The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies




Ethical Insights for Fundraising Videos

Anna Taft, Skidmore College

UNICEF Ambassador Alyssa Milano raises her hand holding two coins and says in a deadly serious voice: “These two quarters. It’s never been easier to save the life of a child.” Then a series of dejected, young black faces appear on the screen, the only motion provided by the Ken Burns effect as the camera pans up toward their haunting eyes. This fundraising video suggests that black and brown children are helplessly in need and that the pocket change donated by an American viewer can save their lives.[1] It reinforces the myth of the white savior, takes the children entirely out of context, obscures the existence of any family or community in which they might be embedded, and denies them the slightest bit of agency.[2] In doing so, it dehumanizes the beneficiaries of UNICEF’s programs and further entrenches the international hierarchy that maintains economic inequality. This video is just one example of the many ways in which the development project has been implicated in strengthening international hierarchy and the stereotypes that undergird it. In recent years, however, some organizations have made an effort to counteract this “poverty porn” and produce fundraising materials that evoke the humanity of the intended beneficiaries and combat the stereotypes.[3] Insights from ethical theorists of different perspectives, including Judith Butler, Emmanuel Levinas, Martha Nussbaum, Joseph Marshall III, and Maria Lugones, could inform and strengthen this critical practice. These philosophers’ concerns with the category of the human, relationships to the “Other,” the multiplicity of voices in any group, the convergence of values in different cultures, and multiple worlds of sense can help organizations involved in thoughtful development work seek support while simultaneously highlighting the humanity, agency, contemporaneity, and creativity of people in the communities with which they collaborate.

Some recent video work by several organizations has made positive strides in confronting the stereotypes of aid and seeking more ethical representation. One campaign in particular, Stop the Pity by Mama Hope, leads in this endeavor. Through a number of videos in this campaign, including “Not Your Mama’s Mamas,” “African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes,” “The Women of Nyamonge Present: Netball,” and others, Mama Hope emphasizes the humanity that beneficiaries of the organization’s projects share with donors.[4] The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund also collects exemplary stereotype-busting videos as nominees for its Golden Radiator Award. Nominees include Oxfam’s “Oxfam and a Rice-Growing Revolution in Liberia” and Plan UK’s “I’ll Take it from Here – Because I am a Girl”.[5] These fundraising videos are a refreshing departure from the tradition of portraying beneficiaries as passive victims in need of foreign saviors. However, they could go still farther in encouraging ethical perception of others, as will become clear below.

Ethical theorists Martha Nussbaum and Judith Butler illuminate the central importance of the category of the human and how it gets defined, and this concern can guide the design of ethical videos. Nussbaum’s human rights approach grows from a universal concept of the human being. She uses the idea of characteristic functions to define the human being, and points out “that we need to think not only about getting the concept right but also about getting the right beings admitted under the concept.”[6] She lauds “the great power of the conception of the human as a source of moral claims,” arguing that:

Acknowledging the other person as a member of the very same kind would have generated a sense of affiliation and a set of moral and educational duties. That is why, to those bent on shoring up their own power, the stratagem of splitting the other off from one’s own species seems so urgent and so seductive. But to deny humanness to beings with whom one lives in conversation and interaction is a fragile sort of self-deceptive stratagem, vulnerable to sustained and consistent reflection, and also to experiences that cut through self-deceptive rationalization.[7]

Video seems to be a promising medium for demonstrating the humanity of those who have historically been portrayed as outside of the category of the human. Several Mama Hope videos succeed in emphasizing the humanity of people often relegated to flat stereotypes. “African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes” and “The Women of Nyamonge Present: Netball,” for example, highlight the humanity of their protagonists and give opportunities for Western viewers to identify with those featured as fellow human beings. By portraying different personalities and senses of humor, displaying the protagonists’ passion for sports, and juxtaposing ordinary men with clips from movies that depict African men as inhuman, they inspire empathy and understanding. Organizations seeking to raise funds for development projects can also cut through the deceptions that depict others as not quite fully human through videos like these that highlight the humanity of community members engaged in the projects.

The category of the human is central in Butler’s ethics, also, though she is more concerned than Nussbaum with its exclusionary uses. Butler proclaims:

I propose to start, and to end, with the question of the human (as if there were any other way for us to start or end!). We start here not because there is a human condition that is universally shared—this is surely not yet the case. The question that preoccupies me in the light of recent global violence is, Who counts as human?[8]

For Butler, it is not enough simply to include more people into the category of the human; rather, we must question the category itself and how it gets constructed. She argues, “[i]t is not a matter of a simple entry of the excluded into an established ontology, but an insurrection at the level of ontology, a critical opening up of the questions, What is real? Whose lives are real? How might reality be remade?”[9] Videos are opportunities to open up these questions. Butler suggests that representations may have a particular ability to gesture beyond themselves toward the ineffable humanity they cannot portray. Drawing on Levinas’ concept of the face, she explains how representation can reveal humanity, arguing:

For Levinas, then, the human is not represented by the face. Rather, the human is indirectly affirmed in that very disjunction that makes representation impossible, and this disjunction is conveyed in the impossible representation. For representation to convey the human, then, representation must not only fail, but it must show its failure. There is something unrepresentable that we nevertheless seek to represent, and this paradox must be retained in the representation we give.

In this sense, the human is not identified with what is represented but neither is it identified with the unrepresentable; it is, rather, that which limits the success of any representational practice. The face is not “effaced” in this failure of representation, but is constituted in that very possibility.[10]

Representations, such as photographs and videos, then, should have a special opportunity to reveal the humanity of their subjects, not by succeeding in representing them, but by revealing their inability to represent them. Butler explains, “[t]he critical image, if we can speak that way, works this difference in the same way as the Levinasian image; it must not only fail to capture its referent, but show this failing.”[11] She suggests, furthermore, that simply calling the frame of the representation into question can show this failing. She argues:

To frame the frame seems to involve a certain highly reflexive overlay of the visual field, but, in my view, this does not have to result from rarified forms of reflexivity. On the contrary, to call the frame into question is to show that the frame never quite contained the scene it was meant to limn, that something was already outside, which made the sense of the inside possible, recognizable. The frame never quite determined precisely what it is we see, think, recognize, apprehend. Something exceeds the frame that troubles our sense of reality; in other words, something occurs that does not conform to our established understanding of things.[12]

The appropriate degree of reflexivity for creating representations that reveal the ineffable humanity of their subjects is a very interesting question. Linguist Laura McPherson has shared a video that is not designed for fundraising but illustrates a high degree of reflexivity. In “Traditional Dogon Medicine,” McPherson and two Dogon villagers laugh over her difficulty expressing her questions in Tommo So, and after they offer some brief descriptions of their medical techniques, the Dogon men turn the conversation directly to the fact of the interview.[13] “Asking questions. They like asking questions,” says the elder. “They really like asking questions,” agrees the chief, and then he gestures at the video camera, saying, “this thing, it is capturing everything we do.”[14] The subjects of the video spontaneously frame the frame, catapulting to the foreground its inability to contain them or to dictate an interpretation of them. This high degree of reflexivity, however, although striking, encourages not engagement but rather ironic retreat from participation. In a video that is designed to encourage engagement, this high level of reflexivity would likely be too much, and Butler suggests that it is not necessary. Perhaps a smaller gesture is enough to call the frame into question and draw the viewer beyond it to seek connection with the reality that eludes the frame.

One video that offers just enough reflexivity is “Oxfam and a Rice-Growing Revolution in Liberia.”[15] Throughout the video, Liberian rice farmer Susanna Edwards demonstrates her humanity and agency by describing her work and struggles with a charming confidence. She prepares food, chuckling as she says “we eat rice constantly,” then shows her field, sifts her rice, and gestures broadly as she describes her hope of becoming self-sufficient soon.[16] At the end, she looks upward and asks with a sheepish grin, “am I alright?” A voice off-screen answers “perfect,” and Susanna giggles as the final titles roll.[17] This exchange seems to frame the frame just enough to lead the viewer farther into identification with Susanna, making it evident that her humanity runs much deeper than the video was able to capture. Gentle reflexive devices like this one can be a useful means for fundraising videos to beckon the viewer beyond the frame and into engagement.

Simply providing opportunities for representation of others and reflexively gesturing toward the frame of the representation is not enough, however. Butler points out that representation is not always humanizing and that it is important to consider the ways images are used. She argues:

When we consider the ordinary ways that we think about humanization and dehumanization, we find the assumption that those who gain representation, especially self-representation, have a better chance of being humanized, and those who have no chance to represent themselves run a greater risk of being treated as less than human, or indeed, not regarded at all. We have a paradox before us because Levinas has made clear that the face is not exclusively a human face, and yet it is a condition for humanization. On the other hand, there is the use of the face, within the media, in order to effect a dehumanization.[18]

Even in representing literal faces, “we have to ask in what narrative function these images are mobilized.”[19] Children’s faces are, in fact, a central feature of the UNICEF “Save Children’s Lives” video, but they are used to evoke not the humanity of the children but rather an inhuman victimhood. To explore the function of the images, it is important to consider both strategic location and strategic formation.[20] Strategic location refers to “the author’s position in a text with regard to the…material.”[21] In the UNICEF video, spokeswoman Milano is positioned as the American who can speak for the nameless, voiceless victims. She represents the authoritative voice of the producer as a narrator entirely separated from the scenes of children. In the Oxfam video, by contrast, Susanna is positioned as a woman who can speak for herself, address the viewer directly (though with the aid of subtitles, in case the viewer has difficulty understanding her Liberian English), and testify to the changes made possible by Oxfam’s work. The producer makes herself known only through her approbatory response to Susanna’s doubts about her performance, thereby positioning herself as Susanna’s supporter (as well as evaluator). Strategic formation, meanwhile, “is a way of analyzing the relationship between texts and the way in which groups of texts, types of texts, even textual genres, acquire mass, density, and referential power among themselves and thereafter in the culture at large.”[22] In terms of strategic formation, the UNICEF video sits comfortably in the tradition of pitiful images designed to evoke sympathy or guilt that has been derisively labeled “poverty porn.”[23] Mama Hope’s Stop the Pity campaign, by contrast, explicitly challenges a genre that the producers find problematic. The “African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes” video directly responds to the tendency of Hollywood films to portray African men as violence machines. Given the pervasiveness of dehumanizing stereotypes, it seems important that fundraising videos challenge this type of strategic formation, or at least deliberately set themselves apart from it in some way.

Portrayals of others should also allow for them to be seen in their particular alterity rather than as entries in an all-encompassing array. Levinas insists on the idea of openness to otherness that is truly unfamiliar, in an infinity of unknown possibilities, rather than seeing it as merely another variation in a totalizing system. This insight should also inform an ethical fundraising video. Levinas argues:

The Other is not other with a relative alterity as are, in a comparison, even ultimate species, which mutually exclude one another but still have their place within the community of a genus—excluding one another by their definition, but calling for one another by this exclusion, across the community of their genus. The alterity of the Other does not depend on any quality that would distinguish him from me, for a distinction of this nature would precisely imply between us that community of genus which already nullifies alterity.[24]

This point is especially urgent for representations of development work, because the development project itself issued from a totalizing hierarchy of civilizations. In Liberalism and Empire, Uday Singh Mehta describes how early liberals universalized a teleology of civilizational progress, fitting each extant society into a location along a hierarchical and totalizing continuum.[25] This perspective, based on “the assumption that the strange is just a variation on what is already familiar, because both the familiar and the strange are deemed to be merely specific instances of a familiar structure of generality,” provided justification not only for imperialism, but also for the development project.[26] Those societies that were “backward” on this continuum must be brought forward by those that were more “advanced”; thus the necessity of “development.” Whether an organization interested in Levinas’ ethical insights should be involved in development at all is a legitimate question far beyond the scope of this essay, but here let it suffice to say that there are projects that can be supported in good conscience, as long as great care is taken as to the form and context of the support. Mama Hope’s videos “Call Me Hope” and “Alex Presents: Commando demonstrate human similarities between Americans and “Africans,” but they do so through American pop culture, reinforcing the international hierarchy by suggesting that what we have in common emanates from an American “center” to an African “periphery.” Even in the Oxfam rice video, Susanna says, “when they empower you…,” making Oxfam the primary actor, necessary to bring her forward into agency in the present. “Not Your Mama’s Mamas,” on the other hand, directly confronts the hierarchy of advanced and backwards by pointing out that the Maasai have been mobile banking since 2007, “probably longer than you.”[27] Even a totalizing system that is not overtly hierarchical is problematic, as Levinas suggests and Liisa Malkki corroborates. Malkki explains how conceptions of the world as a community of nations serve to exclude those who do not fit neatly into national categories, to obscure power relations, and to domesticate difference. She observes that the family of nations system “constitutes the differences between national units in a way that is dehistoricizing, depoliticizing, and ultimately homogenizing of differences that exceed or escape the limits of internationalist ‘diversity.’”[28] Plan UK’s “I’ll Take it From Here – Because I am a Girl” video suggests a family of nations attitude in its opening sequence of faces of girls from many different nations. It can be very tempting, indeed, to create sets of images that suggest a totalizing system, and Levinas’ focus on infinity is an important caution.

Dialogue, instead of totalizing arrays, is a useful tool for ethical fundraising videos to reveal unexpected otherness. Levinas points out the critical importance of dialogue in an ethical relationship. He explains:

Speech cuts across vision. In knowledge or vision the object seen can indeed determine an act, but it is an act that in some way appropriates the “seen” to itself, integrates it into a world by endowing it with signification, and, in the last analysis, constitutes it. In discourse the divergence that inevitably opens up between the Other as my theme and the Other as my interlocutor, emancipated from the theme that seemed for a moment to hold him, forthwith contests the meaning I ascribe to my interlocutor. The formal structure of language thereby announces the ethical inviolability of the Other.[29]

In dialogue, the Other has the opportunity to disrupt the image that would allow the self to appropriate the Other, assign the Other to a location in a totalizing system, and determine the interpretation of the Other. McPherson’s “Traditional Dogon Medicine” video is a fine example of how dialogue permits the Other to disrupt the interviewer’s framing and articulate a new meaning for the interaction, because the subjects turn their attention away from the interviewer’s questions to discuss what interests them, which is the fact of the interview itself and the tendency of Americans to ask so many questions. Of the fundraising videos considered here, only “African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes” demonstrates dialogue. In this case, the men in the video enter into dialogue with the viewer, disrupting the viewer’s stereotypes. Dialogue is a fruitful device for fundraising videos to incorporate.

Nussbaum’s concern with the multiplicity of voices within any group is also a valuable insight for representations of development projects. She emphasizes the importance of refusing to treat groups as monoliths, explaining that “[r]eal cultures contain plurality and conflict, tradition, and subversion”[30] and insisting that a group is “not a fused organism but a plurality of individuals, held together in some ways but usually differing in many others. The voices that are heard when ‘the group’ speaks are not magically the voice of a fused organic entity; they are the voices of the most powerful individuals.”[31] Far too often, in development discourse, enormous groups have been treated as monoliths. The most common example is “Africa,” treated as one entity, as if it were a country in the family of nations. Unfortunately, Mama Hope’s otherwise powerful videos often fall into this trap. For example, in “Call Me Hope,” the two halves of the split screen are labeled “United States” and “Africa,” as if those are entries at the same level of specificity in a totalizing classification.[32] Even “Not Your Mama’s Mamas concludes with the statement that “Mama Hope has empowered 150,000 people throughout Africa,” when in reality the organization’s work is confined to Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, and Uganda, just four of the fifty-five recognized states on the African continent.[33] “African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes” and “The Women of Nyamonge Present: Netball” each show four voices, which is better than one, but the four voices extend basically the same message and purport to represent more: “The Women of Nyamonge” in the case of Netball.[34] Simply dropping “the” from the title could help reduce the impression that a few voices can speak for all in a community. More generally, fundraising videos can show multiple voices and divergent points of view within a community, and can resolutely refuse to use overly generalized categories such as “Africa.”

Nussbaum and Joseph Marshall III appreciate the convergence of values in different cultures, and that awareness could also inform fundraising videos. Nussbaum asserts, “I understand a human right to be a claim of an especially urgent and powerful sort, one that can be justified by an ethical argument that can command a broad cross-cultural consensus,” and suggests that such consensus is rather common.[35] Marshall, meanwhile, details the Lakota understanding of a set of important virtues and asserts that “[t]he application of virtue is the positive core of any culture, society, or nation.”[36] “Call me Hope suggests a convergence of values, but ones based on U.S. pop culture rather than an actual broad-based consensus. Perhaps fundraising videos could demonstrate the importance of shared virtues and how they find expression in different cultural contexts.

Still another strategy for ethical fundraising videos to employ is the idea of multiple but overlapping worlds. Maria Lugones introduces the idea of multiple worlds of sense, asserting that one act can carry different meanings simultaneously in different worlds of sense. Lugones argues, “I think that there are many worlds, not autonomous, but intertwined semantically and materially, with a logic that is sufficiently self-coherent and sufficiently in contradiction with others to constitute an alternative construction of the social.”[37] She explains her concept of world-traveling as a way of appreciating the plurality of meanings: “‘World’-traveling is one of those ways of keeping oneself focused on resistance, one that enables us to exercise the multiple visions, multiple sensings, and multiple sense makings.”[38] She points out that it is difficult to see the interpretations corresponding with two different worlds at the same time, noting that “[i]f you see oppression, you tend not to see resistance.”[39] Nevertheless, the same act “can be read either as a mistake or as sabotage…the act may be read both ways. Both readings may coexist and one person may read the act both ways and, importantly, intend the act to be read both ways.”[40] Plan UK’s “I’ll Take it From Here – Because I am a Girl” video shows its heroine as both resistant and oppressed, demonstrating two different interpretations of her situation.[41] Perhaps fundraising videos could also demonstrate multiple interpretations in multiple worlds. At the least, they could offer viewers the opportunity for “world-traveling,” by bringing them into the logic of another’s world.

Organizations interested in ethical representation can create video campaigns based on these ethical insights. Such a campaign should highlight the humanity of the community members involved in the work and frame its own framing just enough to evoke the humanity beyond the representations. It should set itself apart from the formation of “poverty porn,” and attend to the strategic location of the producer and any narrators. It must resolutely refuse to use totalizing systems, instead allowing dialogue to reveal the unexpected. Presenting multiple voices and being as specific as possible about groups, it can eschew allowing one voice to represent all in a group. The convergence of values emerging from different cultural contexts and the multiple interpretations of actions through the lenses of different “worlds” may also be effective points to demonstrate through video.

One approach could be to highlight diversity and similarity, among community members and between organization representatives and community partners. For example, one video could point to the different experiences of a set of twins whose close bond endures despite the very different trajectories of their lives. Perhaps an analogy could be drawn between their experiences, as people with identical genetic makeup but divergent educational and economic opportunities, and the different experiences of donors and community partners. The twins’ mutual support and appreciation could be an example to donors who want to enter into relationship with community members with life experiences very different from their own. Another possibility could focus on the relationship between people of different religions in a community where they collaborate closely, showing how neighbors of different faiths celebrate and share with each other. This example could also inspire viewers to collaborate with people who are different from them. Other videos, meanwhile, could juxtapose organization volunteers, trustees, or donors with community partners of similar professions or positions. They could reveal similar concerns and values and then be seen working together, or they could enter into dialogue with unexpected results.

Another approach could be to focus each of a set of videos on one shared virtue, such as generosity, respect, or perseverance. A sequence of shots could show how that virtue is expressed in the various cultures of places where the organization works, and then bring them together into a call to action to express that virtue through collaboration with the organization. Fundraising videos can also make use of reflexive gestures, such as cutting from a close-up to a wider shot that reveals something unexpected nearby, including “off the record” comments similar to Susanna Edwards’ question about her performance, or showing subjects investigating the camera, that call their framing into question and invite the viewer beyond the video into the reality.

The ethical insights of Judith Butler, Emmanuel Levinas, Martha Nussbaum, Joseph Marshall III, and Maria Lugones can all inform development organizations’ representation of their work in general, and their fundraising videos in particular. An ethical campaign could incorporate Nussbaum’s insistence on inclusion of all into the category of the human, Butler’s awareness of the ability of a representation to evoke humanity by revealing its own failure, Levinas’ insistence on eschewing a totalizing system and the ethical power of dialogue, Marshall’s depiction of virtues that are shared by different cultures but embodied differently in each, and Lugones’ understanding of the multiple worlds of sense that can provide conflicting interpretations of the same situation. By creating such a campaign, development organizations can contribute in a small way to more ethical representations and more ethical interactions between people of very different backgrounds.


Works Cited

Butler, Judith. 2009. Frames of war: When is life grievable? London: Verso.

Butler, Judith. 2004. Precarious life: The powers of mourning and violence. London: Verso.

Cole, Teju. 2012. “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic (March 21, 2012).

Dortonne, Natalie. 2015. “The dangers of poverty porn.” CNN (December 24, 2015).

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1969. Totality and infinity: An essay on exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Lugones, María. Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing coalition against multiple oppressions. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Malkki, Liisa. 1994. “Citizens of humanity: Internationalism and the imagined community of nations.” Diaspora 3.1: 41–68.

Mama Hope. “African men. Hollywood stereotypes.” YouTube Video, 2:40, published April 25, 2012,

Mama Hope. “Alex presents: Commando.” YouTube Video, 3:19, published February 8, 2011,

Mama Hope. “Call me hope.” YouTube video, 2:15, published November 7, 2011,

Mama Hope. “Not your mama’s mamas.” YouTube video, 2:18, published 15 Jun 2014,

Mama Hope. “The Women of Nyamonge present: Netball.” YouTube Video, 1:43, published March 8, 2013,

Marshall III, Joseph M. 2002. The Lakota way: Stories and lessons for living. New York: Penguin Compass. Kindle Edition.

McPherson, Laura. “Traditional Dogon medicine.” YouTube Video, 2:36, published March 19, 2012,

Mehta, Uday Singh. 1999. Liberalism and empire. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. 1998. Sex and social justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Oxfam GB. “Oxfam and a rice growing revolution in Liberia.” YouTube Video, 1:30, published December 26, 2013,

Plan UK. “I’ll take it from here – Because I am a girl.” YouTube Video, 2:50, published August 16, 2013,

Said, Edward W. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

UNICEF USA. “Help UNICEF Save Children's Lives - Give Your Monthly Support Today,” YouTube Video, 2:00, published May 4, 2012,



[1] UNICEF USA, “Help UNICEF Save Children's Lives”

[2] See, for example, Cole, Teju, “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” passim.

[3] See, for example, Dortonne, Natalie, “The Dangers of Poverty Porn.”


[5] See and

[6] Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 39.

[7] Ibid., 50.

[8] Butler, Precarious Life, 20.

[9] Ibid., 33.

[10] Ibid., 144, emphasis in original.

[11] Ibid., 146, emphasis in original.

[12] Butler, Frames of War, 9.


[14] Ibid.


[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Butler, Precarious Life, 141.

[19] Ibid., 143.

[20] Said, Orientalism, 20.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Dortonne, “The Dangers of Poverty Porn,” passim.

[24] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 194.

[25] Mehta, Liberalism and Empire, passim.

[26] Ibid., 20.


[28] Malkki, “Citizens of Humanity,” 58.

[29] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 195.

[30] Nussbam, Sex and Social Justice, 37.

[31] Ibid., 109.



[34] See and

[35] Ibid., 87.

[36] Marshall, The Lakota Way, 67.

[37] Lugones, Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes, 20.

[38] Ibid., 7.

[39] Ibid., 13.

[40] Ibid.


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