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When raising money for your human service nonprofit, it’s important to maintain the dignity of the people you serve, even as you motivate gifts from a broad base of donors.

Fundraising professionals at human services and international relief organizations can find themselves facing a dilemma when it comes to marketing: how do you draw attention to the needs of the population your organization serves without perpetuating negative stereotypes?

If your organization’s messaging isn’t frank about the challenges that the people you serve are facing, you can’t build a case for support. But if your messaging makes this population out to be one-dimensional, your fundraising raises a host of ethical issues . . . and might not be effective in the long-term.

The importance of identifying the problem

The goal of a fundraising appeal—regardless of channel—is to raise money. To that end, your appeal hasn’t accomplished its purpose if it doesn’t motivate potential donors to give to your cause. In order to motivate your donors, you must identify the problem your organization will solve and how exactly you’ll solve it. And this requires stating plainly what is lacking and not shying away from the challenges that the people you serve encounter.

If you don’t include a clear problem statement, then it’s difficult to convince the reader to give. Your would-be donor skims the appeal and wonders, Why does this organization need me and my money?  What is their purpose in contacting me?

Take, for example, an organization raising money for food boxes. They wouldn’t want to send out a direct mail appeal that focuses exclusively on a family’s aspirations without acknowledging the fact that they have to choose between paying the electric bill and buying groceries. It’s the tragic decision that makes the appeal for support meaningful—and motivating.

Maintaining dignity

At the same time, nonprofit professionals should take care to maintain the dignity of the people they are serving. This applies to fundraising messaging, as well.

It should go without saying, but the people you serve are not objects to be exploited for shock value or the financial gain of your organization. You should avoid relying on stereotypes, even if stereotypes “sell” (at least in the short term). Besides being problematic in itself, this approach could provoke backlash from the community you serve as well as your intended audience.

Your messaging should focus on showing your readers that the individuals you serve are people just like them, even if their circumstances are vastly different. One of my colleagues worked for an organization that provides aid to people in Africa, and their style guide required that the visual and verbal messaging always depict the people positively, even if they were living in abject poverty. Their approach provided a stark contrast to the common trope of unhappy people living in filth, looking miserable and helpless.


Both of these photos depict African children in difficult circumstances, but their visual messaging is vastly different.

This dignity-first thinking should apply to written copy, as well. For example, the phrase “people experiencing homelessness” is admittedly wordy compared to “the homeless,” but it acknowledges that these individuals are people first and foremost and that being homeless doesn’t define them. The first phrase is empowering and acknowledges the individual’s ability to get the help they need to make positive changes.

Some practical tips

How can you ensure that your fundraising messaging engages the donor in solutions while avoiding stereotypes?

Here are three quick tips to keep people at the center of your appeals, all while maintaining their dignity:

  • Take the time to conduct thoughtful interviews with the people you're serving.Ask the people you serve to speak about their lives, goals, and needs and how your organization is helping them. Incorporate their direct quotes into your marketing wherever possible and use the interviews to make your copy focused on their story. Besides remaining faithful to the people you’re serving, you will keep your messaging concrete, human, and relatable—which will ultimately prove more effective than relying on generalities and statistics.
  • When visiting the people you serve and conducting interviews, take photographs (with their permission) instead of relying on stock images.Depending on the circumstances, you could even consider letting the people you serve take photos so you can see life from their perspective. One of our clients in Africa has provided training to an individual in their village so he can take photographs for their fundraising appeals. These photos have been effective and show the village and the organization’s work through his eyes. Also, it’s important to make sure that you receive permission from your subject(s) to use the images and stories in marketing materials.
  • Assess your current marketing and create a style guide that outlines words and phrases to use or avoid and gives direction for graphics and overall tone. Make sure this guide is distributed to all your designers, writers, photographers, and vendors. This will ensure cohesion in your branding and save time by clarifying expectations at the outset of a project.

You need to raise money off of your fundraising appeals, but you want to preserve your beneficiaries’ dignity while you do that. It is vital, therefore, that your nonprofit’s messaging honestly depicts the needs of the people you serve and offers the donor the opportunity to participate in solutions while speaking to their shared humanity. By addressing both elements of the equation, you ensure that your appeal will have its intended positive impact, and you will create messaging that has urgency, relevance, and authenticity.

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