By now you will have seen the altercation between David Lammy MP and Stacey Dooley, in which Lammy called out Dooley for perpetuating a “white saviour” narrative when posting a photo of herself on Instagram holding a Ugandan child during a Comic Relief trip.
I really rate Stacey Dooley as a broadcaster and Comic Relief as a charity – but was so disappointed by the defence that Comic Relief has raised “over £1billion” for good work. No one is suggesting Comic Relief stops their development work. This is simply a question of how you frame a story.
The way you represent people is EVERYTHING. The way we frame stories holds power. It influences self esteem, media narratives and dinner table conversations – and with this great power comes great responsibility.
At GOOD agency, we’ve been thinking about this a lot. As people who produce fundraising campaigns, we are reflecting on how we represent people and how we frame their stories. We haven’t always got it right. We need to show a need – but cannot show people as needy, helpless or hopeless. We hold a moral responsibility to represent people truthfully, with agency and complexity – but also our latest results show that this two-dimensional white saviour narrative isn’t even the most effective way to fundraise anymore.
From a moral perspective – using a benevolent, white, western celebrity narrator, often holding a young African children (where are the parents??) carries on a colonial lie that the African continent is helpless, in need of Western instruction. In reality, development organisations know the most effective way to deliver aid is to get local people directing, resourcing and owning projects to solve problems for themselves. Africa has 10 of the world’s fastest growing economies with a blossoming middle class that is increasingly taking the lead in tackling global poverty. Immigration means more people in the UK will have an African friend, relative or neighbour, which shifts our understanding of the cultures development agencies work in – and it means that more of our British audience are BAME donors themselves. Increasingly the white saviour narrative of fundraising will butt heads with the reality of how these charities actually work. We have a moral obligation to tell the truth but also – we’re now having to work hard to put the white saviour into the story, which is just weird.
But more than this – the white saviour story isn’t even the most effective way to fundraise any more. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this story so many times that it’s just plain boring. Communications need to be fresh and different to be effective and this story now feels like a broken record.
It’s morally right, but it’s also much more effective when communities tell their own fundraising stories – with charities taking a step back and acting merely as facilitators. Take our Tombohuaun appeal for WaterAid. We worked closely with a rural community in Sierra Leone called Tombohuaun that was about to receive a clean water pump for the first time. The community told their own stories across tube panels, Instagram stories, Facebook chatbots and more. The personality, connection and empathy built by this approach made it WaterAid’s most successful aid match appeal ever, raising £4.2m before matched funding. Similarly, we love Plan International UK’s charming new child sponsorship DRTV, which hands control of the camera (literally) to a classful of sponsored Ghanaian school children to great effect. It’s a privilege to give our platforms over to lesser heard voices from around the world, to strengthen and amplify them.
The most offensive part of this whole Dooley-debacle is her and Comic Relief’s assertion that David Lammy should himself visit the development projects to promote their story. David is actually quite busy mopping up the colonial legacy of racism here in the UK, thank you very much, resolving Windrush immigration cases and campaigning for more representative BAME intakes at Oxbridge. Why do we insist black people bear the emotional labour of correcting systemic racism?
We, the UK fundraising sector, write the concepts, direct the shoots and frame the presentation of these stories. It’s our responsibility to change the narrative. It certainly doesn’t help that fundraising has one of the lowest levels of BAME representation of any sector in the UK, something we’ve been challenging at GOOD agency by setting up The Change Collective with the Institute of Fundraising.
It will take creativity and experimentation to find a new fundraising narrative. We might not get it right first time, but we must try. If not for the moral case, for the sustainable fundraising return.
White saviours don’t work anymore.
NB. We want to credit @nomorewhitesaviours who inspired much of this piece. They’re a Uganda-based collective challenging the white saviour narrative, check them out on Instagram for more on the topic. We also want to credit @barbiesavior for the picture.