Caution! Campaign Images can Make or Break your Fundraiser

  • Sash Neser
  • 11 June 2020
  • 5 minute read


As viewers and consumers of media we are constantly exposed to images and messages designed to get our attention and encourage us to take a call to action. When it comes to charities and not-for profit’s seeking donations, we see lots of variation in the types of images and messages used.

For example, look at the images and messages below from some high profile charities.

The first example is from World Vision and features a smiling child and an inspiring message that you can help ‘build resilient communities’ by donating.



This is in stark contrast to the next example from The Smith Family. Here we see the opposite with a sad child with a grim message that by not helping disadvantaged children, they will ‘fall even further behind’.


Both campaigns feature powerful messages and powerful images but it raises a question. Which campaign is more effective in getting people to donate?

This was the focus of some recent research conducted in 2018 by the University of Central Florida with findings published in an article ’Should donation ads include happy victim images? The moderating role of regulatory focus’.

The research was conducted by showing participants a variety of donation requests from a fictitious charity. Each request had a unique combination of images and messaging. The images were of victims that had sad or happy faces but also images of victims with a neutral expression, that is to say, not really happy or sad. The messages in each request were also changed to be a positive message that promoted a good outcome for victims eg. your donation will help to save the lives of children or a negative messages focussing on preventing a bad outcome eg. unless you help more children will suffer.

Reading through the research it intrigued me to see which combination of images and messages is being used by well-known charities. Looking at examples from web pages for some of the most reputable charities in Australia (rated by Third Sector in 2019) revealed that there are many combinations. Examples below show happy, neutral and sad images combined with either positive or negative messages. It is also clear that the interpretation may change from one viewer to the next.



1. Royal Flying Doctor Service – Neutral image with negative message


2. Careflight – Neutral image with a positive message



3. Fred Hollows Foundation – Sad image with negative message



4. Starlight Children’s Foundation – Sad Image with positive message


5. Camp Quality – Happy image with positive message



Looking through the examples, the biggest and most reputable organisations are using different combinations of images and messaging. Does this suggest that the images and messaging used don’t matter and that all combinations are as good as each other? To answer this question, the researchers conducted four separate studies, designed to help answer the question.


Happy faces or sad faces, which works best?


The Research

In each of the four studies, a fresh set of participants were asked to consider a range of donation requests. Each of these requests comprised of different combinations of images and messaging (much like the examples above). Each study was designed to independently understand different aspects of the impact of victim images and messaging. The four studies were as follows:

Study 1

Participants were asked to imagine they had received an email request from a charity. Based on the email they were asked to rate if they would be prepared to donate.

Study 2

Again, participants were asked to imagine they had received an email request from a charity. Based on the images and messaging, they were asked to evaluate the  the charity as either favourable or unfavourable.

Study 3

Participants were asked to imagine that they came across an online request for donations through a crowdfunding platform. Like Study 1 and Study 2, they rated both their intention to donate AND evaluated the charity as either favourable or unfavourable.

Study 4

Participants were asked to imagine they received an email based request for donation AND that they had viewed a request online through a crowd funding program. They were asked to rate if they thought their donation would make a difference to the victims and also rate their intention to donate.


The Results

Study 1
  • Happy images of victims combined with positive messages resulted in the highest intention to donate
  • Neutral images with a positive message produced the lowest intention to donate
  • Sad images were in the middle and the intention to donate was the same regardless of whether the message was positive or negative.


Study 2
  • Charities were given a higher evaluation when participants were shown a request with a happy image and a positive message.
  • Sad images regardless of the message being positive or negative resulted in a lower evaluation of the charity.


Study 3
  • Happy images with a positive message resulted in a higher intention to donate (like Study 1) and a better evaluation of the charity (like Study 2)
  • Happy images with a negative message scored lower than sad images


Study 4
  • Happy images with positive messages had a much higher impact on the intention to donate than either happy images with a negative message or sad images.
  • Happy images with a positive message also made participants feel more confident that their donation would make a difference, increasing their intention to donate.


In Summary

The combined findings from each of the four studies are conclusive.

If you want people to take up your call to action and contribute to your fundraising efforts, a combination of happy victim images with a positive message will give you the best result.

This combination will also make it more likely that potential donors will have a better initial impression of your organisation and they will have greater confidence that their donation will make a difference. Win-win.

Hopefully, you can take these findings and optimise the images and messages for your fundraising campaign. Don’t forget there are other ways you can enhance your fundraising efforts, especially when it comes to donations. Learning how to ask for donations is an important skill and you should also make sure that you provide plenty of social proof to maximise donations from your current donors and even help to reconnect with lapsed donors.

We wish you the very best in your fundraising efforts.



1. ’Should donation ads include happy victim images? The moderating role of regulatory focus’, Zemack-Rugar. Y. & Klucarova-Travani. S., (2016), Marketing Letters, Vol. 29, pp. 421–434

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