In its short history, the modern nonprofit has shifted through a few marketing tactics. The 1980s disaster appeals used guilt-inducing shock imagery to raise funds for charity. Since the 1990s, nonprofit best practices trend toward more positive images and stories, showing happy people with at least some degree of agency. And in a more recent trend, some nonprofits communicate less about the needs of the people they serve, focusing more on stories and images of Western donors fundraising and doing things on behalf of others.
In my experience, rarely does a nonprofit’s actual marketing content—images, graphics, videos, stories, and appeal messaging—receive as much scrutiny as their programmatic work.
It’s a tough balancing act to show the oppression of poverty without exploiting those living in it or oversimplifying its complexity. Books like Walking with the Poor and When Helping Hurts have begun to challenge Christian nonprofits and churches to rethink how they understand poverty and relate to people living in material poverty. These same insights and spiritual frameworks should also shape the stories and images of nonprofit marketing. When nonprofit communications are naively positive, sensationally guilt-inducing, or exclusively reflective of Western supporters’ actions, they misrepresent people living in poverty and cheat supporters of the opportunity to mutually engage in poverty alleviation.
In my job as a writer at HOPE International, I’m still learning how to balance the need to ethically represent the families we serve and inspire and educate people—all in 50 words or less. From Instagram posts to printed reports, here are three ways I’ve changed how I communicate:
Name people and places in photos:
All too often, pictures of nonprofit beneficiaries are treated like stock photography, without a name or location to inform readers who they are or where they are. Even if a nonprofit has consent to use the person’s photo, to the reader, the person on the page is left nameless and, thus, they remain distant and unknowable. Naming someone is dignifying and, in a relational way, brings them closer, allowing your reader to feel mutual affinity and connection rather than distant pity.
Use direct quotes:
First, to get direct quotes, you must listen. The “be a voice for the voiceless” mantra has never sat well with me—everyone has a voice and will speak if listened to with respect. Prioritizing direct quotes in storytelling better represents those you’re writing about—whether supporters, partners, or people served—and elevates their voice.
Show people in action:
Pictures powerfully shape how we see our world, especially places we’ve never experienced. The style and content of nonprofit photography not only represents the people and places they serve, it also positions supporters’ responses to and understanding of poverty around the world. Portrait shots can be beautifully dignifying, but they lack the action and context that shows the initiative and hard work of so many people living in poverty. Active photography—showing people in their homes, with family, in the community, and at work—can help foster a deeper sense of mutual partnership between beneficiaries and supporters.
Better, more ethical and empowering nonprofit marketing doesn’t happen by accident. It takes intentionality, resources, and time to build the space and systems to listen to people and retell their stories with dignity. If nonprofits are dedicated to quality programs and work, then their marketing and communications should be held to similar standards.
Isaac Barnes joined HOPE International’s writing team in 2013. Since then, he’s enjoyed telling the incredible stories of HOPE-network clients and creatively communicating about Christ-centered microenterprise development.