Sad faces make better fundraising

Here’s more on the type of images you should be using in fundraising. Some research reported in the AMA Journal of Marketing Research — The Face of Need: Facial Emotion Expression on Charity Advertisements (abstract; the full study requires a subscription).

Researchers found that sad faces prompt more giving:

… people are more sympathetic and give more to a charity when the victim portrayed on the advertisement expressed sadness than when a victim expressed happiness or neutral emotion…. the authors illustrate when and how a sad expression enhances sympathy and giving. Taken together, the findings imply the importance of subtle emotional cues that sway sympathy and giving.

One of the findings showed higher response rates for the sad child than the happy or neutral one:
Childimages

We should approach studies like these with a heavy dose of skepticism; they aren’t fundraising situations with real donors, but artificial situations with college students.

Also, there is a lot more information in a photo than a sad/neutral/happy expression. There are sad faces that make people feel defensive. There are happy faces that somehow go straight to the heart. Sometimes there are things in the background of the photo that undermine what you see in the faces.

I’m showing you this because it backs up what every experienced fundraiser already knows: Sad faces get more response.

But that’s just a starting point. You have to look at every photo carefully before you use it.

Thanks to Advice for Good for the tip.


Comments

4 responses to “Sad faces make better fundraising”

  1. Thank you for your interesting post. However, as you’ve already indicated, we need to be careful how much weight we give the study. In addition to the reasons for caution that you already cited, we need to be careful because the study does not indicate the impact on donor retention of using sad faces. For example, continual use of sad images might lead to donor burnout and attrition. It also does not address the issue of when an image becomes exploitative of the subject or manipulative of the recipient. I reported in my book (“Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing”) that Save the Children used happy images of the children of Haiti who were beneficiaries of the nonprofit’s services. The idea was to give the donor-public hope and to show them a way to make a positive impact. While I don’t know what image testing Save the Children has done, I suspect the decision on what images to use was made very carefully. From the cheap seats where I sit, Save the Children doesn’t seem to be suffering from its decision. Intuitively, I believe that we must present prospective donors with a problem. But, we must also show them a clear solution that they can participate in. In some cases, the use of sad images might accomplish that but, as Save the Children found, happy images can also be quite effective.

  2. Thank you for your interesting post. However, as you’ve already indicated, we need to be careful how much weight we give the study. In addition to the reasons for caution that you already cited, we need to be careful because the study does not indicate the impact on donor retention of using sad faces. For example, continual use of sad images might lead to donor burnout and attrition. It also does not address the issue of when an image becomes exploitative of the subject or manipulative of the recipient. I reported in my book (“Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing”) that Save the Children used happy images of the children of Haiti who were beneficiaries of the nonprofit’s services. The idea was to give the donor-public hope and to show them a way to make a positive impact. While I don’t know what image testing Save the Children has done, I suspect the decision on what images to use was made very carefully. From the cheap seats where I sit, Save the Children doesn’t seem to be suffering from its decision. Intuitively, I believe that we must present prospective donors with a problem. But, we must also show them a clear solution that they can participate in. In some cases, the use of sad images might accomplish that but, as Save the Children found, happy images can also be quite effective.

  3. A DM fundraisers once asked me to help with a sad versus happy face test. The less cheery image fared slightly better although it was a small sample size. Given we did the test because someone was adamant that happy faces would always be better, it was enough to spark some internal discussion on the subject.

  4. A DM fundraisers once asked me to help with a sad versus happy face test. The less cheery image fared slightly better although it was a small sample size. Given we did the test because someone was adamant that happy faces would always be better, it was enough to spark some internal discussion on the subject.

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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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