Combating Stereotype Porn and Poverty Porn With Asset and Strengths-Based Communications

5 min read

Imagine a world where every nonprofit presents an accurate, strengths-based picture of the people and communities it serves. A world where organizations don’t feel that they have to show sad photos of children who are starving, use gut-wrenching video clips of animals who are sick, or tell endless stories of the despair and suffering of those who are experiencing homelessness just to earn a donor’s dollar. A world where our communities and those who need support within them are recognized not for their weaknesses, but their strengths.

That vision can be a reality if leaders in the nonprofit sector come rally around it. And that’s exactly what we did at our most recent Changemaker Conversations.

Our discussion, which was moderated by Prosper Strategies’ CEO Lindsay Mullen included panelists who are moving the needle on this issue across Chicago’s nonprofit sector:

  • Bridget Hayman from Access Living
  • Edward Wagner from AIDS Foundation of Chicago
  • Docia Buffington from Enlace
  • Mark Thompson from Teamwork Englewood

Each panelist shared their own experiences with exploitative, needs-based communications, and their efforts to move toward assets-based and strengths-based approaches. The conversation also included a lively discussion from our gathered audience of nonprofit leaders. This is a conversation that we hope will continue far beyond our recent event, so today, I’d like to share some of the key takeaways with you. 

Stereotype Porn and Poverty Porn Exist EVERYWHERE

Despite the sector’s good intentions, many nonprofits are still struggling to move past deficit and needs-based approaches to communications, and examples show up everywhere.

“In the disability community, we call it inspiration porn,” Bridget Hayman of Access Living explained. “You’ve probably seen in social media today: images of people who are overcoming their disability to do something extraordinary. The real danger from our perspective is it reinforces a stereotype that people with disabilities need your help…that you need to pay for our healthcare. This  is part of our rhetoric, and it is perpetuated frequently by disability organizations today.”

Docia Buffington of Enlace noted that the root of the problems associated with stereotype porn, poverty porn and needs/deficits-based approaches run deep.

“I don’t think marketing and fundraising is the only place in the nonprofit sector that sees this,” Buffington explained. “These problems are rooted in nonprofit and philanthropy culture and dangerous misrepresentations of communities, happening in the name of representation of communities, every single day.  This comes from inequity and the way hiring happens at nonprofits. Our loudest and biggest nonprofits is where we see this happen the most, and donors play a role as well.”

“This is rooted in systemic racism,” Edward Wagner added. “The Ed Sheeran Red Nose example is a classic offense here. It’s white saviorism at its worst.”

Long-Term Harm of Deficit-Based Communications Outweighs Short-Term Gain

When asked if it was ever acceptable to use stereotype porn, poverty porn, or deficit/needs-based communications in an effort to elicit donor support, our panelists agreed unanimously that it’s not.

“It’s just a cop out to say that it’s ok to use these approaches to get donors to give,” Hayman explained. “Trying to change hearts and minds is just as important to the work our nonprofits are doing as is the almighty dollar. The ripple effect of using inspiration porn will last a lot longer than the new messages that could be equally powerful and could move the organization forward in the right direction. We need to set parameters of integrity and lines that we don’t cross.”

“We’ve got to change this narrative that there’s only one way to get donors to give,” Mark Thompson from Teamwork Englewood added. “We need to get over the biases in our mindsets to get down to do the shoulder-to-shoulder work. We have to start to call funders out for the simplistic approach, and we have to do better.”

We need to get over the biases in our mindsets to get down to do the shoulder-to-shoulder work. We have to start to call funders out for the simplistic approach, and we have to do better. - Mark Thomson, Teamwork Englewood Click To Tweet

Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference

A move away from stereotype porn, poverty porn and deficit/needs-based approaches doesn’t have to be a sweeping change across an entire organization. It can happen in small ways, and anyone within your organization can play a role. In fact, every person on our panel cited specific, personal examples of ways they’re advancing assets and strengths-based approaches. 

On his work to tell strengths-based, accurate stories of the people in his community, Thompson explained: “I bought a camera and I take it with me everywhere I go so I can photograph real people in Englewood living their lives, like the guy selling hot dogs on 63rd and Englewood. I’ll have a question of the day and I’ll ask people coming by Teamwork Englewood so we can hear directly from them about their experiences living in the community.”

Edward Wagner at AIDS Foundation of Chicago is also making regular individual efforts to drive change. “Every day, I’m reminding myself and my co-workers to be willing to take the risk and tell an edgier story. I’ve got to give them ideas about what is possible, so I’m taking that upon myself,” he said. 

As you can tell, we’re passionate about this topic at Prosper Strategies. You can read more of our thoughts about avoiding stereotype porn while still pulling on donor heartstrings here and learn about the role that language plays in nonprofit (and all) marketing here. If you want to go even deeper, watch the replay of our recent webinar “Can Nonprofit Marketing Advance Equity?” with Dorri McWhorter here. Then, add your voice to the conversation. What are you doing toward a more strengths and assets-based approach to communication at your own organization, and how do you feel the sector can band together to continue to advance change in this area?

The Nonprofit Marketing Manifesto

Want more thoughts on evolving nonprofit marketing and communications for the sake of social impact? Read our Nonprofit Marketing Manifesto.


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