Tell a better story – tell the whole story

In this three part series our communications and research officer, Raeesah Haque, explores the nexus between ‘good’ development and ‘good’ communications and what this means when appealing to donors.

An outdated model of charitable giving…? 

What moves people and organisations to contribute to any given cause? What’s more, what are we willing to put up with in order to attract and sustain these contributions?

The idea that people give because of moralistic reasoning (that relatively ‘rich’ people donate out of the goodness of their hearts) is becoming less and less conceivable . This perception of virtuous giving simply may not ring true. Despite this, global development communications strategies often centre this antiquated standpoint.

So, what fuels charitable giving? It would be nice to answer wholeheartedly with altruism; unfortunately this is not always the case. Of course, individuals and organisations may contribute to causes that align with their own values and they may truly believe in the outcomes that the NGO or charity is pursuing . However, there are also the ‘impurely’ altruistic donors. Leonhardt (2008) suggests that these donors do not give solely, for instance to, ‘Save the Children’ but for the ‘‘warm glow’’ that follows. A more pessimistic view argues that many give to portray a publicly palatable image of compassion. The answers are not straightforward, and perhaps the only known truth around what influences giving is that it is complex and multifaceted – a function of many inputs not limited to:

  • The nature of appeals and images used
  • Extrinsic factors including age, social class and gender
  • Intrinsic determinants including the need for self-esteem (or that ‘‘warm glow’’), guilt, pity, empathy or social justice
  • Perceptual reactions, particularly the relation to one’s self
    (Dalton et al., 2008; Sargent, 1999)



(Above: 2 very different kind of appeals described more thoroughly at the end of this post)

So what? Does it matter what motivates people to donate as long as the money is getting to the right places? A tricky question to answer, but it helps to discuss HOW we make (maybe altruistic, maybe not) donors aware of situations they might like to give to.  Awareness is where communications comes in and it is often proposed that explicit distress is what makes people act (Finklekraut, 2001:93). It is widely known that ‘‘humanitarian narratives’’ mobilise empathy and action much more successfully than statistics (Wilson and Brown, 2009:10). However, these narratives can lend themselves well to ‘‘sentimental alienation’’ (Finklekraut, 2001:93), where issues are presented with little to no context.

Often, a narrative of emotional excess is employed as it is a proven formula to increase donations. Arendt (1963) refers to this as the politics of pity. Though greater support and donations may be the result of such usage, we (NGOs, charities, social enterprises), as the link between donors and beneficiaries have to reflect on what we are seeking to achieve. What exactly are we sacrificing in order to bring in such donations and is it worthwhile? Is there a way to ‘do development’ and ‘do communications’ so that neither goal is sacrificed?

Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Viking Press.

Finklekraut, A. (2001). In the Name of Humanity: Reflection on the Twentieth Century. London: Pimlico.

Wilson, R. and Brown, R. (2009). Humanitarianism and suffering: The mobilization of empathy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Image one is taken from The Narrative Project, 2014 and shows an independent Rehena Juma in her fields in Valeska village, Tanzania. Image two is a still from Live Aid, 1984 – little information can be obtained about this young girl in Ethiopia and the image was found on, 2015. Which would make you give?


Author: SeeBeyondBorders

SeeBeyondBorders provides children in Cambodia with access to quality teaching and learning at school. Our approach is through sustainable development, helping communities help themselves.

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