When fundraising meets exploitation

by Wendy Walters

[This is the first article in a series of guest posts on professional ethics by graduate students in the Master of Arts (Communication) and the Master of Public Relations degree programs at Mount Saint Vincent University as a part of my Ethics & Law course, a required part of  their graduate programs.]

hospitalFor the past year and a half, I have been a public relations advisor for a regional children’s hospital; I cry a lot at work. No, it’s not because of a hateful boss, frustration or even sadness. Most of the time, I cry tears of inspiration for the incredible humanity I am confronted with as I walk the hallways: the volunteers, the five-year-old who is in late-stage leukemia and shows incredible energy, spirit and bravery, or the cancer doctor who bikes across Canada after a challenge from a patient. There are many reasons to cry sad tears as well, not all stories have a happy ending. Some diseases have no cure.

At our hospital, things like equipment, upgrades, and renovations are largely funded by donors through our Foundation, staffed with its own marketing team concerned with fund development. In fundraising, tears are remarkable things. I’m sure there is a saying somewhere out there in fund development literature that every tear opens that wallet a little wider. But, how far will we go to get this elusive and lucrative emotional response? That’s where I believe my ethics study meets practice.

The first person narrative is a powerful way to bring the subject matter to the audience. The human touch cuts through the clutter of the very segmented and competitive media market. At the hospital, I am involved weekly in assisting with media or feature work that involves finding a child subject for this purpose. We know that telling these stories is necessary, and that the greater good is achieved by more money. Sometimes, I have to wonder if we are exploiting the patients and their situation as a means to achieve our ends.  

In 2007, I attended a keynote address by Dr. Samantha Nutt, co-founder of War Child Canada. Her talk was largely about the ethics and challenges in working with their vulnerable beneficiaries, and how her work is focused on obtaining the necessary support without exploiting the recipient. In her book Damned Nations1, she refers to how the humanitarian movement has created the myth of the poor nebulous “other” and that this ‘othering’ is the lens through which we see all those living in developing nations and what propels us to give. This is often referred to as “poverty porn.”

While a children’s health centre does not propagate the poverty-stricken malnourishment of the third world, the narrative of our “poor sick children” is alive and well. I know this because our office often receives calls from parents wanting to arrange to bring their child in to give away some toys and meet some of the sick kids, to which our reply is always a staunch no. At what point, however, does our concern to preserve the dignity of our patients and their families become procedure?

We currently have a process in place around informed consent due to both health centre policy and Nova Scotia Legislation2.When a family or child consents to participate in a media opportunity for the health centre, my role is to sit with them and discuss the level of exposure and how their participation (or decision not to participate) has no effect on the care they receive. I often wonder about the long-term effects on these children, after participating and being recorded in some of the worst times of their (and their families’) lives. One might have second thoughts on becoming the face of a childhood illness, especially if it is an illness with stigma attached. Also, the families often feel so compelled to “give back” to the hospital (staff person, doctor, equipment, or entire organization) who are helping them convalesce. What if there is an adverse event with that child later in their care? What if the child would like to have privacy a year or two after their treatment?

I believe that healthcare fundraising would benefit from a model of ethics discourse similar to that of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation3, who offers suggestions and solutions for choosing ethical fundraising images for work in developing nations. A good place to start would be to present children and their health situations as they are: complex, dignified, and deserving of empathy rather than pity.

Wendy Walters is a public relations professional and graduate student who reads most about equality and social justice, public relations advocacy and postmodernism.

1. Nutt, S. (2011). Damned nations: Greed, guns, armies, and aid. Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart Ltd.

2. http://novascotia.ca/dhw/phia/

3. http://www.ccic.ca/_files/en/what_we_do/002_ethics_focus_on_ethics.pdf

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your informative and thoughtful post, Wendy. The information here will be helpful and relevant to my own work. Our organization has a program that deals with the street-involved population. On occasion, our street outreach worker receives media requests for interviews and to meet some of his clients. We are very protective of the identity of the clients. The issues the clients frequently deal with include: mental illness, homelessness, prostitution, crime, and drug abuse. These aren’t exactly the kind of issues that usually invoke empathy or admiration – unlike children with serious illnesses. That’s why when the media contact us, we struggle with weighing the opportunity to put a human face to these real problems against protecting the privacy and dignity of the clients – regardless of whether consent was given. It is a difficult situation where you want the public to be more aware and sympathetic but you also don’t want to tread the fine line between help and exploitation. You don’t often think of the street-involved population as vulnerable, particularly if they are adults, but they deserve the same level of respect and protection and the public doesn’t often see that. As a PR professional, I have to consider all of this whenever a “media opportunity” comes our way.

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