(Photo by samer daboul from Pexels)
Let’s do a little role playing this month, shall we?
Imagine you work for a local nonprofit as a mid-level fundraiser. One of your responsibilities is your annual report, and you choose clients each year to highlight alongside the other stats and updates that go into the report.
Your organization has worked with a photographer in the past that takes amazing photos and is super committed to your mission. This will be your first time working with the photographer, and you’ve gotten approval to have them photograph clients for the annual report. Ahead of the project, you have a meeting with the photographer to ensure you’re both on the same page.
You start the meeting by discussing your org’s stylistic preferences for photos — essentially, your commitment to avoiding trauma or poverty porn at all costs. You back up the conversation by sharing your brand guidelines that also clearly lay out your policy on photography and videography and how it should celebrate clients, not highlight their trauma. The photographer acknowledges they understand and are committed to showcasing your mission to the best of their ability. Your superior and your CEO are both present for this conversation.
The day of your first shoot arrives, and the plan is to visit two clients. At each location, there are two things to achieve: photos of the client in a variety of settings, and an interview between you and the client so you can get to know them and how your program has impacted them. The photographer and a colleague who has accompanied you are asked to sit in a separate room during the interview to protect the client’s privacy.
During the interview, the first client gets emotional when talking about how the staff at your organization have changed their life. You’re having a really raw moment; the client is crying and you’re holding space for them to process their feelings, when suddenly the photographer enters the room and starts taking photos of the crying client.
What do you do?
Seriously, what the hell do you do when someone oversteps as offensively like that?
That’s the situation a friend of mine was faced with recently. They did everything right ahead of time: they met with the photographer, they explained their policy on photos, they got verbal commitment from the photographer to not take photos that would exploit the client, and they specifically asked the photographer not to join the interview.
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But here they were, in the exact situation they had hoped to avoid, and unsure of how to proceed.
Of course, my initial reaction was “you tell that photographer to get the f*** out, right now!” because what other answer could there be?
But the client didn’t seem to notice the photographer or mind their presence, and my friend correctly deduced that calling strong attention to it like that would only escalate the situation. They wanted to preserve the space they were holding for the client without interrupting their flow of emotions. They didn’t want to break the existing calm by calling the photographer out in the moment. They chose to end the interview but continued talking to the client until the client finished processing their emotions, without addressing the photographer directly while in the room.
I very much applaud the commitment to holding space for the client. However, if I had been in the room, I would have (as calmly as my rage-filled body would allow me) asked the photographer to please leave the room. And then ensured that they immediately left the room before turning my attention back to the client to apologize and ask if they wanted to continue or conclude the interview.
After the interview ended, I would have pulled the photographer aside to tell them that it was not okay to cross the boundaries we had communicated. With clear, concise, and strong wording so the photographer is aware of how serious of a breach of trust this was. The interview was meant to be private, and the photos should be deleted immediately. We can only continue our working relationship if the photographer re-commits to the boundaries we already established; if they can’t respect those boundaries then we will need to terminate our work together. Full stop.
Fundraisers wear a lot of hats. We aren’t just in charge of how we share stories about our organization’s work — we are in charge of how those stories are collected.
You could, and many probably would, just roll your eyes after the photographer barges in and continue your interview anyway. In fact, you could have given them access to the interview from the start. And then used those photos of the client crying to exemplify how traumatic their experience was before your organization intervened. That’s textbook white saviorism and I’m not here for it. That’s not the kind of story I want to tell, that’s not the kind of story that treats your client as an equal, and that’s not the kind of organization I would want to support.
So, to those of you out there who are fundraisers, marketers, and storytellers — what would you do?
Or, more importantly, what will you do when confronted with a similar situation? Odds are, it’s going to happen, and you’ll need to be prepared to respond in the moment when it does.-30-
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