the public are more likely to respond to advertisements that demean sufferers than those in which charitable beneficiaries are shown in a more positive light, with the same rights and capabilities as anyone else.” But tellingly, and apallingly, the authors’ literature search “found no academic research that examines the opinions of beneficiaries on how they are represented.”

Long story short, while the young people in the focus groups appreciated that money had to be raised, they would prefer that the advertising promoted fewer stereotypes through so-called “sympathy snapshots” and told more dynamic stories that promoted empathy, a feeling that “there but for the grace of God go I,” and an understanding of how things might be turned around. The researchers described the participants in the focus groups as “visually literate” and suggested that “the representations of need that are promoted by charities matter to beneficiaries, and it is important to include their voice in debates about the content of fundraising appeals.”

The report is well worth reading for its uniqueness and insights. –Ruth McCambridge