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‘Poverty porn’ or no, let’s welcome prompts to think differently

Powerful communications are a difficult balancing act 

You may not agree with Radi-aid that Comic Relief’s video featuring Ed Sheeran verged on ‘poverty tourism’. But the debate around its content highlights the difficult calls charities must make to impact their chosen causes. It also brings an opportunity to think hard about different approaches. 

In case you missed it: the video of the celebrity meeting ‘street children’ in Liberia just won Radi-aid’s Rusty Radiator awards. The awards name and shame fundraising videos that they believe perpetuate harmful stereotypes and diminish the dignity of their subjects.  

Fundraising campaigns don’t remain in a vacuum of ‘How sad, I’ll donate, The end’. Their message resonates.

One of their criteria for being an offender is ‘overly simplistic messaging’. But it’s a tricky balance: as we know, the issues charities seek to tackle are far from simple, but they need money to do anything about them. And key tenets of effective comms are a clear message and emotional drive.

Yet—as NPC is learning from our work on systems change with Lankelly Chase—it can be easy for any organisation to forget that they too are part of the system they are working to impact for the better.

This means fundraising campaigns don’t remain in a vacuum of immediate impact of ‘How sad, I’ll donate, The end’. Rather, their message resonates, shapes people’s views of social issues and, most importantly, the individuals at the sharp end of them. Short-term gains can risk perpetuating issues in the long-term. And it can be a dangerous business if a charity’s values do not align with what they put out into the wider world.  

It’s important to learn from different approaches 

Whatever issues there may be with the timing or the tone of the Rusty Radiators, they do bring an important, lesser-heard perspective.

So if you’re a charity that wants to think a little differently about how you’re depicting the people you work with, a good place to start is to look at what else is out there. Different approaches will have elements that can inspire. 

Look at the Golden Radiator awards—Radi-aid’s counter to the Rusty Radiators, which celebrate charity appeals that ‘move beyond depictions utilising passive subjects’. The strength of one 2017 winner Rescue Freedom’s True Freedom video, for example, is that the camera is as close to the subject as possible, and often we see things from her perspective. It’s also realistic about the issue: recovery is complex and it takes time. There’s no quick-fix from a one-off donation. 

The Global Goals video ‘Freedom’ is another nice example. Meanwhile, Parkinson’s UK has started shooting one person, one camera, day-in-the-life documentary-style videos. These treat their subjects as more than their condition, and give a more holistic view of life with Parkinson’s. The resultant videos are awareness-raising, community-building, and can also encourage donations.

‘Participatory video’ (PV) is another approach that we can learn from. The method enables individuals and communities to shoot and edit videos themselves, so they can tell their own stories rather than have someone speak on their behalf. Hearing from individuals themselves also demonstrates the strengths they possess, which can then be leveraged.

PV—which is primarily used for activism—is powerful because it harnesses both user voice and asset-based approaches—two things we’re keen on here at NPC. Find out more about our work on these here and here.

Each charity will need to make their own calls based on their mission, values, the needs of the people they work with, and how they might balance long-term and short-term need. But it’s all too easy to think about our comms outputs in a narrow way. We should always welcome prompts to rethink. 


What are your thoughts on this debate? Let us know in the comments.

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