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Study claims people-led fundraising more successful than charity-run campaigns

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The report, Who Owns the Story?, found that donors responded more to a story told directly by the subject.

Fundraising attempts led by those in receipt of the financial help can raise more money and be more effective than those run by charities themselves, new research has found. 

A report by the University of East Anglia (UEA) and University of the Arts London (UAL), published on Friday, found that community or person-led appeals tended to gather more support from donors. 

In partnership with Amref Health Africa, the Who Owns the Story? study involved two appeal packs going head-to-head with supporters, the first time live financial responses to fundraising campaigns have been tested by a charity. 

The researchers aimed to explore how UK audiences respond financially and emotionally to stories of poverty developed and told directly by the image ‘subject’ in their own words, as opposed to fundraising materials designed by the charity.

Two appeal packs were sent out to about 1800 people on Amref UK’s supporter database. 

The first pack was created by Patrick Malachi, a community health worker in Nairobi, Kenya, who controlled all editorial decisions, took, and selected the images, and told the story in his own words, while the second was created by Amref with the help of a professional photographer and told in the voice of the INGO. 

David Girling, from UEA’s School of International Development, said: “This research proves without doubt that it is possible to enable participant-led choices regarding storytelling, and still raise as much money as if you had created the fundraising materials yourself. 

“It challenges the dominant sector opinion that in order to raise funds, stories must be selected and created by professional fundraisers. We hope that the project will inspire other organisations to work in partnership with the people whose stories they share. 

Throughout the research, donors responded to a story told directly by the story subject by recognising the positive challenge to some of the stereotypes INGOs are accused of perpetuating

They said: “It’s good to see the old paternalistic model of charitable donation give way to a realisation that Africans are capable of making their own decisions about how to help their community.”

Charities and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) are often criticised for the use of their imagery and messaging in fundraising appeals. 

While there have been many recent positive examples of shifts towards what is often known as responsible or ethical storytelling from Euro-US based charities telling stories about those outside this region, the power to decide what story is told and how still firmly resides within the fundraising countries.  

Rachel Erskine, communications manager at Amref Health Africa UK, said: “Amref has made a public commitment to ethical storytelling and representation in fundraising and communications. In practice, this means - among other things - creating opportunities for the people we support to tell their own stories directly to the UK public.  

“Partnering with UEA and UAL on ‘Who Owns the Story?’ was a way for us to take that commitment to the next level and really put our money where our morals are by testing the widely-held assumption that differently-told stories won’t move supporters to take action.”

Jess Crombie, of UAL’s London College of Communication, said: “Our results show there is another way of gathering and sharing the stories of people living in poverty around the world.

“It is really about trusting that if we hand the power of editorial decision-making and narrative choice to the people living these stories, we won’t just be doing something ethically sound, we will also tell more powerful, more interesting and ultimately more effective stories.”