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Jon Dean: Should ethics take a back seat in homelessness fundraising?

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Published: 03/03/15

In doing their work, charity fundraisers have to ask themselves moral and ethical questions.

Public requests for donations need to appeal to a wide range of donors in a variety of ways, and face the task of competing for space in an already image-saturated market. Therefore the fundraising campaigns they design need to stand out, be effective in soliciting donations, and an efficient and prudent use of funds. However, we also expect charities to hold themselves to a higher moral standard.

While we would expect a private company to present an air-brushed (metaphorically and literally) view of their product, the fundraising materials used by charities have a duty to represent the issues they are trying to tackle sensitively and the services they can provide accurately.

How do you be a successful non-sensationalist in a cultural climate where sensationalism dominates?

A recent blog for The Guardian by an anonymous charity fundraiser reveals the problem:

In charity marketing we know that we manipulate the truth – any story told in full detail will lose 99% of readers. So we pick the bits that will have most impact. We miss out the red tape of the process, our frustrations at the charity’s inefficiencies and the confusing extra detail – they are too much to explain in a direct mail letter or hard-hitting advert.

The fundraiser goes onto point out that they have to regularly put their morals to one side to meet targets, even if this may damage long-term relationships with donors. In this continuing debate within the sector, the voice of the recipient of donations, the individuals (mis)represented, is usually absent.

In previous research with Beth Breeze (Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent) we went into homelessness charities and asked homeless service users their opinions on a range of images used in fundraising literature. Service users, who came from a range of backgrounds but tended to be younger people, viewed the fundraising literature we showed them as stereotypical, inaccurate, and in some cases, a bit upsetting. However our participants were advertising realists: the overwhelming message that came from our focus group sessions was that charities should continue to use such images if they were shown to be the images that elicited the most donations. Service users trusted the charities that were helping them: while they were unsure that the images currently used were completely ethical, they were willing to suspend their moral discomfort ("You can't have morals when you're homeless", said one young man) if that meant continued or greater service provision.

Ultimately it has been reasoned that charity fundraising materials have to appeal to the current public idea of that charitable issue, rather than challenging or reframing it: the images in homeless charities’ fundraising literature have to represent what charities think donors think homelessness ‘looks like’. Therefore in this new article in SRO I present findings from an experiment testing what potential donors think homelessness looks like.

In teaching, and later in recorded, anonymised focus groups I asked undergraduate students to 'draw what homelessness looks like', building on the creative visual methodological approaches of David Gauntlett, Nicola Ingram, and increasingly many others. No more instructions were provided, and despite the occasional protestation about their own drawing ability, it is a task which I have regularly found students take to with gusto and intrigue.

The results of these drawings are quite stark. Picture after picture shows a bearded man, begging and sleeping on the street. The inclusion of female figures and families is rare. This issue of rooflessness, while the most extreme and vulnerable instance of homelessness in the UK, affects, according to best estimates, 2% of the homeless population any one night. The issues of sleeping in hostels, or receiving shelter from friends, or being housed by a Local Authority in temporary accommodation such as a bed and breakfast, or even inadequate housing, are almost completely absent. The images shows individuals not communities, and even though most of the students I work with are studying for degrees in politics and sociology, political or social issues are missing from their drawings. Inequality, domestic violence, serious injury, military service, and mental health problems are all closely associated with pathways into homelessness, but do not come up in participants’ instantaneous visions of what homelessness looks like. The drawings are also very literal, with few abstract or metaphorical contributions.

The vast majority of homeless experiences (many of which are gone through by students with substandard or dangerous housing) are ignored, with homelessness crystallised in the issue of rooflessness. Of course, rooflessness is the most vivid and acute representation of homelessness, but such a reduction of the issue has consequences. As discussed in the article, some authors have argued that both policy practitioners and the media have worked to present homelessness as narrowly as possible in order to disconnect people's experiences from the reality, creating or reinforcing an artificial divide between the homeless and non-homeless.

Using their drawings as a starting point therefore, I saw these sessions as an opportunity to practice Freire’s critical pedagogy. The process of drawing literally draws out preconceived ideas about homelessness, and provides a base on which to build critique and examine students’ own experiences of homelessness and the emotions these have aroused in the past. This critical thinking occurs both about the realities of homelessness, as students are unaware of the extent of the different forms it can take, and about the impact of social structures and institutions, such as the media, on their conceptions.

As one participant said, “The worst of it is all we see, and that is what society preys on.”

Unfortunately, this article concludes that as the reoccurring images produced by students are so similar, narrow and stereotypical, producing fundraising literature which contain more accurate and more contextual images could be a risk to the income of homelessness charities. While social media and new technologies give fundraisers a more diverse set of tools to spread their charity’s message, we should not expect the traditional images associated with homelessness fundraising literature to disappear any time soon. Therefore if efforts to critique, politicise and de-individualise homelessness as an issue cannot necessarily take place in fundraising literature, it must take place in classrooms and the other spaces of civil society. It is hoped using creative visual methods such as the drawing session utilised in this article may be small addition to achieving this.

The author:

Dr Jon Dean

Jon Dean's research has looked at how homeless people are represented by charitable organisations.

"The results of asking young people to "draw the homeless" were quite stark. Picture after picture shows a bearded man, begging and sleeping on the street."