Published on Let's Talk Development

Economies of empathy: The moral dilemmas of charity fundraising

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We’ve all been there. Leafing through a magazine, or on the subway, glancing up at the billboards, and then a moment of painful awareness as our eyes meet those of a starving child. Limbs grotesquely proportioned, belly distended, the image is accompanied by a request for help. For some small sum of money you too can save a life. Again you see the image… and reach for your phone. You text CHILD or SAVE or LIFE to the relevant organization. Then, conscience temporarily assuaged, you encounter a sinking feeling as you remember you’ve seen this before. How exactly will your donation help the child? What purpose do these images really serve?

The dark side of the identifiable victim effect
Psychologists like Paul Slovic have long shown there is nothing like the image of a starving child or single ‘identifiable victim’ when it comes to pulling at the heartstrings or soliciting help from bystanders. People typically give much more to causes presented in this way than to unidentified groups of people even when the latter’s need is greater. In the absence of a poster-child, our response to the death of thousands of people from malaria alone tends to be underwhelming.
Building upon this psychological insight, charities seek to frame their appeals in a way that maximize the donations they receive. Although they’d rather not pander to stereotypes about poverty or to the vagaries of human nature, the pressure to raise funds leads them to engage in the proliferation of what many believe are exploitative images.
This approach to fundraising can create a dangerous public legacy. When asked about their attitudes to global poverty, people increasingly report feeling demotivated or depressed. They also demonstrate symptoms of ‘compassion fatigue’, something that has led two political scientists at University College London, David and Jennifer Hudson, to conclude that the ‘unrelentingly shocking and dehumanizing framing of global poverty’ has undermined ‘people’s sense of efficacy in addressing global poverty, and consequently their engagement.’
At a deeper level, these messages are also doing harm. As Martin Kirk, former director of campaigns at Oxfam, has argued, they reinforce the charity frame, which is a mental model of the world that focuses on the relationship between ‘powerful givers’ and ‘grateful receivers’. According to this view ‘agency lies almost exclusively with the powerful givers.  The grateful receivers are simply understood as poor, needy, and without control over their own destiny. Survey groups echo this finding, with participants asking despairingly when – if ever – things will start to get better.

A better way?
What may come as a surprise is that charities know about all this. At times, they’ve even committed codes of conduct designed to stop it. The Sphere code of conduct for humanitarian organizations, states that ‘in our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified humans, not hopeless objects.’ It recognises the need to ‘treat them as equal partners and to portray an objective image of the disaster situation where the capacities and aspirations of disaster victims are highlighted, and not just their vulnerabilities and fears.’

Moreover, evidence from experimental psychology shows positive messaging can really work. While their research continues to harness the power of individual stories, the UCL researchers found ‘hope is as influential as anger and more powerful than guilt when it comes to motivating people to action.’ It is also empowering – and it avoids feelings of repulsion that are a byproduct of traditional approaches.

So why do we still see desolate children in our magazines and on our way to work each day?

The failure of self-governance
The first reason is charities face a particularly severe kind of collective action problem. The decision to adopt more positive messages about poverty can only succeed if it is undertaken together. To change public attitudes everyone must refrain from negative fundraising techniques. But this is hard to bring about in practice. As more and more organizations change their approach, forgoing short-term profit for long-term gain, the temptation to defect increases. So too does the windfall organizations can reap by ‘going negative’ or reverting to type.
During a period when NGOs were trying to present a more positive message, the organization Invisible Children produced the video ‘Kony 2012’ – which was an online media sensation. Having looked at the video in some detail, the Washington Post concluded that ‘dubious, exaggerated, and sometimes incorrect casual relations and information have been presented in order to simplify the conflict and inflate Invisible Children’s role in stopping it.’
Yet the video worked. The organization doubled its income – to $26 million – in the space of a year. Highlighting the campaign’s troubling undertones, the Ethiopian-U.S. journalist Dinaw Mengistu reminds us ‘the children of Uganda were never invisible to their families and communities, who long before the first flood of NGOs to the region, worked for years to protect them’. Since the campaign, Invisible Children has gone out of business.
Saving lives?
Charities also face a second problem to do with how they approach time. Fundraising appeals work on a short timeframe dictated by fundraising needs. However, their damaging effects play out over a longer period. To avoid these consequences, charities need to forgo immediate profit for long-term gains.
It also requires them to take a risk. This is something many charities are loath to do. According to their self-understanding, their work literally saves lives. It therefore seems like the more money they raise in the short term, the more lives will be saved. Of course, this overlooks the heavy toll negative messaging is having on the sector as a whole – but it makes the request to try something new a hard sell. Even if they all stand to benefit, charities continue to demand a high standard of proof before they act.
Reaching for solutions
What can be done about this situation?

The first challenge is to tackle the collective action problem head-on. For this to happen a Leviathan is needed: there must be some over-arching authority that can monitor compliance and apply sanctions when infractions occur. Government legislation could perform this task. The charity commission in the United Kingdom already has the power to revoke an organization’s charitable status, a power that could be extended.

Surprisingly, charities receive most of their income from national aid agencies not from individual donations. For Save the Children, which has annual revenues of $2 billion, 58 per cent comes from governments and only 25 per cent from individuals. For OXFAM too, government money dwarfs other contributions exceeding $500 million in 2015 alone.

This means government departments and their affiliates have enormous leverage over charities and could make the dispensation of large grants conditional on their willingness to abide by ethical fundraising standards.

With this kind of framework in place the decision to shun traditional approaches would be less risky. Those who move first would have assurance others could not simply pull the fundraising rug from under their feet. However, charities also need to look at their own priorities. Recognizing this, the principle of ‘do no harm’ has already been adopted for field operations. It should also apply to their fundraising work. Any short-term loss in profit is a price worth paying if it means treating the poor with dignity and helping a greater number of people further down the line.

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