Charitable Donations: The Picture Matters

The type of picture that charities use to encourage people to donate makes a big difference.

When my husband and I were in Arequipa, Peru a few years ago, we saw a what looked like a grandmother or perhaps an older mother and two children on the street. They were not visually begging, though one could assume they were needy. It was February; and the girls should have been in school. I engaged the adult person and tried to ask what was happening. But due to language barriers, the conversation was challenging. We were not able to communicate. I ended up giving the woman the equivalent of $20—a large sum for her though little for me. My interest was for the children to be able to attend school. Whether this happened or not, I don’t know.

In giving the money, I was responding to the young girls. The older person was less of a concern to me. Now, I know why.

Christopher DB Burt, PhD, and Kenneth Strongman, PhD, researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, showed that photos of children were effective in engendering donations. In addition, the way the youngster was presented made a difference as well.

Participants were shown photos of girls ages 6 to 9 demonstrating varying levels of emotion. The children expressed emotion that was extremely and mildly negative, as well as the reverse, extremely and mildly positive. After monitoring their responses, the team found that subjects responded most to the photos of the children that expressed extremely negative emotion, like sadness. In other words, this is the group to whom they found would open their wallets.

The authors attributed this response to the participant’s empathy, and suggested that charities “should carefully select images for their advertisements that show negative emotions…”

This conclusion goes along with the consensus of a 2016 report from the online NonProfitPro which said, “Nonprofits are realizing that it’s no longer enough to say, ‘We do a good job; trust us.’ We’ll see a growing need for fundraisers to learn to tell stories that excite donors, regularly take (or have taken) photos that show impact, etc.”

You’ve probably observed some of these things before, but never gave it much thought. Beggars on the street often have puppies beside them. Who would have guessed that they read journals about behavior and psychology? Or did they learn it through experience? Either way, it must be effective.

So now we know that not only does the gender of the giver make an impact for charities that provide resources for the impoverished. The picture that is presented to the potential donor makes a difference as well.

Burt and Strongman’s paper, “Use of Images in Charity Advertising: Improving Donations and Compliance Rates” was published in the International Journal of Organizational Behavior.