When to Use “Need” and “Joy” Photos in Nonprofit Fundraising 

A quick guide for making the right choices with fundraising photos

From Sarah Wallin, Creative Director

Read Time: 5 minutes

Take a look at this photo and tell me how you feel… at BDI, we call this a “need” photo. 

Now take a look at this photo…  we’d call this one a “joy” photo. 

If you felt more drawn to the second photo, with the smiling face of someone who obviously had been helped, you’re not alone. As humans, we’re drawn to smiling faces. 

In fact, even goats prefer smiles to frowns. That’s right… A recent study looked at how goats responded to photos of happy and angry human faces. Not surprisingly, 52% of goats chose to walk toward the happy, smiling face. 

When it comes to nonprofit fundraising, though, happy isn’t always better. While as humans, we may be naturally drawn toward smiling faces, there are also good (strategic and creative) reasons to use sad faces in your fundraising campaigns. It’s the age-old question: Which works better in fundraising – need photos or joy photos? 

The Struggle For Nonprofits is Real 

This is personal for many nonprofits, and I get why… Your nonprofit’s mission is to reach out and serve those who are hurting and in need. But as you also know: That’s not the end of the story! So you’re eager to show others what you see every day – the lives that are changing in amazing ways because of your programs and services… the smiles on people’s faces and the hope in their eyes. And you want to reflect that in the imagery you share with your donors to help them see the result of how their donations are helping change hurting people in your community. 

So which is better… showing the beginning of the story, or the end of the story? I bet you know what I’m about to say, and you may already be groaning, but here’s the truth: You must use BOTH need and joy photos. 

Here’s a quick guide for when to use need photos and joy photos in your fundraising… 

Using Need Photos in Fundraising  

Need-based fundraising campaigns. Are you asking the donor to help solve a problem? It could be anything from asking them to help provide care for people experiencing homelessness or making an urgent plea for food or other supplies. But if you are inviting the donor to help solve a problem in your community, then it’s really important that you illustrate that problem with a photo that reflects the message. 

Example: Recently, I received an appeal from a nonprofit that asked me to help fund critically needed medical supplies in the letter… but the photo at the top of the letter showed a woman holding her baby and smiling. Neither the woman nor the child looked like they needed medical attention – and it threw off the entire ask of the letter. Long story short: I needed this nonprofit to show me someone who needed my help.   

Solution-based need photos work too. You can also show a need photo that illustrates not who the donor is helping, but how the donor can help. With an issue like hunger, you’d want to choose a photo that shows a man, woman or child eating a nutritious-looking plate of food to show the donor how their money would be used at your nonprofit. Showing a person receiving that plate of food is a great visual connection with an ask to “help provide more food.” The person with the meal might even be smiling – and that also helps reinforce the message! 

Using Joy Photos in Fundraising  

Newsletters. If there’s a perfect spot to use joy photos, it’s in your newsletters! That’s because your newsletters serve as a “report back” to your donors about the outcomes of their gifts… and one of the best ways to do that is through a story of a life that has been changed. That’s a positive outcome – and a joyous photo does a great job at reinforcing that message. Here’s a photo that will draw you in… and find out more about this woman’s obvious joy! 

Example: Remember the example above? Well, that smiling woman could be a perfect fit for a newsletter that tells her story… the “why” behind her big smile. Imagine your donor seeing the joy in her face alongside a headline like “Diana’s looking toward the future with hope now!” – wouldn’t it make them feel all warm and fuzzy, knowing they had a role in helping Diana? The power of her story, combined with her photo, shows an outcome that also propels donors – especially your most invested donors – to help again. 

Not every communication needs an “ask.” As you think about your fundraising program, you should focus on your nonprofit’s needs and clearly ask for what you need from supporters. But… in addition to a focused fundraising program, make sure you share the joy with your donors too! Tell them about the successes from your programs and pair those stories with photos that illustrate the triumph and transformation. 

Support Your Message with the Right Photo

Long story short: Nonprofits have to show need and joy! The most effective way to support your fundraising message is by choosing the right kind of photo. Use need photos when you’re asking donors to help you solve a problem. 

Remember, in a given donor appeal, you can use photos that depict the problem… and photos that show specifics of how that problem is being solved at your nonprofit. Use joy photos alongside stories of changed lives to illustrate how your donors are helping and have already helped people at your nonprofit.

And if you encounter a goat anytime soon, remember – they prefer a happy face! 

More on fundraising! Click here to read more “Creativity & Marketing” on our website. 

  • Sarah Wallin

    Sarah Wallin, Vice President, Creative Director

    With more than 10 years of nonprofit and Rescue Mission experience, Sarah Wallin brings her expertise and imagination to the creative work at BDI. She draws from her background as a college English instructor and writing work for a variety of nonprofit clients like Boys and Girls Clubs, Goodwill of Los Angeles, Catholic Charities and Summit Ministries, as well as a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. 

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