It’s time to stop… sugarcoating our issues

The other day, I was looking for studies that had been done on what type of images are effective in use in nonprofit direct marketing.  So I headed over to Google Scholar and searched for “use pictures fundraising appeals.”

You would have thought I was searching for snuff films.  Here are some of the titles of journal articles that faced me:

  • The pornography of poverty: A cautionary fundraising tale
  • Pictures of me: user views on their representation in homelessness fundraising appeals
  • Imaging Humanitarianism: NGO Identity and the Iconography of Childhood
  • Fundraising portrayals of people with disabilities: Donations and attitudes.

That’s just on the first page.  Apparently, some academics do not like us using pictures of the suffering we are looking to alleviate in fundraising materials.

This was a strange place for me.  I’m rarely in conversations where I’m not the pointy-headed intellectual.  One of my tenets of this blog is to use the scientific method to improve our fundraising.

And yet as I delved deeper, the articles seemed hand-wringy and nihilistic, in that they didn’t care whether or not money was raised to solve a problem as long as these pictures weren’t used.

I’m all for getting permission from people before their stories and pictures are used.  Ideally, the subject of a piece will welcome it as a way of their story being told.

But I also hear stories of brand guidelines or boards getting involved to say that only smiling happy children should be used in fundraising pieces.  This is dissonant to a donor.  They are being told about a problem and they want to help, but the children are already happy and getting well water.

So sugarcoating our issues is going to be our final (for now) Thing to Stop Doing.

It isn’t just pictures either.  How many appeals do you see or hear with underserved people?  One gets the idea that the person is a thermometer and with just a little bit more of the nonprofit’s program, they can be filled all the way up to whatever the correct level of service is.  Or, worse, one sees underserved and reads undeserved.  That one makes a big difference, but can be easily missed when reading quickly.

Most times, underserved people are poor.  People with food security issues are hungry.  People who have been impacted by violent crime are victims (if they choose to so classify).  We can tell the story plainly and evocatively.

Likewise, things aren’t challenging.  They aren’t suboptimal.  They are bad.  They are hard.  If you are talking to the right audience, they might even suck.

We’ve talked about how readability impacts our fundraising.  The easier something is to scan and get the emotional essence of, the more likely someone is to donate to it.

And that’s the goal.  We need to touch hearts and mind.  We can’t do this with phrases written by a committee.  We should be bold.  We need to preach reality.

It’s time to stop… sugarcoating our issues

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