In 2014, as celebrities came together to re-record the Band Aid hit song 'Do They Know It's Christmas', both the lyrics and general sentiment of the song once again came under heavy criticism. Westerners and Africans alike were outraged by the patronising tone and degrading lyrics. Back in 1984, the public lapped it up and the hit brought in millions of dollars in donations. At the time it seemed perfectly acceptable for us, 'the donors' to tell their, 'the beneficiaries', story in our words and in our way. Looking back on fundraising and charity advertising from years ago, it seems unbelievable that those images, those words were ever okay and worked so effectively.
Pictures of children with the bellies inflamed and bloated from starvation, flies crawling across babies faces as they scream in pain, mothers laying bare and exposed in the scorching heat are the stories and images of the past. In recent years, organisations have changed the way the tell their stories and here's why:
'Poverty-porn' no longer okay
Charities had to seriously reconsider the way they tell the stories of those they support. Not only did the images of grief stricken, starving children no longer shock, but organisations began to realise that the stories they were telling did not belong to them. They were stories and photos of real people, with real lives, real hopes and real dreams and yet what was being produced neglected the real person at the heart of the story. People could no longer connect to the tired images of sunken deprived eyes and poverty stricken communities. It was so different from our own experiences in the West that it was impossible for people to imagine what it was actually like. There was a complete disconnect between 'us and them', it seemed so far away and that had a huge impact to charities and their fundraising capacities.
Charities now strive to tell the story of the successes in their work rather than use distressing images of beneficiaries to shock people into giving. You just have to look at the websites of international development charities to see the changes. Smiling, healthy, happy people going about their daily lives thanks to the education, medicine and shelter they've been provided with. Beneficiaries are shown in a dignified, empowering and independent manner with charities making efforts to protect those they are supporting by telling their story in a humane way which protects the individual.
International development has changed
The story back then of 'us and them', the us as saviours of the poor and needy existed because it reflected the work of international development organisations, governments, NGOs and charities. Since the 1950s, the development model has constantly changed and evolved. Before, it was about the great 'push forward' creating industries and developing infrastructure by supporting states and their governments. In the 1980s, the focus was on market policies and loans from outside countries came with strict guidelines about how and where money could be used. Most recently, development goals have been focused on sustainability and include goals that tackle the environment and women's rights.
No doubt the model will continue to evolve and change in line with global politics. I believe that it is moving in the right direction though. Long gone are the days of hand outs which create dependency and often relieved national governments of the responsibility to help their own citizens, fight corruption and bring about real change.
The stories being told are now about sustainability. Charities say they are working to put themselves out of business. The idea being to provide opportunity so that individuals, families and communities can grow and become self-reliant. Many organisations ensure that the beneficiaries invest something too so that the interventions become less about hand-outs and more about creating partnerships. People living in adverse conditions are tough. They survived before charities and international governments started providing aid and they will survive after we leave. Our responsibility is in ensuring people have the same opportunity and access to the basics services and human rights so that every person can live with dignity, freedom and independence. It is our responsibility to continue to understand, listen and work closely with local communities. We must use their local knowledge and voice to help tell their stories in an authentic, empowering and honest way. Only then will we create outstanding and exceptional projects, marketing and communications.
The world is a smaller place
The transformation in the way we interact and connect cannot be ignored when discussing the way charities storytelling has evolved. The digital revolution including social media platforms, internet access and the way we use email means donors are closer than ever before to the people they are donating to. Supporters want to know, and have the right to know, exactly where their donations are going. They don't only want to know, they want to see and feel it too. The days of receiving thank you letters in the post months after your donation is made are gone. It is now a seamless, instant transaction where the relationship between donor and beneficiary is crucial and the charity organisation the mere middleman.
Donors make a £10 online donations and receive an email straight away with a personalised thank you message and video from little William in Africa saying how, thanks to your donation, he can now get school books and the uniform he needs to go to school. The donor can then go about their day feeling warm and fuzzy about their good deed of the day. I am not, by the way, belittling this feeling. There is a reason that when you give it feels good. Thanking people is important and so is ensuring that giving feels good.
It's a bit of a catch-22 situation. Organisations and charities spend money, often thousands of pounds, to ensure they produce the slick videos and professional photographs that make the donors feel connected and involved in the cause. We need to invest in great storytelling because it's crucial for fundraising and yet, we must always be mindful of the fact that every penny spent on marketing is one less penny spent on the beneficiaries. There is no easy solution. Charities need to provide a service to the donors so that they continue to invest. It is the organisation's responsibility to ensure donations are spent wisely and as they should be. All charities are now very open about how much of every pound received goes towards the running of the organisation. This information is available and easily accessible on charity websites and the Charity Commission as well.