Images that work in fundraising

Do negative images work in fundraising?

There really isn’t a meaningful answer to that question, because it’s not a meaningful question by itself. It’s a lot like asking “Do colors work in fundraising?”

The Cause Marketing blog raised the issue at Don’t Use Exploitive Images in Charitable Appeals, Real World Results Suggest.

The post is about the Austin Humane Society, which used the image of a happy dog in fundraising, different from the typical sad animal imagery, and saw a significant increase in fundraising results.

Does this prove that positive images are better for fundraising than negative?

Not even close.

It shows that one positive image in one particular situation (and time and place) did well. That’s all we know from this information.

It would be nuts for anyone to respond by making a wholesale switch to happy images. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to ignore the information and not look into using positive images if you believe they never work.

The truth is, some positive images work. Some don’t. Same with negative images. In fact, positive and negative aren’t really meaningful categories when it comes to fundraising.

The only categories that matter are “compelling” and “not compelling.”

Here’s how to pick winning fundraising images, positive or negative:


  • Remove I like and I dislike from your criteria. Those are not relevant considerations, and they’re very likely to lead you astray.
  • Ask yourself if the image tells the same story as the words. So often, there’s a vast disconnect between the words and the images in fundraising.
  • Ask yourself, What will a non-expert see? This is very hard to do. It can help to ask an actual non-expert to tell you what they see in the photo. Don’t ask for a critique of its quality or correctness; just have them tell you what they see.
  • Is it real? This is a subjective question, but it’s important. Does the photo seem to be of a real situation, or does it look staged or fake?

I’ve found the following usually (but not always) to be true of the most compelling fundraising images:


  • Color is better than black and white. (There’s also a meaningful budget consideration to this one.)
  • Eye contact with the subject is good.
  • One person is better than lots of people.
  • People work better than things.
  • Stock photography seldom works well.


Comments

12 responses to “Images that work in fundraising”

  1. Sanford Avatar

    IMO, i believe fundraising is about four basic things:
    1) money follows vision, not need.
    2) explain the problem and offer a concise explanation as to why you have the unique solution.
    3) explain why one needs to give NOW. make it urgent.
    4) tell a story that discusses a personnel triumph and/or victory that occurred as a result of your charity. people remember stories, they don’t remember data.
    i may be wrong, but IMO, this is 95% of fundraising.

  2. Sanford Avatar

    IMO, i believe fundraising is about four basic things:
    1) money follows vision, not need.
    2) explain the problem and offer a concise explanation as to why you have the unique solution.
    3) explain why one needs to give NOW. make it urgent.
    4) tell a story that discusses a personnel triumph and/or victory that occurred as a result of your charity. people remember stories, they don’t remember data.
    i may be wrong, but IMO, this is 95% of fundraising.

  3. Jeff, thanks for continuing this discussion. Working for a children’s charity, I’m determined not to ‘exploit’ them, yet the more we show their faces and share their desperate situations, the better the return & reaction. Always a tough line to draw…

  4. Jeff, thanks for continuing this discussion. Working for a children’s charity, I’m determined not to ‘exploit’ them, yet the more we show their faces and share their desperate situations, the better the return & reaction. Always a tough line to draw…

  5. Jeff you graciously gave the blog post more time than I would have. It wasn’t even a split test – it was a wholesale switch. My data monkey brain says tsk tsk.

  6. Jeff you graciously gave the blog post more time than I would have. It wasn’t even a split test – it was a wholesale switch. My data monkey brain says tsk tsk.

  7. Paul Jones here. I wrote the post that Jeff references.
    Lysh sniffs and says it wasn’t a split test. True enough. But it wasn’t a direct response effort either and split tests don’t work the same in mass media because there’s no real solid controls.

  8. Paul Jones here. I wrote the post that Jeff references.
    Lysh sniffs and says it wasn’t a split test. True enough. But it wasn’t a direct response effort either and split tests don’t work the same in mass media because there’s no real solid controls.

  9. Hi,
    As founder and director of a Dutch nonprofit specialised in branding and communications for aid organisations, BrandOutLoud, I have been following your blog and discussion with much interest.
    In terms of answering your primarly question “Do negative images work in fundraising?” It seems so – only by looking at various practices and researches, though. Times are changing. And it should!
    Isn’t not only because people do get this third-world-fatigue, getting immune for all this “shockvertising”, or also referred as “poverty porn”. Another – perhaps more important matter – is the question of ethics. How far should or can you go to raise money for a good cause? Up to what point does the end justify the means?
    We at BrandOutLoud believe organisations’ communication methods should drastically change. If the public has become, in actual fact, insensitive to shocking images of poverty, or the extent of suffering causes aversion, what is the point of maintaining and increasing efforts with the intent to shock? Isn’t it a sign that a new course is needed?
    BrandOutLoud selects an approach in which the strength of development aid is leading. The persons portrayed are people who have benefited from received help and who are proud to show how they have ascended from their previous struggling circumstances. Campaigns’ aims are to stimulate and motivate, to consolidate faith in development aid instead of letting it crumble.
    The visualisation of the situation remains an essential aspect of campaigns but is developed with a great sense of dignity as well as aesthetics, with lighting and composition as directing components. The viewer is moved by the story in these images, rather than stunned.
    More in this publication “marketing and charity – happily ever after?” > http://www.brandoutloud.org/column/8 Or, http://www.brandoutloud.org

  10. Hi,
    As founder and director of a Dutch nonprofit specialised in branding and communications for aid organisations, BrandOutLoud, I have been following your blog and discussion with much interest.
    In terms of answering your primarly question “Do negative images work in fundraising?” It seems so – only by looking at various practices and researches, though. Times are changing. And it should!
    Isn’t not only because people do get this third-world-fatigue, getting immune for all this “shockvertising”, or also referred as “poverty porn”. Another – perhaps more important matter – is the question of ethics. How far should or can you go to raise money for a good cause? Up to what point does the end justify the means?
    We at BrandOutLoud believe organisations’ communication methods should drastically change. If the public has become, in actual fact, insensitive to shocking images of poverty, or the extent of suffering causes aversion, what is the point of maintaining and increasing efforts with the intent to shock? Isn’t it a sign that a new course is needed?
    BrandOutLoud selects an approach in which the strength of development aid is leading. The persons portrayed are people who have benefited from received help and who are proud to show how they have ascended from their previous struggling circumstances. Campaigns’ aims are to stimulate and motivate, to consolidate faith in development aid instead of letting it crumble.
    The visualisation of the situation remains an essential aspect of campaigns but is developed with a great sense of dignity as well as aesthetics, with lighting and composition as directing components. The viewer is moved by the story in these images, rather than stunned.
    More in this publication “marketing and charity – happily ever after?” > http://www.brandoutloud.org/column/8 Or, http://www.brandoutloud.org

  11. Thanks for this insight on images. Like Judith said, people are increasingly more numb to “shock” photos. But even if they weren’t, if you’re simply shocking someone, are you truly forging an actual connection between that person and the cause or just getting them to briefly engage because they’re so shocked in that moment? Like you said, images only work if they’re truly compelling.

  12. Thanks for this insight on images. Like Judith said, people are increasingly more numb to “shock” photos. But even if they weren’t, if you’re simply shocking someone, are you truly forging an actual connection between that person and the cause or just getting them to briefly engage because they’re so shocked in that moment? Like you said, images only work if they’re truly compelling.

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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