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Christian Aid: Making Extrinsic Frames History


Christian Aid: Making Extrinsic Frames History

Jo Chamberlain offers reflections on Christian Aid and their attempts to foreground intrinsic values.
This is a blog by Jo Chamberlain
Jo is a researcher for Christian Aid.

How is it, Finding Frames asks, that while financial support for international development NGOs is increasing, public concern about global poverty is decreasing? Even after the massive Make Poverty History campaign, the report finds that public understanding of the issues is poor, and in the current climate of cuts, even support for overseas aid spending is diminishing.

Finding Frames suggests that the ‘successful’ fundraising strategies are part of the problem causing the lack of public engagement.  The relationship between the organisations and the public has changed.  Members are now supporters, and these supporters are held at arms length and interacted with on a transactional basis.  Making a donation is the full extent of many people’s involvement.  The charity frame dominates the issues of global poverty, where the roles of “powerful giver” and “grateful receiver” are still as fixed as they were in 1985.

The picture of Christian Aid which emerges from its Christian Aid Week material is of an organisation based on intrinsic values, and, to a large extent, using helpful frames to communicate with the public.  The key outcome of its development work is described over and over again as enabling people in poor communities to determine their own futures and to successfully find their own solutions to poverty.  This seems akin to Schwartz’s “self-direction” values. Christian Aid frames itself not as a charity but as a partner. I set out to discover which frames Christian Aid is using to engage the UK public, and whether it is as wedded to the charity and transaction frames as Finding Frames’ analysis of the sector suggests. Using the material produced for Christian Aid Week 2012, I identified the values and frames used to describe Christian Aid’s work overseas, and those used to encourage the UK public to get involved.

This sense of partnership is also evident in the way Christian Aid describes the involvement of UK supporters in its work.  This is framed clearly as an act of solidarity with the poor, revealing the “universalism” values of concern for the welfare of all people.  This relationship of solidarity is also described as reciprocal: people in the UK are beneficiaries of this relationship as the community solutions of people in poor societies have much to teach a Western, consumerist, individualist culture.

But what of Christian Aid Week itself, where the main purpose is for Christian Aid supporters to knock on the doors of strangers and ask for money. Is this not reducing our act of solidarity to a straightforward transaction? There are two reasons why I believe Christian Aid Week is more than just a transaction. Firstly, the transaction takes place face-to-face on the doorstep between members of the public and a supporter of Christian Aid.  This is not an anonymous transaction carried out at arm’s length.

Secondly, most of the collectors are part of a church which supports Christian Aid and which will probably have used the Christian Aid Week material in its Sunday service.  This material builds up to asking the congregation to “Give, Act, Pray” as a response. The transaction is not the only relationship with Christian Aid. In the prayers and the campaign actions there is an understanding that aid on its own cannot end global poverty, there must be structural change.

However, whilst the “Give, Act, Pray” response enables a relationship of solidarity and not just a transaction, not all the Christian Aid Week material provides the opportunity to make this response.  In particular, the red envelope itself, which is understandably focused on “Give,” does not have any pointers to any other response. Nor does the TV ad.  Christian Aid does use purely transactional approaches at times, such as direct mail and telephone fundraising, though this is subject to discussion within the organisation.

Intrinsic values seem to be fundamental to the way Christian Aid operates overseas and with its supporters, and it uses positive, helpful frames in its communication with supporters, who already have some understanding of global poverty and development issues. However, the material likely to reach beyond existing supporters to the wider UK public uses mainly transaction frames, for example the TV advert and the red envelope.  The experience of Make Poverty History suggests that trying to engage the wider public more deeply may be inevitably doomed.  However, key to the Common Cause project is the understanding that values have a dynamic “seesaw” relationship with one another.  Using the charity fundraising frame reinforces it and promotes the underlying extrinsic values, while at the same time weakening the effect of new, more helpful frames.

Already working within many of the principles of Common Cause, Christian Aid recognises the importance of the values and frames agenda.  The response I have received to my research has been positive, and the value placed on partnership in the UK and overseas has been emphasised.  In particular, the face-to-face contact with the public during Christian Aid week is very important to the organisation, which is only possible through a large group of volunteers.  Donors on the doorstep often know the collector as a neighbour, fellow churchgoer or even regular collector for Christian Aid.  Christian Aid suggests that it tries to keep purely transactional activity to a minimum, but recognises its financial success.  What is perhaps less understood is the interaction between values, whereby activities and frames which promote certain values will diminish their opposites. Weighing up the success of transactional fundraising strategies against the unintended consequences of strengthening values associated with transaction frames could be the next step for Christian Aid.

Finding Frames acknowledges that moving away from the transaction frame is a risk for any organisation in terms of its fundraising.  Christian Aid fundraisers are understandably nervous about moving away from tried and tested means, in particular that they will lose out to bigger organisations in the sector.  One organisation could not make the move on its own.  But the need for the sector to change together goes deeper than the financial standing of any one organisation.  The task in hand is more than just changing the transaction frame, but encompasses “rebalancing the dominant values in society” which is “likely to require more than the will of a single NGO or even the entire development sector”.

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