What’s a bad photo for fundraising effectively?

Photos communicate a lot of information.

That’s why they’re important in fundraising. A photo says more, and with more force, than even the best written copy.

That’s why serious fundraisers should pay close attention to photos. (Here are a couple of recent posts on the topic you might want to check out: 2 photos, and how they’re poised to influence donors and Negative or positive images in fundraising? Some straight talk.)

The discussion we tend to focus on is the difference between “sad” and “happy” photos: Which kind is better for fundraising?

I’d like to suggest that’s an unenlightening question that doesn’t help much.

Claiming that either happy or sad photos are more effective is like saying red cars are faster than blue cars. Even if you’ve done a study of red and blue cars.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a statistically significant correlation red cars and higher speed ability.

But nobody would think to claim that red paint is what makes them faster. It’s correlation, not causation.

Photos are like that, but even more so. They are extremely complex bundles of information. Hundreds of major and minor factors that give them their impact:

  • A full suite of macro and micro expressions (of which sad/happy/other is a tiny part).
  • Body language beyond the face.
  • Visible background around the people.
  • Colors.
  • And a lot more things, many of them not well understood …

On top of that, these pieces of photographic information can have very different impact on different people.

I can tell you that there’s a correlation between “sad” photos and response in fundraising. But there are frequent and major exceptions.

You could test a happy photo against a sad one. One of them might do meaningfully better than the other one. But you won’t have learned a universal truth about the happy/sad factor. You’d only know that one specific photo worked better than another.

Back to the cars: I suppose if I had to choose a car to get from one place to another at the fastest possible speed, and I didn’t know anything about the car but its color … I might choose the red car. Hoping the correlation would work for me this time.

But I hope I’d look for some way to know more about the car than color.

Same with photos. It might be better to lean toward sad, but if all you know is happy/sad, you don’t really know much.

Tomorrow: How to pick the best photos.


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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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