There has been a significant shift in development fundraising in recent decades, from the sort of ‘feel-bad’ fundraising, that tried to trigger a sense of empathy and solidarity with ‘victims’, to an alternative fundraising approach that aims to trigger donations based on the good feelings we get from giving to brands we like and trust, or by engaging in shared experiences with like-minded people.
The feel-bad model has been criticised for making many donors feel despairing and resentful. By contrast, the feel-good model divorces them from the underlying issues and instead engages them in an emotionally ‘thin’ and transactional encounter. The opportunity is still out there for a third fundraising way – a ‘feel OK’ model – which reintroduces both ethical substance and psychological resilience into the donor relationship.
The current, dominant feel-good funding model encompasses everything from bra-baring, moonlit walks, to ice bucket challenges or the ongoing phenomena of comic or sport relief. It also describes the endless proliferation of charity shops on our high streets, and their increasing professionalism.
In this model, the focus of attention has fundamentally shifted from the victim or the cause, and onto the donor. Where victims are portrayed at all, they are seen to have a very strong sense of agency and to be success stories in waiting. Much more important to charity marketers, though, is the sense of agency that can be triggered in the donor. In all the memorable success stories of recent years – campaigns like Kony2012, MakePovertyHistory or LiveStrong, the marketers’ focus was on mass mobilisation – engaging a group of people in a sense of shared consciousness and shared potential to change the world. Albeit often in unclear ways.
In Oxfam’s “Be Humankind” campaign, “solidarity” was in fact itself the proposition. But not solidarity with the cause of the people involved; solidarity with fellow ‘campaigners’! This sort of campaigning is about donors, bonding with other donors, or with celebrities. The cause itself is essentially irrelevant.
The communications limitations of this ‘post-humanitarian’, feel-good model have been particularly well critiqued by Lillie Chouliaraki in her book The Ironic Spectator. However, the counter-argument of the feel-good school is that people simply don’t have the emotional or intellectual bandwidth to cope with the deeper development issues. They need things boiling down to basics. They need marketing that focuses on them, rather than relying on them to empathise with others. And finally, the post-humanitarians would argue, it just works. The results speak for themselves…
Or at least they did. Until, of course, you start to challenge the post-modern, psychological contract of these donations: the fragile moral legitimacy of charities. The deep, structural problem with charities engaging their donors in an essentially self-referential discussion, and forgetting their underlying beneficiaries, is that the donation proposition is never ethically or emotionally grounded in the cause, nor in responsibility to the ‘sufferer’. There is thus no moral responsibility to keep donating, once the good feeling has passed. Donor participation is just a balloon of self-interested, transactional engagement, that can simply go ‘pop’ in response to disillusionment, a better offer or ‘just because’.
Chouliaraki argues that two key things need to change to rein back this feel-good fragility: to reintroduce the voice of the sufferer (albeit in a constructive way) and to reintroduce the relevance of the cause. I interpret these emotional correctives, very simply, as a need for #FeelOKFundraising’. This will be neither victim focused, nor donor focused, but would create resilient value by facilitating relationships between the two.
The sort of Child Sponsorships that our client World Vision and others enable offer a simple illustration of this hybrid, relationship-centred approach.
However it is worth pointing out that even these #FeelOK solutions will only be sustainable if they are based on what really happens on the ground, and if they put the childrens’ substantive needs and experiences front and centre of the fundraising effort. This World Vision know; this they are doing.
Tim Kitchin is client service director and director of consulting at Copper, the digital marketing agency.