Inclusive communications in the fundraising and philanthropy sectors

Guest Blogger | 18 March 2021 | Blogs

This thought piece is on inclusive communications in the fundraising and philanthropy sectors. I will describe three layers of intersecting inclusive communications in these sectors – micro – which deals with the imagery itself and its design aspects, the meso – which deals with the sector level, and finally the macro – which deals with macro-environmental or rather the socio-cultural ‘worldview’. These levels also intersect and feed into one another.

Some people would say the topic of inclusive comms in fundraising and philanthropy is itself an oxymoron, that’s its impossible to attain inclusive comms in these sectors and I don’t blame them. I don’t agree with this view but I certainly don’t blame anyone who makes this claim.

You only have to look at the recent case of Comic Relief and who knows how much damage has been done by decades of media cultivation of black stereotypes on our TV screens. The story which is coming out on Comic Relief is probably only the tip of the iceberg. Will we ever get to know the full extent of damage? Most likely not. Certainly, there are plenty of voices in Africa who say that FDI in the continent has been low because of the way Western fundraisers have portrayed the African people in a very unidimensional and negative lens.


You only have to examine the historical evolution of the sectors too, to understand the reason why status quo practices have been in complete breach of inclusive communications. These sectors aligned themselves, operated in tandem and acted in synergy with for instance the pan-European policies of humanitarian imperialism for decades, and therefore for the Scramble for Africa – that “elephant in the room” in any discussion on DEI within the sector.

Scramble for Africa

And it is this period of the Scramble for Africa which has really cemented, fermented and conditioned generations of fundraisers and NGOs to a very insidious formula for the way we fundraise. This formula has evolved, it has mutated, but it is still very much alive. Essentially, this formula rests on humanising the donor, and then predominantly the white donor, and on dehumanising the predominantly non-white beneficiaries and more specifically black people.

Of course, we should note the term “beneficiary” is itself a contentious term. This formula traditionally positioned the white donor as this wholesome, complex and moral being, who could yet become more humane by helping, saving or rescuing the de-humanised beneficiary. The donor is typically represented as this multi-dimensional individual, essential in humanising any image representation and the beneficiary typically as uni-dimensional. It would seem the sectors don’t know how to move beyond this basic formula.  This formula has become the main way, in some adapted form, of raising money from predominantly white donors.

Humanisation theory

I am using humanisation theory to explain inclusive comms, so what is humanisation? Humanisation is often defined as recognising the full human attributes which comprise the human essence.  Its antithesis, dehumanisation, is stripping away essential human attributes from someone. If you asked me for instance, who are you Haseeb? I would tell you about my close relationship, my family, my work and projects, my cultural background but also my tastes and preferences, and my likes and dislikes. In other words, you would get a picture of the full gamut of associations which comprise the complexity of Haseeb. Humans are complex or multi-dimensional in nature.

The beneficiary, in contrast, is portrayed as uni or bi-dimensional, especially in the ‘poverty porn’ of the African child – typically the sick, the unhygienic, unclean, starving and severely in-need individual. This humanised donor-dehumanised beneficiary formula was rampant during the Scramble for Africa at all levels, within these sectors and at public and social policy levels, driven of course by a ‘white saviourism’ self-identity complex.

What we see today is mutations of this formula and indeed its original form is still too commonly used in our TV screens. Importantly, this formula not only extends to black and non-white beneficiaries but to beneficiaries in general too. People with disabilities are probably the best example of this latter case. If you examine the images at the turn of the 20th century, you’ll see the same type of de-humanising rhetoric being used for these individual target groups. What we have today is an evolution, but not extinction of colonial tropes filtered in our fundraising and philanthropic comms. History is our best teacher to understand contemporary practices.

Charity TV adverts

Back in 2014, I conducted what I believe may be the largest review of black racial imagery in contemporary British TV commercials. We analysed a total of 622 ads with at least one black actor in them and found 63% of the ads to contain some racial imagery, defined as when a black actor is portrayed as inferior in any way. We had applied a systematic criterion to objectify this process as much as possible.

To cut a long story short, I really wish we had reported sector by sector analysis. We didn’t as it wasn’t the purpose of the study. But we did analyse 47 charity ads in our sample and I must say they contained the highest percentage of racial imagery across all of our sector sub-samples. We found 87% of these ads to contain some element of black racial imagery. Now, you might think, hang on Dr Haseeb, how else can we portray our beneficiaries if not as “in need” and “struggling” and in “pain”? Well, if that portrayal plays on colonial tropes, which in the case of African people it does, and if the portrayal positions the actor as inferior in any way, if it dehumanises the individual – my coders and myself would classify the image as racialised. The sector needs to embrace greater creativity and innovation to overcome entrenched thinking.

It is not for us to create one metric for identifying racial imagery for all of the other sectors – technology, FMCG, financial, etc – and a separate one for the fundraising and philanthropy sector because the sectors say it’s the only way they can raise money, or their purpose is based on virtue and morality, or that “we are a charity and fundraising!”. Race theory doesn’t change for the fundraising and philanthropy sector, instead it is up to these sectors to adapt for anti-racism. If you were to remove the charity appeal, forget the ad was a charity, and just examined the visual imagery in the corpus of the ad, then the vast majority of these images portray black people as severely de-humanised. And this portrayal might bring in income but it is not an accurate portrayal of the person, and perpetuates group stereotypes in the long term.

White saviourism

Indeed, there are many ‘classic’ stereotypes of black people. Some research we did interviewing 31 young black people on media stereotypes identified a total of 14 distinct stereotypes for black people ranging from blacks as less intelligent, blacks as dangerous, blacks as hyper and asexual and of course blacks as unclean dirty, poorly, starving etc. This latter bunch of social stereotypes are the ones the philanthropy and fundraising sectors of the West have largely been responsible in perpetuating. In this particular research, our sample cited the charity sector as perpetuating these colonial tropes too. White saviourism occurs when the donor is predominantly portrayed as the humanised white and beneficiary as the de-humanised non-white.

I know some colleagues (Claire Routley and Ashley Rowthorn) who are doing some excellent research on legacy packs in the UK and they have found an overwhelming majority of donors depicted as white. The beneficiary portrayal is more mixed but the predominantly white donor image feeds into the rational of white saviourism.  This donor representation is therefore in breach of inclusive communications but it is so simple to fix and yet it is mind boggling why mixed representation is not still not being done. The old formula works but it works with maladaptive effects in perpetuating social stereotypes and therefore adding social problems for the target beneficiary group, rather than resolving them.

So, what is the way around this? Well, always remember the golden rule – do onto others as you would want them to do to you. If your friend’s daughter was in hospital and asked you to design a fundraising appeal, of course you would add details of her favourite books, foods or TV programmes and the like. You would certainly refer to her by name in the appeal and provide her age at least, and perhaps capture her humanity further by getting a quotation from her. You may even get a quote from her best friend. In this day and age, you would perhaps make a video and also interview her parents.

You have gone into this field, you have chosen the profession of charity. It is therefore your duty to find these stories as stories capture narrative and within this narrative human attributes and qualities can be relayed, i.e. humanisation can be communicated. The more multi-dimensional the image, the more likely empathy will be activated. Certainly, in a video context, multi-dimensional imagery aligns itself with multi-empathy activation.

Therefore, it is not that difficult. It just needs you to remember why you went into these sectors in the first place, to act as ambassadors for your beneficiaries and to always echo their often, silenced voices. Nobody else is going to do this other than you as you have chosen this lofty profession. We will come to this issue when we discuss the meso or sector level of inclusive communications further. Up to now, I have been talking about the micro or image design level of inclusive communications.

Hopefully, now we can also understand what inclusive communications really means. Inclusive comms is all about ensuring you capture the full dignity, the full human essence and therefore individuality of the ‘beneficiary’.

Humanisation theory is really helpful in capturing this human essence. In doing so, however inclusivity also ensures the individual feels a sense of belongingness, a sense of safety and security in the group within which they are placed. This, of course also means their dignity will not be breached by charities to pander to donor whims.  Essential to me is that multi-dimensional images should not just be used only in the stewardship journey but rather from the ‘moment go’.

We have a responsibility to take a “really” long term view on social change on behalf of our beneficiaries and playing to the old humanised donor-dehumanised beneficiary formula generates social stereotypes and therefore, in the long run, does more harm than good.

Think about it. I see a TV charity appeal using the classic dehumanised black imagery. This appeal may very well generate income for the charity but what of the effects on non-donors’ attitude development towards black people? What of the effect on donors of perpetuating their white saviourism self-identity? Alarmingly, what of the effect on children viewing black people consistently in dehumanised portrayals? Currently, these issues have never been audited or tested for by charities.

There is some hope, with for instance Save the Children pledging to test these effects but until multi-dimensional imagery is not incorporated, the journey for change will be longer.


One may also ask how has this happened in the current contemporary age in the first place? The sector, thanks to #CharitySoWhite, is having this debate. We need to self-reflect and introspect in terms of our own decision-making processes which have lead to under BAME representation in the first place. We have to be open and honest of the real possibility of systemic racism having permeated the sector and therefore immediately tackle the humanised donor-dehumanised beneficiary formula to circumvent its filtration to the wider public.

Having mixed teams and greater representation at the creative level is essential. A mono-cultural team will brainstorm and generate mono-cultural creative concepts. A multi-cultural team however more likely will generate multi-culturally sensitive concepts and ideas.  And if this is not immediately possible, then at least engaging with your BAME volunteers and donors to involve them in the design of your appeals. Even with these changes however, without a systematic screening process of ad content, subjectivity in decision-making will always remain a problem. It is high time, the sector invested in creating and democratising systematic frameworks to help creative teams screen out for unethical content.

Unlocking the voices of the beneficiary

On the meso level – this represents inclusive comms at the sector level. Unfortunately, much work needs to be done at this level too. Big brand campaigns can crowd out donations from smaller charities from the same cause and even different causes and yet these crowding out effects are seldom tested, evaluated and indeed discussed by the sector. They do however breach inclusivity for the smaller charity sector.

Another big challenge for the meso level is of course the BAME Covid disproportionate causalities. If the sectors’ purpose is to act as an ambassador for the most vulnerable and marginalised in society, then this issue is the litmus test of inclusivity in general for the sectors. At the moment, there is still no collective campaign from the big brands to highlight the plight of BAME voices. Of course, this is linked to the macro level of inclusive communications. The macro level deals with the political and social-cultural environment. If the state for instance says we are not raising the plight the BAME Covid casualties, this can trickle down to meso and micro levels.

On this issue, it is important to remember that the founders of most of your organisations were social transformation agents. They most definitely did not view fundraising as a purely monetary function, but rather a function of social transformation and change. They most certainly did not accept the status quo macro view if this compromised those in society without voices. They most certainly did not adopt what Vu Lay describes as a ‘hunger games’ approach to fundraising, or a hyper competitive approach to raising money. Belongingness is a central tenant of inclusivity and therefore collaboration is key. It is not enough to say that the system is as it is – that does not help our beneficiaries and we are in this sector for our beneficiaries.

Unlocking the voices of the beneficiary is what the founders of many a charity did best. Commit to unlocking these voices and any social cause, including anti-racism, will ensue.  Income and positive change will follow. You can do it! 

Pyro Talks session on a laptop
Dr Shabbir chairing the DEI session at Pyrotalk’s Fundraising Intelligence Conference 2021 

This article is an adapted version of the ‘nano-talk’ given by Dr. Haseeb Shabbir for PyroTalks. Dr. Shabbir is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Hull and a member of the Chartered Institute of Fundraising’s Academy team. He has coached close to a thousand fundraisers and is a journal guest editor in Pandemic Consumer Psychology, Anti-Racism and Marketing and Race, Fundraising and Philanthropy.