The most frustrating fundraising image of all time

Excerpted from my book, The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand: Motivating Donors to Give, Give Happily, and Keep on Giving.

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You’ve probably seen photos much like it before. It’s commonly used in fundraising by urban rescue missions in the United States.

It was discovered in the misty early years of direct-response fundraising. To those who have worked with rescue missions, it has a name: “Old Man Eating” — often shortened to OME.

An elderly, bearded male, sitting at a table and eating. This photo has been a key ingredient for raising money for rescue missions for a long time. For decades, missions have been testing against it.

I’m bringing this image to your attention because there are two things about it that cause problems within rescue missions:

  1. The old man is not typical of the people served by most rescue missions. Their clientele are mostly young adults and mothers with children. The elderly typically make up 10% or less of those they serve.
  2. Many people who work at rescue missions are fed up with Old Man Eating, and feel he undermines their credibility and gives their pet hamsters rickets. (Well, not that last one, usually.)

OME

That second problem isn’t a real problem — it’s an attitude, and not a useful one. There’s a delusion common in the fundraising profession that anything old and frequently used is bad. There’s no good reason to believe that. If there’s any correlation between old/new and bad/good, it’s the other way: The old clichés have stuck around because they work. The new attempts, especially those born from the need to make insiders feel better, are less likely to work.

The majority of new ideas, new businesses, new political parties, and yes, new charities don’t work out. There’s nothing wrong with newness. It’s just that probability is against new and untried things. Most ideas are flawed in ways we don’t understand until we try them.

Unfortunately, we can’t dismiss this allergy to Old Man Eating, because it’s strongly felt in the mission world. The urge to abandon him probably costs millions in lost revenue every year.

To make matters even more vexing, if you ask donors whether it’s more important to focus on helping homeless old men or homeless children, they usually say children. Yet donor acquisition efforts for rescue missions that feature pictures of homeless children seldom work. OME outperforms kids time after time. (The things donors say and the things they do are sometimes completely different.)

The image that touches people’s hearts, that motivates them to give to urban rescue missions, is Old Man Eating. Even though he’s not the complete picture of the need. Even though these same donors know that helping younger people is more needful. And even though mission insiders have grown to hate it.

The fact that it’s the “wrong” image has no bearing. Because the decision to give is emotional, not rational. Emotional triggers, not rational ones, drive charitable giving. And OME is a potent emotional trigger. I’ve heard several theories why it is, but these theories are not verifiable. And why isn’t all that important. OME just works.

What should you do if you work at an urban rescue mission and you feel Old Man Eating is the wrong image? You have three choices:

  1. You can stubbornly insist on showing photos more typical of the need and expect “truth” to eventually win out. I hope you won’t, though. Doing that will cripple your ability to do your work by decreasing the number of donors who join you. It would be malfeasance. It would lead to more suffering in your community.
  2. You can spend a zillion dollars trying to “educate” every donor about the “real” problem until eventually a more accurate photo works better than OME. Yeah, right. You don’t have a zillion dollars. (If you did, I hope you’d spend it fighting homelessness and poverty; you could put a real dent in those problems with that kind of money!) Anyway, it wouldn’t work. The donors already know the truth you want to teach. It’s not an issue of knowledge.
  3. Or you can meet donors where they are — not where you wish they’d be. Put forth the image that motivates them to respond, and gratefully accept the gifts they give.

Putting aside your preferences is what separates the fundraising professionals from those who just go through the motions. If you want images that boost your fundraising effectiveness, there’s no other way than using the images and approaches that donors respond to, even if they rub you the wrong way.

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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.

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