This question comes up regularly on webinars and in Facebook Groups: What kinds of photos work best in fundraising, and must they be “sad” photos? By “sad” we mean photos where people or animals look visibly upset, hurt, sad, or otherwise clearly in need of assistance.

As with many questions in nonprofit marketing and fundraising, there are a few different ways to think about this.

At one end of the spectrum, you have some research that says that sad photos of people or animals in need work better than neutral or happy photos. (And here’s more.) You will find fundraising consultants who therefore advise that to raise maximum revenue, you need to use the sad photos. This is especially true of fundraising consultants whose value is measured by their nonprofit clients by how much they raise, period.

However, at the other end of the spectrum are advocates who call these sad photos “poverty porn” and believe that sad photos are disrespectful, often racist, exploitative, and damaging to the dignity of all involved.

Like all judgment calls in life, you will also find many assumptions and caveats in these arguments, and much middle ground in between.

When I am asked the question, here is my response:

Donors need a role to play or a job to do, and their donation is how they play that role or perform that job. So how do you help them see the role or job you are presenting? Photos can be helpful, so what kinds? There is some evidence that sad photos raise more money than happy ones. But for many nonprofits, using photos of their clients or program participants in distress is counter to their mission and values. In other words, this is a strategic leadership decision: For any given appeal, do you try to maximize fundraising and go with the sad photo because generally speaking, those seem to work better, or do you accept that you may raise less by going with a neutral or happy photo that is a better match for how you want to portray your program clients/participants?

Here’s something else to think about, from some research of St. Jude appeals:

“Prospects who reported high levels of involvement with nonprofits were more likely to pledge funds after seeing happy faces . . . In contrast, individuals who aren’t involved in the nonprofit are more likely to be drawn in by the urgency of the mission represented by sad faces.”

Why Sad Faces Equal Happier Fundraising

Here’s another great article on that research.

TruSense found that many of its food bank clients did well with happier messaging. The key is having photography that matches the words.

“If you?re going to try using a photo of a smiling child, make sure the story is about a positive outcome. Instead, if you?re telling an urgent, need-based story, this might be the right place for a more pensive photo.”

The Case for Happy and Sad Photos in Your Food Bank Fundraising

For many nonprofits, this comes down to an asset-based approach to fundraising, rather than a deficit-based approach. It’s about building upon what’s available rather than focusing on what’s missing. In fundraising terms, it means you might have to get more thoughtful and creative about defining the role or job for your donor. But it definitely can be done, and will be a better approach for many nonprofits.

I know there are many opinions and resources on this issue. If you have a favorite article, study, resource, or your own experience to share, please do so in the comments.

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