“Porn” is defined in Webster’s as “writing, pictures, etc. intended primarily to arouse sexual desire.” That’s what porn is for.

So what in the world is “poverty porn”? As used in a sentence: “Our NGO shouldn’t engage in ‘poverty porn.’ It exploits kids. And it is shamefully inconsistent with our charity’s heart values.” Yeah, I know: people get off on all sorts of things. But this? Really? They’re sexually aroused by watching dirty kids in miserable living conditions? That just seems so unlikely. At least in significant numbers.

A misnomer whose time (sigh) has come

Yes, I was being facetious. It is one of the bigger bits in my DNA.

Here’s what happened: a client asked me recently about the phrase “poverty porn” … wondering if it merited serious debate before, say, they mailed their next appeal. If you haven’t heard of “poverty porn,” it’s a pretty obvious slur. You’ll hear it at nonprofits that do child development, which is a HUGE global industry, when you add it all up.

Want a trenchant overview of the “poverty porn debate”? Read this smoldering blog posting. “Poverty porn” specifically refers to the use by charities of “sad kid” photos and stories to raise money.

As in this scene:

“My dear trustees,” he began. 

The director of development glanced out at the city’s skyline and straightened his very expensive tie. The Empire State Building loomed just two blocks away. A light mist obscured the top. 

“We’re down about 20 mil this year.” He shrugged with a certain je ne sais quoi, so they’d know this wasn’t a crisis yet. “It’s time, my friends, to hit the low road again, just for a month or two. We’re going to buy airtime for our ‘filthy, down-trodden kid’ ads on late night TV. I know we heard a few complaints last year. They’re sad to watch, all the rain and diarrhea. But that kid brings in the bucks, I promise you. We need him now. He’s our fundraising superhero.”

I’m going to make a rash generalization: The people who oppose “poverty porn” probably also believe that advertising generally is bad to the bone … an immoral, puppet-master enterprise that ensures American consumer legions will fall into lockstep and … buy!

I wish.

I wish it were all that simplistically easy.

Donations by Image TypeWhat they are really saying

What the opponents of “poverty porn” want to do is eliminate the ugly truth and replace it with a fantasy of “empowered children.” Which they believe is the right approach generally: “Aid workers of the world unite!”

Yet … if you have a professional fundraising bone in your body, please consider the following chart:

Jeff Brooks posted this chart originally, from the American Marketing Association. The research is recent. I show it to thousands of fundraisers a year. It’s self-explanatory.

In case you’re not good with numbers, though, let me translate: “Sad children raise more money by far than happy children. End of story. If you’re a professional. And yet the “debate” swans on.

Point #1: Actually, this was NEVER a true or useful debate. “Poverty porn” is talk radio fare: an opinion-popping, self-absorption fest amongst the profoundly uninformed.

It’s also probably a garden-variety generational assault. Every entry-level generation finds a way to disparage those who came before. The theme: “Why those higher on the org chart are diabolically stupid, even evil.” Read Jung or Joseph Campbell or somebody. It’s basic.

A special message to HR

So, DEAR BOSS, just to clarify … employees who espouse an end to “Poverty Porn” are giving you the worst financial advice in the history of fundraising.

Oh, and let’s not even mention the damage it does to donor relations: to treat your generous, your kind, your compassionate, your empathetic … as consumers of porn.

When you say “poverty porn,” you imply that donors buy for the wrong reasons. But that’s another old, weary, head-shaking story: for some reason, charity staff who are NOT fundraisers love to disparage donor motives.

Closing “the empathy gap” is tough. People have to see what’s wrong before they want to fix it. The charity brings to the world a message, “Look, this is evil. But you can do something about it.” And generous, wonderful and trusting souls respond, “OK, I can help you with that problem.”

I find the whole idea of “poverty porn” deeply offensive to that charitable spirit. And I say, How dare you?

This post originally appeared on Ahern Communications, Ink.

Tom Ahern
Author of four books, Tom Ahern is considered one of the world’s top authorities on donor communications.
Tom Ahern

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