Ethics of Status in Nonprofit Communications

I recently came across a podcast by marketing guru Seth Godin. In this episode he talked about the fact that our world revolves around status, that it is in our nature and culture to desire status and to understand where we fit in the hierarchy of our community and in the wider culture. Marketers have been preying on this for decades to get us to buy more things and more expensive things in an effort to boost our status. 

It makes logical sense that this would also be true for nonprofit marketing. Charitable donations can definitely be a status symbol, both in terms of the size of the gift or just the privilege we display when we have the means to make a charitable gift. But how should we think about and evaluate status in marketing and promoting NGO’s and development work? 

Fundraising and advocacy in global development and charitable work is often communicated in terms of the haves and have nots. We are asked to care about the plight of someone who has less opportunity and privilege. Can we spare a bit of money to make their lives better? 

“You have the power to change a child’s life with your gift” 

Statements like this can grant status to the donor. They elevate those who give to a position of power and simultaneously reduce the status of the beneficiary. This message puts the beneficiary into the debt of the donor. It reinforces the need and reliance of the beneficiary on the donor to live even an average life. 

Messages like this can ignore the value and potential of the beneficiary in favor of pandering to the status of the donor. Organizations structuring messaging this way can move donors away from a space of investing in people who have the power to change their communities to that of a simple charitable act. 

While the act of a charitable gift is not a bad thing, it stops short of something much more powerful, connection and the opportunity to enter into community with the beneficiary and the organization with the goal of transforming the situation faced by the less fortunate in the community. 

As donors, it is easy to see need and feel the urge to provide assistance. But if we pause and reflect on the messages we are receiving, specifically on how they make us feel, we might find that we are being influence by status. The statement “You have the power to change a child’s life with your gift” plays to our desire to be significant, to feel like we are really making a difference in the life of someone less fortunate. 

Imagine with me for a moment. You are on vacation in a foreign country. As you are walking from your hotel to a restaurant for dinner you pass a child sitting on a piece of cardboard with a small bowl begging for donations. Instantly you feel uncomfortable. Should I give the child something? If I give to them does it mean they will be on the street longer and not attend school?  What will people think if I don’t give? What kind of person am I if I don’t give to a child like this?

The whole range of emotions that we go through in situations like this give us clues to status. Also the physical positioning of these encounters is often give indications of status, with the giver standing tall and the receiver sitting, kneeling or bowing in supplication.

The most pressing question to me is “How does that encounter make me feel about that person, and my status in relation to theirs –  guilt, pity, pride, significance? All of these detract from the status of the fellow human being I am interacting with. They remove relationship and equality rather than build relationship and human value. 

When we elevate the status of the donor we are decreasing the status of the beneficiary. 

A more honoring and ethical approach to messaging is to focus on building connection between the donor and the beneficiary, a connection based the idea that each beneficiary has the potential to impact and lead community growth if they receive the opportunities and support they need to reach their full potential. 

Our goal with communications should be to build connection through the messages we send to donors. We should aim to bring all the stakeholders to an even playing field where relationships can be formed and the needs are addressed as mutual problems that require the equal participation of the entire community. 

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