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Research Finds “Ideological" Gap in How to Represent Charity Beneficiaries

June 11, 2018

The first report from an initiative that aims to “close the ideological gap” between fundraisers and service delivery teams on how to represent, or frame, charity beneficiaries in marketing materials has been published by the think tank Rogare.

The first in a series of six green (discussion) papers, Positive and Negative Feedback looks at what the academic evidence says about the use of positive and negative framing in a fundraising context and has been mainly researched and written by Rogare International Advisory Panel member Ruth Smyth.

The research found that fundraisers and service delivery people favour different frames. The difference of opinion between these two groups may be so entrenched that it has become "ideological."

Academic evidence on the effectiveness of positive and negative framing is inconclusive, but what there is, tends to favour stories and images framed as "losses."

Negative framing using sad images may be better suited to recruiting new donors, while positive framing might work better in building relationships with existing donors.

Smyth points out that fundraisers tend to understand positive and negative framing typically as referring to "happy" and "sad" images.  She notes the academic research considers framing as whether something is presented in terms of a "loss" or a "gain."

  • Positive framing – the positive impact your donation will have (E.g. "10,000 people can be saved from starvation").
  • Negative framing – what will happen if you don’t donate (E.g. "10,000 people will die of starvation").

But, Smyth adds that there has been little research that has looked at framing specifically in the context of fundraising and charity advertising – the paper reviews just 12 published studies. She says: “What research there is lends tentative support to the commonly-held practitioner belief that negative framing, especially sad imagery, elicits more donations through engaging people’s sympathy – and negativity bias means people pay more attention to negative information. Research also mostly supports the idea that negative imagery using sad faces tends to elicit more donations when there is little other information, or limited time to process this. But the evidence is not overwhelming.”

The paper further suggests that:

  • Negative framing may work best for donor acquisition, where new donors must be "attracted" to the cause through an emotional punch.
  • Positive framing may work better in donor retention, where fundraisers are trying to build lasting relationships with donors who are already engaged with their causes. The entire project, "You’ve been reframed: How ought beneficiaries be represented in fundraising materials" seeks to develop a new ethical consensus about the best way to represent beneficiaries in charity marketing and fundraising.

Rogare’s director Ian MacQuillin says: “The underlying issue is that fundraisers and service delivery staff often have opposing views and attitudes about how beneficiaries ought to be portrayed in advertising, marketing and fundraising materials. Fundraisers tend to favour those images that they believe will maximize income. These images tend to show in quite stark context the plight and suffering of beneficiaries. Service delivery staff, and others at charities, tend to favour images that reflect more positive values about beneficiaries, maintaining their dignity and focusing on the solution to the problem. We believe that adherents of both frames have become polarized in the discussion and debate, which has become increasingly adversarial and may in fact be 'ideological.' Our objective is therefore to ‘reframe’ this whole debate to close this gap and achieve a new ethical consensus on this matter.”

Rogare is planning to publish six discussion papers as part of the project:

  1. Review of the "philosophy" behind approaches to this topic to establish the philosophical/ideological nature of the debate.
  2. What works and why it works in positive and negative frames. 
  3. Beneficiaries’ attitudes to how charities tell their stories and use their images.
  4. What are the best ways to talk to beneficiaries and service users to get their stories?
  5. What the existing codes of practice say about using images.
  6. A final report presenting a normative argument about how beneficiaries ought to be framed in fundraising.

Ruth Smyth is director of planning and insight at BoldLight, where she works with UK charities to understand what motivates supporters and how to increase income. To talk about the findings in the Positive and negative feedback paper, contact Ruth Smyth: ruth@boldlight.co.

Rogare (Latin for ‘to ask’) is the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy’s fundraising think tank and the home of Critical Fundraising – the discipline of critically evaluating what fundraisers know, or think they know, about their profession. Our remit is to explore under-researched and "under-thought" areas of fundraising. One of our key aims is to generate new practical ideas by pulling together the academic and practitioner branches of the fundraising profession. For further information about Rogare and the ‘You’ve Been Reframed’ project, contact Ian MacQuillin, ian.macquillin@plymouth.ac.uk.