Why Sad Faces Equal Happier Fundraising
We’ve all heard the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Nonprofits routinely use pictures to communicate their messages to their constituents. Usually, the photos are selected to represent the people who will be helped by supporting the mission of the nonprofit.
A basic choice made by marketing departments is the decision to use happy faces or sad faces to influence constituents’ giving. Using pictures is a technique that psychologists call “priming.” Showing a picture “primes” the viewer to respond in a certain way later—in this case, to agree to donate money.
Which works best, happy faces or sad faces? It turns out there is research that supports both approaches.
Seeing people smile makes us feel happy, an effect that psychologists call “emotional contagion.” People who feel happy are more likely to respond more favorably to a fundraising appeal. According to an article in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, donating allows people to maintain their happy mood.
Smiling faces also reflect the positive outcome of the donor’s involvement. It reinforces the idea that their support makes a difference in the life of someone served by the nonprofit.
Sad faces, on the other hand, are effective in communicating the severity of the need. The so-called “sick baby” appeal focuses attention on the importance of the issue. And emotional contagion works both ways. Just like seeing smiling faces makes us feel happier, seeing sad faces makes us feel sad. Research has demonstrated that sad faces can motivate people to donate in order to avoid unhappy feelings.
Happy or sad: which do you choose? Here’s where it gets interesting. It turns out that the effectiveness of showing happy or sad faces depends on the person who is doing the looking. What makes a difference is the person’s level of “involvement” with nonprofits, whether or not they volunteer, raise funds, etc.
A pattern was seen in a study of messaging to solicit donations for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Prospective donors were shown either a face of a happy or sad child with the words, “Small change, big difference. You can help fight childhood cancer.”
Researchers measured the prospects’ level of nonprofit involvement and their willingness to support St. Jude’s. Prospects who reported high levels of involvement with nonprofits were more likely to pledge funds to St. Jude’s after seeing happy faces. People less involved with nonprofits were significantly more likely to pledge funds after seeing sad faces.
For people who are involved with the nonprofit, sad faces may remind them of the difficult challenges in accomplishing the mission and discourage them from donating. With the “involved” audience, happy faces are more likely to affirm their participation and motivate them to continue their support.
In contrast, individuals who aren’t involved in the nonprofit are more likely to be drawn in by the urgency of the mission represented by sad faces. They are motivated to donate to relieve their sense of sadness.
Our takeaway? A couple of things: First, money spent on automated marketing tools is a good investment. Without the ability to segment your audience into people who are involved with your nonprofit and those who are not, this kind of marketing savvy is worthless.
Second, this principle should work with written messages as well as images. Again, the ability to segment your audience is key. Then, test, test, test. A/B testing to craft the right message, delivered to the right audience, is cheap and can result in a nice windfall for your organization.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising” and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.