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.
Despite 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.