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Beneficiary framing examined in new Rogare paper

Beneficiary framing examined in new Rogare paper

Thinktank has released the first paper from its project on beneficiary framing, looking at fundraisers’ and service delivery teams’ views on how beneficiaries should be represented in and fundraising materials.

The project seeks to develop an ethical consensus about the best way to represent beneficiaries in charity marketing and fundraising, and the report, Positive and negative feedback, is the first from Rogare’s initiative which also aims to “close the ideological gap” between fundraisers and service delivery teams, who often have opposing views on how beneficiaries should be represented in marketing materials.

Its key findings reveal that fundraisers and service delivery favour different frames, and that difference of opinion may be so entrenched that it has become ‘ideological’. It also suggests that negative framing using sad images may work best for donor acquisition, where new donors must be ‘attracted’ to the cause through an emotional punch. Positive framing on the other hand it says may work better in donor retention, where fundraisers are trying to build lasting relationships with donors who are already engaged with their causes.

The discussion paper is the first in a series of six planned as part of the project, and looks at what the academic evidence says about the use of positive and negative framing in a fundraising context. It finds that while there is little existing on the subject, what there is gives tentative support to anecdotal evidence from fundraisers – that sad images raise more money. It has been mainly researched and written by Rogare International Advisory Panel member Ruth Smyth, of charity creative agency BoldLight.

Smyth points out that although fundraisers tend to understand positive and negative framing typically as referring to ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ images, the academic research considers framing as whether something is presented in terms of a ‘loss’ or a ‘gain’, such as: with positive framing, the positive impact your donation will have (e.g. 10,000 people can be saved from starvation), and with negative framing – what will happen if you don’t donate (e.g. 10,000 people will die of starvation).

Smyth said:

“What research there is lends tentative support 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.” 

Rogare’s director Ian MacQuillin said:

“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 maximise 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, maintain their dignity and focus on the solution to the problem.

“We believe that adherents of the both frames have become polarised 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’s six planned papers from this project will be:

  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 (the paper that is published today)
  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.

While papers 1 and 6 bookend the project, the other papers will be published as and when they are completed. The next to be published, during the summer, will be Paper 3 – written by Save the Children’s global director of creative content Jess Crombie. 

Melanie May is a journalist and copywriter specialising in writing both for and about the charity and marketing services sectors since 2001. She can be reached via www.thepurplepim.com.

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