The Problem With Sympathy Campaigns

By Gabriela Brand


In a recent twitter-war, CEO of an Australia-based not-for-profit defended her organization’s use of child models rubbed up in dirt to represent Cambodian sex workers. The fundraising campaign shows miserable looking children behind captions that ask sympathetic donors help change their lives with $500.

The CEO of the organization defended the campaign by claiming that she knows “how to raise funds to change lives” and privileged people living in “luxury” should feel “uncomfortable” with the “horror” these children face – adding the phrase, “the children we save.

In other words, donors should feel guilty, sympathetic, and compelled to also save these poor children. She called this “Fundraising 101.”

This type of fundraising might indeed be effective at showing uncomfortable realities and rousing sympathetic donations. The problem with this, however, is that it intentionally sensationalizes poverty, turning children into objects of pity and exploiting that pity to meet an organization’s objectives.

If not-for-profits consistently sell us images of hopeless and miserable children from ‘developing’ countries in need of our help (a type of content often referred to as poverty porn“), the world begins to perceive entire groups of people or countries as helpless.

We have already seen the effects of this. The reason voluntourism has become such a huge (and problematic) phenomenon is because we are sold the idea that we can ‘save the world’. Not only does this idea ignore the complexities of poverty, but it also leads unqualified and misinformed individuals to enter other people’s countries, and lives, with a patronizing attitude – often causing more harm than good.

People already know that sex slavery is not okay and that many live in poverty. We don’t need to exploit more images of “poor” children to be convinced that this needs to change.

Why not highlight positive solutions made possible by fundraising and invite people to be a part of that?

Why not highlight the fact that these are people with skills, intelligence, and dreams, just like you and I, instead of turning them into the needy “other”?

The above campaign could be just as effective if it showed empowered children working as a seamstress, trader or learning how to cook, as opposed to miserable trafficked and homeless children. This doesn’t mean we can’t educate others by telling them about the harsh realities that children around the world have to face. It just means we don’t have to exploit the imagery to go along with that.

Showing people real and tangible solutions might not offer the same shock value, but it does allow donors to see the outcome of their funds and inspire them to be a part of that positive change. Sharing stories and images that help us to empathize with others and recognize our shared humanity will lead to more inclusive and dignified solutions.

Reshaping the way that we talk about poverty and philanthropy not only empowers the ‘beneficiary’ of these resources, it also empowers the discerning donor or volunteer.

We need to stop telling one single story of people living in poverty and start realizing that perpetuating this image of helplessness is damaging for long-term goals in global development. No one wants to be “saved”.

We must hold ourselves accountable for the language and imagery we use to ensure we respect and uphold the dignity of every person. A general rule to guide you is this: if you do not think that person would represent themselves in a certain way to a global audience (or feel comfortable in you doing so), don’t do it.

Show them the respect they deserve by representing them in an empowering light.