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Case Study: Centring Refugees in UNHCR's Ethical Fundraising Guidelines

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

How can organizations ensure that they accurately and respectfully represent the communities they work with?

Returned South Sudanese refugees work alongside local residents at the Can–Coya farming collective, on a 250-acre farm, producing enough food to meet their needs and supply local demands. UNHCR has supported reintegration through peacebuilding, governance and livelihoods programming in Magwi County, Eastern Equatoria State, South Sudan. © UNHCR/Charlotte Hallqvist

The Client

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for people forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution.

Formally known as the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR was established by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1950 in the aftermath of the Second World War. Today, UNHCR works in 135 countries to provide life-saving assistance—including shelter, food, water and medical care—for people forced to flee conflict and persecution. They also work with countries to improve and monitor refugee and asylum laws and policies, ensuring human rights are upheld.

The Challenge In the international development sector, communications and fundraising efforts can often inadvertently harm the very communities they seek to support. Whether it's focusing solely on refugees’ vulnerabilities, using exploitative or sensational imagery, or creating materials without sufficient input from the affected communities, the ways that organizations frame the issues can have significant impacts on how we understand and respond to humanitarian crises.

To avoid these harms, and to ensure that they continually represent the communities they work alongside in an ethical and dignified manner, the UN Refugee Agency created proposed guidelines for all their communications and fundraising activities.

Their draft guidelines were grounded in 4 pillars:

  • Imagery: When taking and sharing photos, staff should aim for accurate, un-staged portrayals and provide appropriate context for images, minimize the over-reliance on imagery of children, and ensure the active and informed consent from all people depicted.

  • Language: Communications staff should use accurate terminology, avoid overstating or exaggerating the impact of donations, ensure refugee voices are at the centre of communications and their words are highlighted, and remove "saviour" framing or excessively congratulatory language towards donors.

  • Stewardship: When building relationships with donors, fundraising team members are to reinforce the values of respect, accuracy, and dignity for refugees and displaced populations .

  • Tangibility: Tangibility is a popular fundraising tactic in the charitable sector. It gives donors the impression that they are buying something specific for those in need, like a blanket or a first aid kit. However, these gifts are generally only symbolic in nature, with the funds supporting overall programming needs. Staff should ensure that all opportunities to donate are presented clearly and accurately.

In keeping with their commitment to engage with affected communities, The UN Refugee Agency sought to hear from refugees currently living in Canada about whether their proposed guidelines were appropriate, respectful, and reflective of their lived experiences.

Our Approach

Evenings & Weekends Consulting was hired to design the refugee engagement process, conduct one-on-one interviews, and summarize the feedback.

We leveraged our networks of refugee-serving organizations across Canada to connect with 254 individuals who filled out our intake form. Interviews with our staff team member Amanda Nkeramihigo were scheduled with refugees with origins in Syria, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Jamaica, Rwanda, Mexico, Kosovo, Burundi, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, and participants were given $250 in compensation for their time and expertise.

Questions were written with a trauma-informed lens, and with ongoing consent and collaboration with interviewees.

"As someone who was part of the survey, I appreciate the professionalism of Evenings & Weekends Consulting Staff. I could tell that the questions were trauma-informed. There was a high level of mutual respect, and taking my responses seriously, rather than the usual “head nod” I get whenever I get interviewed as a previous refugee" —Kai M, Participant

Project Team

What We Uncovered Across the board, participants were supportive of the UNCHR’s goals of accurately describing the reality that many refugees are experiencing and maintaining human dignity and helping its audience to directly connect with the circumstances of displaced people.

Focusing on storytelling

  • Multiple respondents mentioned the importance of centering the stories of refugees, giving them opportunities to talk about what their life was before displacement, and how it has been impacted now.

  • They were supportive of using mixed media to tell the story. A picture may not convey the whole story, and context can be provided through captions and quotes.

Showing the reality

  • Respondents encouraged communications team members to move away from staged imagery and depict the reality of refugees' experiences—including how refugees continue to support one another in the face of traumatic situations.

Being selective with images of children

  • Respondents were supportive of the commitment to reduce reliance on images of children, and expressed concern about the potential negative impacts and trauma that children could experience as they grow up and potentially see their images attached to these campaigns.

Moving away from guilt or judgment

  • Respondents agreed with moving away from making audiences feel guilt, and instead encouraging them to reflect on and recognize their privilege and capacity. They also stressed the need to continually communicate that refugees don’t have the choices or options that others may have access to.

The Impact

Following our work together, the UN Refugee Agency has continued to advance the integration of their ethical fundraising and communications guidelines into their work in Canada and around the world.

"Working with the Evenings & Weekends team has been excellent. They understood what we needed very quickly, asked insightful questions, and produced informative and professional work for us. I would recommend Evenings & Weekends to any organizations that could benefit from bringing a conscientious, careful and creative external lens to a complex project or piece of work." —Rohan Stritch, Private Sector Partnerships at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency

Are you interested in assessing how your communications or fundraising practices resonate with the communities you serve? Reach out to book an intro call.

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