Wisdom Wednesdays: Presenting the Right Image

by Erin Strybis

Earlier this summer, I attended a direct marketing conference for nonprofit professionals.  Overall, I enjoyed the conference and learned some great tips that I’m slowly integrating in my ongoing work.

There was one session, however, that left me feeling rather uncomfortable — a session devoted to storytelling.  The presenter suggested that in order to raise the most money, fundraising appeals must include pictures that elicit strong emotional response in the form of sadness or sympathy.  He then proceeded to show close-ups of children who were frail and malnourished, animals who were hurt and abused and other disturbing scenes.

Strybis-ErinDespite the fact that I didn’t agree with the presenter, I wanted to learn more about his claims, so I did a little digging.  According to “The Face of Need: Facial Emotion Expression on Charity Advertisements,” a study by Deborah A. Small and Nicole M. Verrochi from 2009, “[F]acial expression of emotion displayed in pictures of victims is a critical determinant of sympathy and giving.”  The authors of this study found that when a person saw a picture of a “victim” who portrayed sadness rather than happiness, this person was indeed more sympathetic and more generous in giving to a charity.

Although there is strong research that backs the presenter’s claim, I still had some doubts.  Mainly, I was concerned about the ethics of this practice as it applied to my work.  Is using images that victimize the people you serve ethical?  Does serving a higher cause make it OK to deliberately manipulate your donors’ emotions?

Fundamentally, the idea that the people my organization serves are “victims” is anathema.   As a marketing manager working for a faith-based organization, I have a responsibility to use images that represent our cause while still maintaining the dignity of the people we serve.  This practice is vital to my organization’s identity as a faith-based organization.  If you look at the collateral produced by the organizations of other ALDE members you’ll see that they, too, use positive images showing what their work is doing for good — they use their platform to make the themes positive and ethical, not negative and exploitative.

When choosing a photo for a direct marketing appeal, aside from the important issues of size/quality/perspective, I must also consider:

  • Is the person in this photo comfortable and safe?
  • Is this photo an accurate representation of our work?
  • Does this photo maintain the dignity of the person(s) represented in it?

I have a responsibility to tell the story of our organization’s work in a powerful way, but in a way that is grounded in our mission.  I try to use photos that are authentic, uplifting and show how our work is relational.  The alternative is just not right for our organization.  We are telling a larger story: a story of hope, faith and the way God calls us to work in the world together.

Photos are important.  They tell stories in a powerful way.  They can illustrate needs, they can illustrate hope and they ultimately tell the story of who your organization is and who your organization serves.  What story are you going to tell?

Erin Strybis is a Marketing Manager at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America churchwide office. She lives and works in Chicago, Ill., where she enjoys running, reading, cooking and spending time with friends and family.


Wisdom Wednesdays: Learning How to Give

by Chris Duckworth

You’d think it wouldn’t take much to learn how to give.  Just reach into your pocket and give, right?

Of course, if you’ve ever spent time in a preschool, you know that there is often a reluctance in giving and sharing.  Sharing toys doesn’t come naturally.  Giving that toy to Bobby is even harder.

I was raised by parents who, each in their own way, were generous with their time and treasure.  They modeled giving.  As a young adult I strove to follow their model, often volunteering for and giving financial gifts to those organizations that were important to me, particularly the church.

But I didn’t start giving in a more significant, sacrificial way, until I met Larry House, an ALDE member who recently passed away.  Larry hired me to work in the Development Office at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.  I was young, about to get married and this was my first job where I was expected to wear a tie to work every day.  I was working in fundraising, and after a few weeks on the job Larry asked me for my pledge.

My pledge?

Yes, Chris.  I ask all of our staff, board members and partners to give.

I’ve never made a pledge before, Larry.

Don’t worry, Chris.  Let me show you what I do.

Then Larry took out a sheet of paper and wrote down some numbers.  Combined annual income for him and his wife.  Taxes.  Savings.  Various expenditures.  Tithe.


Duckworth-ChrisLarry gave away 10 percent of his income.  Actually, he and his wife gave more.  They gave to the seminary, but also to his church and to a few other organizations that were important to him and to his family.  He showed me his checkbook register.  He drew a pie chart and wrote numbers, showing me where their money went.

This wasn’t a generic textbook example.  Larry was showing me his finances.

Stop right there.  We all know that money, particularly how much you earn, is one of those topics that you don’t talk about in polite company.  But Larry wasn’t polite company.  He was plenty proper and polite, mind you, but this was more than that.  This was the intimacy of a mentoring relationship.  Larry was showing me how to tithe.  Larry was showing me how to live out a practice of faith.

All the while we were talking about finances and bills and making ends meet, he was smiling.  His face just lit up.  He was animated.  He referenced Scripture and the cross.  He reminded me that all that we have is God’s and we are stewards of God’s stuff for the short time we have on earth.  He took out his most recent pay stub and said, “This paycheck belongs to God.  It isn’t mine.  I’m the steward.  I’m called to use it for my family and for the good of others.”

He loved this stuff.  It is clear to me that he loved to give because his Lord showed him how to give, because he loved the organizations to which he gave and because he believed in their mission.

Yeah, but 10 percent or more?  That’s a lot of money for a middle class family.  Ten percent gets you all kinds of recognition at public radio or the museum or your alma mater.  That’s the kind of giving wealthier people do, right?

Larry talked with me about making decisions to drive that car a little longer so that they could give a little more to the church.  To take more modest vacations than perhaps some other people might.  To not wear the fanciest suits.  He and his wife made such choices so that they could give significantly and sacrificially.

What struck me is this: Larry’s giving was intentional.  As a 20-something who strove to be generous but was never very intentional about it, Larry’s attention to giving, his budgeting for and commitment to giving, showed me that giving generously, even for someone with a middle class paycheck, was possible.  Giving generously was possible, even for me.

I immediately doubled my weekly giving to my congregation, made a pledge to the seminary and re-prioritized some of my spending.  My wife and I got married about a year later, and we made a commitment to work toward tithing.  We got there after two or three years, and we’ve stayed there.  We’re tithing, and we love it.

I am grateful for Larry’s faithful example. He not only taught me about faithful giving, but he showed me how to do it.  He opened his checkbook and his life to me, and modeled for me a discipline of tithing.  His wasn’t a textbook example, or general guidance to “give what you can” or “strive for 10 percent.”  Larry gave me an explicit, here’s-how-we-do-it, model of faithful giving.  Larry held my hand and showed me the way.

It wasn’t just one conversation in his office.  For the nearly two years that I worked with Larry, he modeled for me a life of faithful and generous giving.

We don’t learn faith disciplines — whether it is giving or praying or reading the Bible or serving others — simply by being told that such things are important, or by reading a book or attending a Sunday School class.  We learn and grow into faith disciplines when others take us under their wing and how us how to do them.  I am thankful for Larry, for his faithful mentoring and for his willingness to take me under his wing and show me how to give.

Thank you, Larry.

Chris Duckworth is an ordained Lutheran pastor (ELCA) and former Development Officer at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.  He has served congregations in Virginia and in Minnesota and currently lives in Indiana with his wife and children.  Visit him online at lutheranzephyr.com.