Leadership, Philanthropy, Vision

I’ve been an eager reader of Tom Ahern‘s weekly newsletter since I noticed the smart people at Agents Of Good retweeting the links a couple years ago. Tom freely provides his insightful, challenging, and well supported advice on fundraising strategies that truly respect donors with just enough snark to keep it interesting. If you haven’t signed up for his stuff do so now. This morning for the first time I honestly believe Tom is 100% wrong. People involved in charities have coined the uncomfortable phrase “poverty porn” to describe fundraising campaigns and materials that use distressing images of (usually) children who are suffering from malnutrition, lack of sanitation, and other chronic but preventable problems to motivate us to donate. It was standard practice for a generation or more, but has more recently been roundly criticized as a form of exploitation. You should read all of Tom’s article before I continue, but since some of you might not I’ll share one quote from Tom after he includes a chart showing that “sad face” images of children generate far higher fundraising returns than happy or neutral faces:

In case you’re not good with numbers, though, let me translate: “Sad children raise more money by far than happy children.” End of story. If you’re a professional.
I won’t try to offer my own review of the idea of poverty pron. A quick search will lead you to far more articulate commentary than I could produce. But I will take on a deeper assumption that I think underlies Tom’s argument here, one that I think is actually inconsistent with most of his work. To read this article in isolation would suggest that Tom believes that the measure of all fundraising is always and only to do whatever will bring the highest return in donations. If that perspective is legitimate that by all means let market research be our Bible and cash be our scorecard. God forbid! The thing is, no reputable or functional charity approaches fundraising so cavalierly. Every piece of communication that goes out to donors and potential donors must pass through a series of filters including ethics, transparency, brand consistency, timeliness, cultural sensitivity, and strategy. Generating big dollars by violating any of these filters will typically represent a desperate effort by an organization or staff member in trouble. In the article Tom essentially ridicules those who suggest that some types of mailings are in conflict with organizational values; suggesting that the only interest of the development department is revenue, and then implying that the program staff who oppose these materials are undermining organizational unity. It is patently obvious that anyone who proposes or publishes anything contrary to stated or even implied organizational values without deliberate and open consultation with those responsible for maintaining the values is in the wrong. An ethical organization may occasionally change their values, but they would sooner close up shop than violate their values to increase revenues. I don’t know any critics of poverty porn who are opposed to all marketing as Tom generalizes. But I do know (and happily count myself among) many passionate people who love skillful, compelling, and appropriate campaigns; but find shallow and lazy efforts offensive. Fundraising materials that exploit those they are ultimately meant to benefit are simply wrong. Tom may have a good point to make about the hyperbole of the poverty porn term, or the dismissive way some worthwhile possibilities are branded that way. I hope he’ll make that argument with his usual insight and instigation. In this case he blew it, but in doing so inadvertently raised an even more important issue about the role of the development team in every charity and the critical need for them to be in alignment with the core values and objectives of the organization. It’s an important discussion. When have you felt tension between values and fundraising potential?