Sad photos: They work, but….

oxfam[Left: Oxfam built one of the world’s largest relief agencies with “in your face” newspaper ads like this. Today, those ads would be branded “poverty porn.” Image courtesy Mark Phillips’ Pinterest collection of Old Charity Ads]


Reducing a life to a single sorry snapshot: Are fundraisers feeding a negative stereotype of “those people”? It’s worth a second thought.

I emailed Gayle Gifford, ACFRE, asking her opinion.gayle

Gayle is a trusted friend, colleague, president of Cause & Effect, longtime social activist, thoughtful fundraising commentator and author of several books which unravel the mysteries of successful boards.

My plea to her…

In my new book, I wrote Gayle, I hope to deal even-handedly with the issue of “poverty porn.”

Until now, as Gayle knows, I’ve dismissed “poverty porn” and its decriers as nothing more than professional incompetence or “you’re too young to know any better” naivety.

After all, research published by the American Marketing Association, cited by fundraising master Jeff Brooks, found that photos of sad kids raise 50% more than photos of either happy kids or neutral kids.

Since I’m hired to raise money, for me that AMA research was the end of the debate. Plus: I fully agreed with my French cousin, Fabienne. She gives to many causes and has for decades. As she noted, “If you don’t show these children, they don’t exist.” A wise observation.

Last but not least: that too-smug label “poverty porn” made my blood simmer. It struck me as intellectually dishonest: a cheap trick to win the argument before the debate had even begun.

“Porn,” you say? Really?

Let’s be honest. Donors do NOT find sexual gratification in photos of distressed children. Are you calling your donors “sadists”? (I.e., Those who DO get sexual gratification from another’s pain.)


I asked Gayle…

Are there charities you know that are steering a different (“no sad kids”) course … and still bringing in cartloads of gifts?

I suspect Charity: Water is one. They never show sick kids … though they do show glasses of dirty water. I give monthly to Charity: Water. In fact, all the charities I support trade in happy outcomes, at least in their thanks and newsletters.

Right now I tell my workshop audiences: in your appeals, use sad; in your thanks and news, show good results.

What do you think?

Gayle’s response to me…

Glad to hear that you are stepping back to think a bit more about this. Having spent 7 years grappling with these issues at PLAN as a fundraiser and communicator, I’ve found the issue is way more complex than good results/not as good results.

And it’s not just the photo.

Beware, long reply:

Here’s an example that I believe captures the other side: Special Olympics.

If you look at their images and copy, it’s all upbeat. They serve athletes. Those athletes have courage, overcome obstacles, break through barriers, they are champions we root for.

As far as I know, Special Olympics does not ever use photos or copy that imply that the kids it serves are pathetic. No one gets to call these kids “retarded” anymore or to see them as “other.” They are our kids and we celebrate in their victories.

Checking Guidestar, over $88 million of the national revenue is philanthropy. And there are Special Olympics in just about every state and 170 countries.

It’s this same attitude that is at the root of the concern about “poverty porn”

Poor people around the world have dignity. They have “agency.”

Poor people worldwide are incredibly resourceful to stay alive, raise kids, create small businesses (even if it is just selling little bags of water on the street as I saw kids do in Dakar), celebrate holidays and life events. Even in refugee camps, folks are trading, importing, finding firewood, etc.

What happens as copywriters is that when it’s just about the pathetic kid and the “white messiah” as hero, we strip agency away from the people we are trying to raise money to help. And that infuriates many folks.

Another charge against us is that we get to do that because we are detached, they are foreign, we have privilege.

E.g., when did we get the release form from the parents of the malnourished child in Bangladesh whose photo of the kid we are showing so we could use the pathetic picture to raise money? They might very well say yes, but did we ask them? Did we even think we had to? We’d never consider it, using such a photo here in the States.

Now, am I saying “never”?

No, I’m not.


Is this “poverty porn”? Or is it righteous reporting?

gayle1I think without photos we don’t understand grinding poverty, death, the serious impact of war (Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the little girl who was napalmed in Vietnam [photo by Nick Ut]; or Alyan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian boy [photo by Nilufer Demir]).

Are there terrible things happening and are the lives of the poor awful?

In many ways yes … especially when they are dying of malnutrition, being raped in refugee camps, being slaughtered, etc. We want our photojournalists and reporters to show us these things so we can understand.

But like news media, when is that photo or story foremost about making money and selling papers (if it bleeds it leads) and when is it about changing hearts and minds. Creating common bonds, etc. What is our moral responsibility as fundraisers?

This is not an easy question… there is not one answer.

Does the success of the appeal, and the eventual impact of the funds raised, outweigh the other concerns? Maybe yes. We grapple with these issues all the time as fundraisers… do I take money from a tobacco company because I can put it to use to cure cancer? Do I take money from a mafia boss because it will put 10 poor kids through college?

Another thing.

I learned at PLAN that it is hard to take back that initial image and then tell another story after that. My theory is that those images trigger a powerful legacy/historical? societal story in the donor’s mind that is terribly hard to overcome on the back end.

(RE: All the issues with the American Red Cross and disaster relief. Everyone in the field of “relief” knows there often isn’t any way to spend those billions of relief dollars as relief isn’t usually where the big financial need is, it’s in the long term recovery … and that’s terribly complicated for donors to get. So because the relief story isn’t told truthfully/completely in the first request, because it’s only about raising the most money the fastest, no matter how much you try on the back end to educate, the power of that legacy story provoked by the initial images is too much too shift later. Thus the public disappointment. Thus the outrage. It was mind-boggling and terribly courageous when MSF told the world “we have enough money” for Haiti, we can’t make use of more there.)

So… is it sad face, happy face?

Perhaps it is as simple as one works better than the other and that’s that. Maybe all of my response just comes down to:

The decider shouldn’t just be the amount of money raised. If that were the case, we could condone lying, cheating and stealing to raise the most money.

So better that we all keep struggling with this issue, having conversations as fundraisers about where the lines are.

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