Can charities afford to abandon stereotypes?

An interesting proposition aired in Third Sector this week.

The magazine  reports that “It would be risky for homelessness charities to use less stereotypical imageThird Sector - stereotypess of homeless people in their fundraising materials because they would not match up with the images in the minds of potential donors, according to new research.”

So how are stereotypes created? By either narratives or images – and as we all know ‘a picture is worth a 1,000 words’ etc.

But are the ‘words’ that a picture tells honest? Fair? Accurate? And does it matter, as long as  the money rolls in?

I’m reminded of TFL’s advertisement advising passengers who contemplate travelling  without a ticket that inspectors are easy to spot because ‘they look just like you’.

I wonder how many homeless people also ‘look just like you’? Search on iStock for images of homelessness ( link ) and you’ll find the usual suspects – men with sleeping bags,  gaunt figures in hoodies. . .  a few outstretched hands, empty food bowls, doe eyed children. There are some  less obvious images there but they look oddly out of place – and that, presumably, is the point.

Stereotypes do not drop ‘like the gentle rain from heaven’ – they are manufactured; constructs, honed and shaped for a purpose by people whose raison d’etre is to  craft extreme shortcuts.  It’s not surprising that in an age of fast moving communications technology such shorthand is employed. Charity is big business and competition for donations fierce.

Every Christmas captive TV audiences  are bludgeoned into ‘giving’ – assaulted relentlessly by  images of victims needing food, medical aid, water, accommodation. Some viewers are simply moved to give. Others are discomfited. Increasing numbers just become angry at the transparent manipulation.

Of course there’s a moral dimension to all this because, like it or not, stereotypes are educational (sic); they inform our perceptions of the world. The newspapers, magazines, films and charity flyers that depict  ex-servicemen as amputees or PTSD sufferers imply causal linkages that are at best disproportionate  and at worst  dangerous. ( You won’t find too many of these images on recruiting posters!)

PRs and ‘creatives’ are frequently allowed to exercise  power without responsibility. Campaign success is reduced crudely to reach and impact – and because  reach can be driven by budget,  wealthy organisations  will always have an advantage over smaller counterparts. (Wildcard creativity and random viral take-up aside!)

Impact, however, is a complex animal! Which is why, in that parallel universe where power and responsibility go hand-in-hand, images that are so crudely powerful  that they deal a knockout blow, are used sparingly, in context, and with caution.

Instead of warning that use of ‘less stereotypical images could be risky’ charities should toughen up and have the courage to tackle the issue head on. Use images of course, but intelligently and responsibly; put them in context – make people think, force them to consider why the person who looks ‘just like them’ can also be hungry, sick, depressed or homeless- even though they aren’t lying on a sleeping bag in the High Street.

(c) Glyn Strong