Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Fundraising Dissonance

This picture, "old man eating", or one like it, is common in rescue mission fundraising during this time of the year. The Donor Power Blog describes the problem with it. Studies show that this kind of picture is the most effective in generating donor giving even though the old man is not typical of the residents of most of our shelters and missions. Most tend to be women and young adults. Yet the OME outperforms pictures of women and children every time. The dilemma is, if this is what touches people's hearts and motivates them to give, should we use it for the sake of moving the ministry forward financially, or should we try to educate our donors regarding the actual face of homelessness? It is a dissonance we face often at Breakthrough. Here's a quote from the blog...

So what are you going to do?

Stubbornly insist on showing the "real" more typical need -- and cripple your ability to do your work by decreasing the number of donors who join you? That would be malfeasance. It would lead to more suffering.

Spend a zillion dollars trying to "educate" every donor in America about the real problem? That won't work -- anyway, they already know.

The Donor Power solution: Meet donors where they are -- not where you wish they'd be. Put forth the need that motivates them to respond. Then, you'll find, you earn the right to have the conversation with them about what you do, and who you (and they) serve. Those who are ready to move beyond the gut reaction to OME will do just that.
I would add that we need to do both, reach donors where they are, but also try to move them to a deeper understanding of the issues of race, poverty and homelessness. That is why we started the BUILD program. You can sign up now for groups to start again in January.

Can anyone help me understand why this picture motivates people to give?


Paul said...

Hey, Arloa. This is Paul Luikart. I think it motivates people because the old man looks 'poor'. He is skinny, gaunt, hasn't shaved or had a haircut (if we assume he doesn't actually want a beard and longer hair), and is eating food on a tray, which makes it look like somebody served it to him. I think the assumption is made, because of his appearance, that it came from a soup line, instead of a restaurant or cafeteria. Not to mention the fact that he looks old, and people more easily equate advanced age with the inability to take care of oneself and therefore, are more worthy of charity.

I think when peole donate money to an organization, they want to feel like their money is going to help the 'poor' and, though they might want to know what 'poor' is, they don't want a long explanation. A picture of somebody who looks 'poor' is a good enough explanation of poverty and a good enough motivator to give. Though the more acurate face of poverty might be a picture of a woman bundled up with her kids or a young man standing on an empty street corner, those pictures might not look 'poor enough.' With the old man, because of his physical appearance and age , the necessary visual cues of poverty are in place.

I assume those visual clues come from a time when the face of the poor might have looked more like this fellow. I'm thinking of Bowery bums or Skid Row winos, who may have tended to look more like this guy...elderly, hardened features and caucasian. From what I know, a time when that might have been a more accurate representation of poverty and homelessness was a few decades ago. I think that goes a long, long way in pointing out the need to educate donors on the ways in which poverty and homelessness has changed and who is now primarily affected by these things.

To be honest, there is a way that displaying this old man's image as the face of poverty so that donors will feel like donating or donating more feels underhanded. I can definitely understand doing it, no doubt, but it feels a little dishonest. Like displaying that image helps to perpetuate the idea that this guy (old, white and grizzled) needs the most help and when it comes to making a choice between organizations that serve primarily old, white and grizzled guys (or, at least, use this image to make it seem like that's who they serve) versus organizations that serve the actual poor (which, pretty much every organization really does...you can't choose who is poor and comes to your door for help), the actual poor get second priority. Does that make sense?

Arloa Sutter said...

It makes a lot of sense Paul. We need to be honest in representing who we serve and what we do. It is tempting to say what donors want to hear and I think, to a point, it is important to reach them where they are, but we also need to represent our homeless guests with honesty and integrity.

I am wondering if perhaps donors respond to this picture because they can somehow relate to it, like, "Oh, that could be me." White men are the most privileged in our society, so perhaps when donors see a white man on the skids, it touches something in them. Interestingly, there is a guy in our day center who looks quite like the man in the picture. His picture is on our web site under the men's services tab.

Arloa Sutter said...

Ooops. I just checked. He is actually on the home page of our web site.

Anonymous said...

Ha. Yeah, it's funny, as I read your post today, it just so happened to be a day when we moved a new gentleman into our supportive housing program...who happened to be white with a long beard.

Paul said...

oops. That last comment was from me, but somehow i messed up in posting it and it came up anonymous.