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.


6 thoughts on “Wisdom Wednesdays: Presenting the Right Image

  1. Erin’s article is very insightful. Negative images are troubling and I always wonder whether or not the appealing ministry using sad, sorrowful images derives any successful outcomes from their efforts. A picture with a smile would say it does.

  2. Thanks, Rich. I agree … just think of some of those TV ads for various causes that just leave you feeling depressed. Beyond the ethical considerations that Erin does such an excellent job of laying out, depression isn’t a good motivator, but hope, love and a positive outlook are great motivators.

  3. Erin could not be more correect in her view. Remember that the secular world responds to dispair with emotions of guilt and pain (sometimes works). We as individuals and collectively as leaders of Christian ministries live in the Joy of Christ. No matter who we are helping, it is always with the first message that Christ is the answer, so rejoice. Perhaps Paul capsulized it best in Phillipians 4: 4-6. I am blessd that these are also my confirmation verses! That’s a much more powerful way to raise needed dollars from people who care.

    Dan Johnson – Lutheran Ministries Media, Fort Wayne, IN

  4. Pingback: ELCA Malaria Campaign » Blog Archive » Presenting the Right Images - Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

  5. The ELCA Malaria Campaign is talking about this post, and discussed how they choose appropriate, yet powerful, pictures for their messaging:

    You may have noticed that the photos used in the ELCA Malaria Campaign don’t show sick children dying from malaria. Instead, they show the skilled volunteers and health care workers who are implementing impactful programming. They depict program participants who have benefited from Lutheran malaria programs. They show children and families whose lives have changed for the better. – See more at: http://blogs.elca.org/malaria/post/presenting-the-right-images-18#sthash.dB4xPoU4.dpuf

    Good to hear such care is put into ethically promoting ministries for God’s people.

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