What kinds of photos of hunger work in fundraising?

Yesterday we looked at the use of images in fundraising. Today I’d like to zero in on one area where the use of images causes a lot of controversy and gnashing of teeth: International relief and development organizations.

The right image can unlock the compassion of donors in amazing ways. But it’s so tough to get images right for this cause.

The photos of happy, well-fed 3rd World children that the organizations love to show can undermine the message that there’s hunger or need and crush fundraising results. But I’ve seen exceptions, where happy photos were part of very strong fundraising campaigns.

The tough, painful images of suffering people with stick limbs, swollen bellies, and flies in their eyes seldom work in fundraising. But there have been record-breaking exceptions to this, where truly terrible images help unleash incredible compassion.

The safe path seems to be people who look poor, but not like they’re dying, and have worried, sad, or other serious expressions. But even that doesn’t always do it.

(I have a theory for those correct but non-working images: Very often, photos of children in famine situations have what looks like an angry scowl. A viewer can hardly help but react defensively to what looks like someone who’s pissed off. I’m told that a reason these kids have that expression is because they’re often suffering from dehydration headaches, which makes them furrow their brows and frown. It’s not an angry expression at all. But the visceral reaction is the same.)

Conclusion: There’s no clear rule about what works. Too happy and too harsh are risky. Even the right kind can have response-killing flaws.

The frustratingly inexact principle I use: Look for images that touch the heart. Happy, serious, or disturbing. It’s that heart connection that does the job.


Comments

6 responses to “What kinds of photos of hunger work in fundraising?”

  1. The looks on faces in pictures can also be cultural.
    When we began working in some of the remote ethnic areas of Myanmar, we had a hard time getting photos of people smiling. They told us that they never smiled for photos. When I finally got them to understand that Americans like to see smiling faces, they started getting more expressive.

  2. The looks on faces in pictures can also be cultural.
    When we began working in some of the remote ethnic areas of Myanmar, we had a hard time getting photos of people smiling. They told us that they never smiled for photos. When I finally got them to understand that Americans like to see smiling faces, they started getting more expressive.

  3. I think that human can imagine himself what looks like someone suffering hunger. We did a mailing in December 2007 on that subject. On the outgoing envelope, we used a simple picture of an empty old spoon on a table in front of a textured wall with the title «Those who are hungry suffer in silence» and on the reminder envelope we used the same spoon but on a white background with nothing else than the title «Those who are hungry also thirst for justice». Inside the letter we had few small pictures of people who were working in their community, some were smiling, others were very serious. The answer was very strong and we now use this mailing for the acquisition and the answer is very good too. I always try to show something connected with the title but in that case it was impossible for me to show the silence and I found the emptiness of the spoon was the way to do it.

  4. I think that human can imagine himself what looks like someone suffering hunger. We did a mailing in December 2007 on that subject. On the outgoing envelope, we used a simple picture of an empty old spoon on a table in front of a textured wall with the title «Those who are hungry suffer in silence» and on the reminder envelope we used the same spoon but on a white background with nothing else than the title «Those who are hungry also thirst for justice». Inside the letter we had few small pictures of people who were working in their community, some were smiling, others were very serious. The answer was very strong and we now use this mailing for the acquisition and the answer is very good too. I always try to show something connected with the title but in that case it was impossible for me to show the silence and I found the emptiness of the spoon was the way to do it.

  5. Thank you Jeff, but honestly I didn’t appreciate this post, and this for the following two reasons:
    1) The first one concerns the contents: your post doesn’t give much to the readers. In short, all we can learn from it is that choosing effective images for fundraising is very hard and eventually it is just better to go for the ones that “touch the heart”, which in your words is a “frustratingly inexact principle”.
    2) The second one is about your amoral approach to the matter. It is okay to be neutral and analytic, but you should take into account and at least mention that, when choosing a picture, the fundraising potential of it cannot be the only parameter you use.
    Showing a dying child has obvious moral implications. It can be convenient or even necessary, under some circumstances, but we can’t just forget about that, especially if we claim that we are willing to help that child.
    In fact, it’s MAINLY in the interest of your organisation’s brand that you should think twice before showing negative images (“photo of hunger”, as you call them). They might work for fundraising, but what else do they say about your organisation and its values? And isn’t it time to reduce the use of negative imagery, portraying people in an even more tragic condition than their actual one?
    At BrandOutLoud we firmly believe that this time has finally come, for many many reasons, and that is why, in our work, we choose to emphasize the strengths, resilience, beauty and moreover the dignity of the people that the organisations aim to help. And it works brilliantly. Now, if you really “consider fundraising as the most noble of pursuits”, I’m sure you understand my point.
    Best,
    Matteo Gatto

  6. Thank you Jeff, but honestly I didn’t appreciate this post, and this for the following two reasons:
    1) The first one concerns the contents: your post doesn’t give much to the readers. In short, all we can learn from it is that choosing effective images for fundraising is very hard and eventually it is just better to go for the ones that “touch the heart”, which in your words is a “frustratingly inexact principle”.
    2) The second one is about your amoral approach to the matter. It is okay to be neutral and analytic, but you should take into account and at least mention that, when choosing a picture, the fundraising potential of it cannot be the only parameter you use.
    Showing a dying child has obvious moral implications. It can be convenient or even necessary, under some circumstances, but we can’t just forget about that, especially if we claim that we are willing to help that child.
    In fact, it’s MAINLY in the interest of your organisation’s brand that you should think twice before showing negative images (“photo of hunger”, as you call them). They might work for fundraising, but what else do they say about your organisation and its values? And isn’t it time to reduce the use of negative imagery, portraying people in an even more tragic condition than their actual one?
    At BrandOutLoud we firmly believe that this time has finally come, for many many reasons, and that is why, in our work, we choose to emphasize the strengths, resilience, beauty and moreover the dignity of the people that the organisations aim to help. And it works brilliantly. Now, if you really “consider fundraising as the most noble of pursuits”, I’m sure you understand my point.
    Best,
    Matteo Gatto

Leave a Reply

What this blog is about

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.

Blog policies

Subscribe

Get new posts by email:

About the blogger

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.


Archives

Blogroll

Categories


Search the blog

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.

Recent Comments

About the blogger

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.