3 Reasons Charities Need to Drop the Guilt

A Charity Guilt-Ad Currently Airing in Canada

It’s 2011 and we still live in a world where many charities think that the best way to raise funds to help those in need is by using guilt.

This needs to stop and here are three reasons why:

1) It insults aid workers

A charity guilt-ad where a celeb holds up two quarters to a montage of sad children saying they "need our help to survive" and that "these two quarters - it's never been easier to save a life of a child"

It may not take a lot of money to “save a life” or “make a difference”, but when a charity says that all it takes is “the cost of a cup of coffee”, you reduce the role of the aid worker to that of a Starbucks Barista.

The fact of the matter is aid work is complex. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 15 person organization or an organization with more money than a Fortune 500 Company. Things can go wrong – and I’ve seen it happen – even when everything is done right.

To quote John Green, “the truth defies simplicity”. And so if an organization boils the solution down to “just two quarters” or “just a cup of coffee a day” – they are being dishonest with you and what’s needed to truly make a difference.

2) It insults donors

An ad from a third charity featuring both a crying African child and a crying American celebrity.

Extreme poverty can be a depressing and guilt-inducing topic. But, by using intentionally guilt-inducing images, music, and presentation, charities are basically saying that people will only care about this issue if they are guilted.

This insults donors because it assumes donors can’t rationally understand and empathize with the situation. It suggests the only way to get a donation is to tap into the primal human emotion of shame and guilt. At worst, it exploits those who are particularly sensitive and emotionally vulnerable to being distressed by such imagery.

To paraphrase my friend and Rabbi, Avraham Berkowitz, kindness is about helping “them” whereas compassion is about recognizing there is no such thing as “them” and – instead – helping “us”. Charities need to tap into compassion – not kindness. It’s the difference between empathy vs sympathy.

3) It insults those in need

Taken from my most recent project with Save the Children. Where do charities find crying children anyways? I have a hard time finding them.

I can’t stress this enough. When a charity creates ads featuring sad crying and/or emaciated children, they are exploiting the poor. There is a reason many people call this “poverty porn”.

From my own personal experience, I’ve met Bangladeshi villagers who would rather not get any aid at all than receive one penny of aid that robs them of their dignity. I’ve met Bangladeshis who even refuse to be filmed if they suspect they will be used as an object of pity.

To quote Bauleni Banda, “NGOs come to the village here to take pictures of people. At church, at the market, on the road, at meetings. Only people who are dressed poorly”. When NGOs rob the poor of respect, the poor often lose respect for NGOs.

What You Can Do

Some charities (like the American branch of Save the Children) agree that “poverty porn” is bad. They simply don’t use that in their ads anymore. They aren’t alone and charities that take this stance need to be rewarded for taking this risk.

Similarly, charities that continue to use “poverty porn” need to learn that this doesn’t work and that they are losing donations. In fact, this will never stop – never – unless they realize they are losing money.

This Christmas donate wisely.

  • http://twitter.com/RowanEmslie Rowan Emslie

    I wrote a post on this! It could well be a necessary evil… http://rowanemslieintern.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/global-development-and-celebrity/

  • http://lyrianfleming.com/ Lyrian

    It’s clear that over the past few years, those within the industry want to move away from relying on the guilt trip. I’ve read many articles and blog posts arguing exactly for this – but I feel like the debate is missing the important voice of fundraisers themselves. It is the fundraising department which have the dollar targets over their heads, and until there is evidence that ditching guilt fundraising will raise as much money as guilt fundraising, nothing will change.

  • http://www.mikeyleung.ca/ Mikey Leung

    A great post Shawn. I think that ‘poverty porn’ not only insults individuals, its also been responsible for a countries having negative world images that impair economic growth, as very few are willing to invest in the country and create real wealth. I believe that parallel strategies of aid AND trade are required to develop a country, and so that’s why I am trying to set up my social tourism business in Bangladesh. I am doing my best to get this project off the ground and ensure that inspiration can replace poverty porn for our chosen country. 

    Thanks for this post!

  • Anonymous

    Wow… thats an awesome point. This is very true but at the same time describes the nature of a soulful human being

  • http://twitter.com/OneHundredUSA One Hundred Apparel

    I agree with the other sentiment that the industry is moving away from this. One only needs to look at forward thinking examples such as charity: water for proof. Instead of using poverty porn, most of their media focuses on showing hope and happiness. They show the results of their work, the happiness of the people they help, but they do not exploit.

  • rcasha

    It can also be off-putting. Like many I hate attempts to manipulate me. Whether it’s a political campaign, a commercial advertisement or an appeal by a charity, if I feel that the material is dishonest and trying to psychologically manipulate me I’m likely to avoid the candidate / product / charity altogether. For charities I’m more likely to be convinced if you show me what my money would be used for (eg, a school, a hospital etc) as well as easily accessible information about the percentage of the money that ends up used for those projects.