The debate about the use of allegedly shocking imagery in fundraising is not new. I realised
recently that it’s almost 20 years since I gave a plenary presentation at the Institute of Fundraising
Convention entitled: The Truth, The Whole Truth, and A Spot of Re-Touching.
The ‘shocking advertising’ debate opened up again recently with the publication of an ASA report,
which sparked many a misleading headline including: ‘Shocking Charity Images Upset Many’.
The reality behind the headline is that 16% of people said they had been offended in the past year.
So, hold the front page: SHOCKING AND INACCURATE HEADLINE GETS ATTENTION FOR RESEARCH INTO, ER, SHOCKING AND INACCURATE USE OF IMAGES…
Let’s set aside the fact that this all seems like wilful misinterpretation, and yet another example of
what I call ‘Research Abuse’ that seems almost endemic in the fundraising world (remember people,
Qual and Quant research are not the same thing!)… and let’s get to the heart of the issues raised.
In simple terms, effective charity fundraising is highly likely to be shocking. And that is simply
because our role is to inspire people to support things that need changing.
The problem with too much fundraising is that it is not shocking enough. Sometimes this is because
issues become sanitised by charity communicators. And sometimes it’s because agencies and/or
clients become too concerned with being overtly creative. Important causes can end up looking
like they might win a creative award rather than inspire a response. Such work can look expensive,
often even when it isn’t. And because too many fundraisers and their agencies dress up ugly issues
in creative glad rags, too many compelling causes become fictionalised.
I’d argue we should be doing the opposite. As fundraisers and campaigners we have a duty to tell
the truth and to reveal the need so that people have the opportunity to help. If we obscure the
need, then we deny people the chance to help. Which is pretty daft when there are so many wrongs
in the world that need righting.
Getting back to that research, what we reveal can of course be shocking.
• It’s shocking that every day thousands of children shit themselves to death, because they
have only vile, diseased water to drink.
• It’s shocking that magnificent whales are killed with harpoons that explode inside their
bodies and make them bleed to death or slowly drown.
• It’s shocking that girls’ and women’s genitals are mutilated – not rarely, but routinely.
Of course, I’m not making any of this up. Hell, I wish I was. And the point is, you don’t have to make
it up, or make it more cleverly attention-grabbing, or camouflage it with nicely polished branding.
You just have to get the issues in front of people who care. You just need to strip away all of the
indulgence and extraneous information, and concentrate on the simple, human, emotive, dramatic,
In doing this, we have to edit. We have to choose what to reveal. Because we have neither the time
nor the space nor the budget to start educating. Inspire and engage, then educate later.
I wish we could make everyone stop and think about the issues we try to communicate. But we
can’t. People are busy. They filter stuff out. We all do. So the best we can hope for is that we can be
disciplined enough, and sometimes brave enough, to unearth and communicate the powerful heart
of the issues we care about.
Let’s go back to that 16% of people who were offended by charity images. I’d wager that some of
that 16% were offended and then gave money. Surely many donors give precisely because they are
offended by a wrong that needs righting?
If fundraising communications are shocking, it’s simply because the world itself is shocking.