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.

(This post first appeared on April 6, 2015.)


Comments

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

  1. This is a terrible article. I am unsubscribing from your blog. There are SO MANY ways to effectively raise funds and accurately represent the population you are serving in a way that is fair, just, equitable, and does not exploit stereotypes to raise easy funds.
    “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.” GROSS
    People turn to this blog for information, best practices and support. We owe it to our donors to connect them with our mission in a way that is respectable and dignified for the communities we serve. This approach is lazy and harmful.

  2. This is a terrible article. I am unsubscribing from your blog. There are SO MANY ways to effectively raise funds and accurately represent the population you are serving in a way that is fair, just, equitable, and does not exploit stereotypes to raise easy funds.
    “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.” GROSS
    People turn to this blog for information, best practices and support. We owe it to our donors to connect them with our mission in a way that is respectable and dignified for the communities we serve. This approach is lazy and harmful.

  3. “People turn to this blog for information, best practices, and support.”
    That’s exactly what Jeff is doing here, and has been doing for years, so if you don’t like the information, best practices, and support he’s suggesting fine. Don’t use it. And unsubscribe. Your loss.
    But to say this is a terrible article isn’t accurate, or useful for the conversation I think you want to have which is a really good one. Should we do ‘whatever works’ at whatever cost? Where do we draw the line with images and talking about the people we serve. But you need to tone it down a bit and provide some useful ideas or solutions. Just saying ‘this sucks’ doesn’t help.
    One idea that could work is instead of using professionally produced photographs, can you use more personal, iPhone style images of the actual people you serve (with their consent) so you communicate to the donor through style that this is a REAL person. I’ve seen some evidence that ‘unprofessional’ images work better and this could be another application of that concept. Worth testing for sure.

  4. “People turn to this blog for information, best practices, and support.”
    That’s exactly what Jeff is doing here, and has been doing for years, so if you don’t like the information, best practices, and support he’s suggesting fine. Don’t use it. And unsubscribe. Your loss.
    But to say this is a terrible article isn’t accurate, or useful for the conversation I think you want to have which is a really good one. Should we do ‘whatever works’ at whatever cost? Where do we draw the line with images and talking about the people we serve. But you need to tone it down a bit and provide some useful ideas or solutions. Just saying ‘this sucks’ doesn’t help.
    One idea that could work is instead of using professionally produced photographs, can you use more personal, iPhone style images of the actual people you serve (with their consent) so you communicate to the donor through style that this is a REAL person. I’ve seen some evidence that ‘unprofessional’ images work better and this could be another application of that concept. Worth testing for sure.

  5. Rob Daly Avatar
    Rob Daly

    The research author points out that the reader should not assume the findings translate to other causes. In fact, the only other issue they had applied this to was international development which produced mixed results.
    Additionally, the author acknowledges the limitations of the research, “Drawing only from a sample of student research participants, and seeing them as emblematic of the wider pool of potential donors, raises questions about class and age dynamics and the wider generalisability of findings.” A new audience (which the research is looking at) is likely to have a different level of sophistication than existing supporters.
    The risk for me is that to simply use the findings as the only source of truth (which I don’t believe Jeff is advocating) to develop strategy is lazy fundraising and communications.
    The original research (http://www.socresonline.org.uk/20/1/2.html) provides a point for consideration, but should not ignore the market insights, donor insights, previous campaign results and tests, and your organisation’s own strategy and operating environment, when developing a campaign.
    It is not a short-cut to avoid the hard work that goes into developing a compelling proposition built around brand, donor and organisation proof points, a process that is often short-changed in the strategy process as we rush to meet tight deadlines.

  6. Rob Daly Avatar
    Rob Daly

    The research author points out that the reader should not assume the findings translate to other causes. In fact, the only other issue they had applied this to was international development which produced mixed results.
    Additionally, the author acknowledges the limitations of the research, “Drawing only from a sample of student research participants, and seeing them as emblematic of the wider pool of potential donors, raises questions about class and age dynamics and the wider generalisability of findings.” A new audience (which the research is looking at) is likely to have a different level of sophistication than existing supporters.
    The risk for me is that to simply use the findings as the only source of truth (which I don’t believe Jeff is advocating) to develop strategy is lazy fundraising and communications.
    The original research (http://www.socresonline.org.uk/20/1/2.html) provides a point for consideration, but should not ignore the market insights, donor insights, previous campaign results and tests, and your organisation’s own strategy and operating environment, when developing a campaign.
    It is not a short-cut to avoid the hard work that goes into developing a compelling proposition built around brand, donor and organisation proof points, a process that is often short-changed in the strategy process as we rush to meet tight deadlines.

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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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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.