How to feel bad about the photos you use in fundraising

Is your fundraising 100% “accurate”?

What exactly would complete accuracy look like?

A recent study in the UK (published at Sociological Research Online) pokes a stick into an issue some fundraisers spend a lot of energy worrying about.

The study, as reported by Third Sector magazine — Homelessness charities should stick with stereotypical images of beneficiaries, report says — asked subjects what homeless people look like.

Subjects overwhelmingly identified bearded older men who sleep on the streets.

If you’ve ever done fundraising related to homelessness, this won’t surprise you. That’s the imagery that works.

The “problem” is that older men who sleep outside aren’t “typical” among the homeless. They’re something like 10% of the homeless population. Young people and moms with kids are far more common. Sleeping rough isn’t typical.

But when people think of the homeless, they think of the bearded old men. And when your fundraising features photos of young people or families, donors stay away.

This doesn’t have to be a problem. You could just be realistic and use images that work. But a lot of fundraisers aren’t comfortable with that solution. They’d rather use images of typical homeless people, for one or both of these reasons:


  • They want to “educate” donors to be more deeply informed about the issue.
  • They think it’s more honest. In fact, a commenter on the article said, “Using ‘stereotypical’ images is being deceptive, and essentially lying….”

And that’s where the problem starts.

First, direct mail, email, and all other direct-response fundraising channels are insanely ineffective educational media. They simply don’t work to teach. So if you use images that are less effective for fundraising in the belief that you’re trading some of your income for a more educated public, you’ll end up with neither.

As for the “lying” charge, anyone can set their own standards, but let’s get real: Showing a photo of something that’s real, but not most common is far from a lie. If there were no bearded older homeless men at all, then it would be something like a lie to show them. But they’re really there. Real humans who are really homeless.

If you’re a fundraiser, your job is to raise funds. It’s not to change the way people think — though the ones who donate are going to be far more willing and able to change their thinking than those you fail to reach because your fundraising doesn’t make sense to them. It’s also not your job to bolster your own sense of reality.

If the imagery that does the job makes you queasy or unhappy for whatever reason, I don’t think fundraising is where you should be.

Effective fundraisers meet donors where they are. Not where they want them to be.

Thanks to alert reader @adriansalmon for the tip.


Comments

8 responses to “How to feel bad about the photos you use in fundraising”

  1. This exact thing happened to me not two months ago — on a first reveal of appeal pack mock-ups. Mercifully I have a smart client. So when I said: use the stereotypical image for the very reason your gut is telling you not to, they did.
    It worked.

  2. This exact thing happened to me not two months ago — on a first reveal of appeal pack mock-ups. Mercifully I have a smart client. So when I said: use the stereotypical image for the very reason your gut is telling you not to, they did.
    It worked.

  3. First, the study as reported doesn’t prove that other compelling images wouldn’t also be effective for fundraising. It’s not based on an actual fundraising test of images with compelling copy. It just says a bunch of students drew a particular image of a homeless person.
    What really bothers me the most about your response, however, is that I think resorting to stereotypical images is just lazy fundraising.
    Okay, you say, choose images we know aren’t really that representative because heck, they raise money.
    And when your donor finds out later that maybe whom you implied would benefit from their gift wasn’t really benefiting? What then? I thought we were also worried about retention.
    It seems to me that fundraisers start threading the needle to justify an action (well, it’s not really inaccurate, is it?), that we have may have stepped over the ethical line.

  4. First, the study as reported doesn’t prove that other compelling images wouldn’t also be effective for fundraising. It’s not based on an actual fundraising test of images with compelling copy. It just says a bunch of students drew a particular image of a homeless person.
    What really bothers me the most about your response, however, is that I think resorting to stereotypical images is just lazy fundraising.
    Okay, you say, choose images we know aren’t really that representative because heck, they raise money.
    And when your donor finds out later that maybe whom you implied would benefit from their gift wasn’t really benefiting? What then? I thought we were also worried about retention.
    It seems to me that fundraisers start threading the needle to justify an action (well, it’s not really inaccurate, is it?), that we have may have stepped over the ethical line.

  5. Bob Braswell Avatar
    Bob Braswell

    “If you’re a fundraiser, your job is to raise funds. It’s not to change the way people think” — because, whatever works, right? Even if you work for an organization that must ultimately change the way people think about the homeless, just show them the pictures they expect to see, focus on raising the money, and then let someone else worry about undoing any damage you may have done to your cause and to the credibility of your organization. Don’t worry about your ability to raise future money from people who gave and then got educated; probably they’ll see they weren’t really lied to, just allowed to believe the misinformation that was useful to the manipulation of their charitable instinct. If you’re a fundraiser, your job is to raise funds RIGHT NOW, without letting the ultimate ends or even future relationships interfere with any effective means.

  6. Bob Braswell Avatar
    Bob Braswell

    “If you’re a fundraiser, your job is to raise funds. It’s not to change the way people think” — because, whatever works, right? Even if you work for an organization that must ultimately change the way people think about the homeless, just show them the pictures they expect to see, focus on raising the money, and then let someone else worry about undoing any damage you may have done to your cause and to the credibility of your organization. Don’t worry about your ability to raise future money from people who gave and then got educated; probably they’ll see they weren’t really lied to, just allowed to believe the misinformation that was useful to the manipulation of their charitable instinct. If you’re a fundraiser, your job is to raise funds RIGHT NOW, without letting the ultimate ends or even future relationships interfere with any effective means.

  7. Morgan Fritz Avatar
    Morgan Fritz

    In fairness to Dean, the Third Sector article absolutely misrepresents the original author’s point. At a point late in an article about how a group of his students imagines people experiencing homelessness, he simply speculates that since a majority of people seem to imagine the same archetype for homelessness (an older man, sleeping outdoors), then the path of least resistance for fundraisers might be to recapitulate this stereotype in their materials. But he views this as an ethical dilemma: if fundraisers took this path, they’d be playing into the very prejudices they hope to eradicate through their organizations’ work.
    I do agree with those who’ve pointed out that Dean’s study is not a scientific one. Again, though, to Dean’s credit, what he’s chronicling here is designed as an in-class exercise to help people examine their own stereotypes. It’s true, as Kate mentions, that if Dean was attempting to make an argument about fundraising and stereotypes, it would by no means by validated through this very limited (41 subject) “study.” In reality, though, the point that Birkwood fixates on (and misrepresents) is a minor, speculative sidebar in Dean’s article.
    It’s upsetting to see Jeff Brooks take the Third Sector piece at face value, and make some unfounded claims based on Birkwood’s misinterpretation of the original piece. Very irresponsible.

  8. Morgan Fritz Avatar
    Morgan Fritz

    In fairness to Dean, the Third Sector article absolutely misrepresents the original author’s point. At a point late in an article about how a group of his students imagines people experiencing homelessness, he simply speculates that since a majority of people seem to imagine the same archetype for homelessness (an older man, sleeping outdoors), then the path of least resistance for fundraisers might be to recapitulate this stereotype in their materials. But he views this as an ethical dilemma: if fundraisers took this path, they’d be playing into the very prejudices they hope to eradicate through their organizations’ work.
    I do agree with those who’ve pointed out that Dean’s study is not a scientific one. Again, though, to Dean’s credit, what he’s chronicling here is designed as an in-class exercise to help people examine their own stereotypes. It’s true, as Kate mentions, that if Dean was attempting to make an argument about fundraising and stereotypes, it would by no means by validated through this very limited (41 subject) “study.” In reality, though, the point that Birkwood fixates on (and misrepresents) is a minor, speculative sidebar in Dean’s article.
    It’s upsetting to see Jeff Brooks take the Third Sector piece at face value, and make some unfounded claims based on Birkwood’s misinterpretation of the original piece. Very irresponsible.

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.

Blog Roll

someone’s blog