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Being powerful without looking powerless

5 March 2010

It’s not rare in charity communications, particularly during human disasters where suffering and death is a reality, to be treading a fine line between expressing a vital need for awareness (and hard cash) and maintaining the dignity and pride of the people we support.

Some will tell you: get real – the public needs to see the cold hard truth of disaster, need and struggle. This is a sure route to the money rolling in and lives being saved or improved.

Jeff Brooks, creative director at TrueSense Marketing stakes out his case against Unicef’s preferred use of positive imagery and empowerment here. He says: 

To me, choosing feel-good fundraising over effective fundraising is immoral. The trade-off is way too steep; lives are at stake. The only reason people respond to [a Unicef advert] is because they're seeing the real pictures elsewhere.

Pretty stern and controversial stuff. I’m not so sure I can agree with Jeff here, and I think – in the UK at least – we may be finally reaching a tipping point in the “charity model". It’s no coincidence that Professional Fundraising magazine and its sister titles have re-launched as ‘Civil Society’ publications, and refer to charities as ‘civil society organisations’. This change in tone echoes the shift in the internal make-up of voluntary organisations (another slightly awkward moniker for our sector).

Scope, for example, can boast an increasing number of disabled staff working throughout the organisation and leading the charity through the informed, lived experiences of actually being disabled. This is a far cry from The Spastics Society of the 1980’s, which arguably personified a more paternal approach to ‘helping’ disabled people, led by non-disabled management.

At my own charity Whizz-Kidz, our CEO is a wheelchair user who knows firsthand what it is like to have waited her first seven years for independent mobility. As well as that, we have a Kidz Board of 12 incredibly creative and innovative young disabled people, who make decisions on campaigning and the direction of our 600 strong young regional ambassadors.

While I’m on the subject, check out the impact on the lives of the young people we support, as demonstrated by this video depicting some of them consulting with The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea on the Exhibition Road project. Sure, this isn’t a fundraising ask – but telling related stories and amplifying the authentic voices of our users helps paint a picture as to:

  1. why what we do is important
  2. what we support young people to do off their own backs and following their own interests.

My food for thought here is that our sector should be trying to innovate fundraising and awareness-raising by working hand-in-hand with the people we support. We should strive to be organisations of and not for.

Absolutely, the lived-experiences and voices of our (pick a term) service users / clients / beneficiaries should be at the forefront of our messages. But personally I think – and hope – that we are past the stage where we objectify them.

Think of your next campaign or appeal. How are you telling your story, and how do you balance creating a public appetite for need versus being authentic and true to those you support? Do you have an advisory panel or focus groups made up of users? We must make their stories our stories to challenge public assumptions about what we can positively achieve if we work together.

Rob Dyson

public relations & online engagement manager, Whizz-Kidz

In his day job, Rob leads on all public relations for young people’s charity Whizz-Kidz, including corporate fundraising partnerships, youth campaigning, NHS partnerships and parliamentary work and most notably social media: building conversational, community engagement in Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and Flickr. Rob blogs on third sector issues, Big Society, and digital comms and founded the Third Sector PR & Communications Network on Facebook.