Is a Picture Really Worth a Thousand Words?
Imagine hearing someone knocking on your door. You open the door to a smiling solicitor. The young man
identifies himself as working for a charity that helps disabled children. He shows you a picture of a sad child.
What would you do in this situation? Would you donate more money because you saw a picture of an
unhappy child? Now consider this situation. You get out of your car and enter a convenience store to buy
a newspaper. Your mind is on many things. However, your attention gravitates towards a picture of a child
on a countertop display for a charity that helps disabled children. Would you drop a few coins in the can?
In this article, I address the question of whether pictures influence donations to charity. I describe findings
from studies involving door-to-door fundraising, mail fundraising, coutertop displays, and donation boxes.
Isen and Noonberg (1979) investigated the influence of a photograph in door-to-door fundraising for the
March of Dimes. In the control condition, the poster that was presented only contained the words
"March of Dimes." A second condition involved presenting a poster with the March of Dimes logo,
but no picture of a child. In a third condition, the poster contained a picture of a smiling child.
In a fourth condition, the poster contained a picture of a child who was not smiling. Surprisingly,
the average amount donated (with nondonors included) was less in the two conditions involving a picture
of a child than in the control condition (which contained only the words "March of Dimes" on the poster).
Thornton, Kirchner, and Jacobs (1991) also investigated the impact of photographs on donations.
Two of their studies involved door-to-door fundraising (the first study was on perceived effectiveness
of fundraisng posters). In their second study, which involved door-to-door fundraising, some people
viewed a poster with a photo of a child. Others viewed a poster without a photo (the familiarity of the
charity was also investigated). Including a photo didn't make seem to make any difference. The differences
between the photo condition and the no photo condition were not statistically significant with respect to
the percentage of people donating and the amount donated. In their third study, they investigated
whether including a photo would have an impact on donations if the donations were made confidentially.
In this study, which also involved door-to-door fundraising, some people viewed a poster with a photo of
a child. Others viewed a poster without a photo. Moreover, in the confidential conditon the people were
allowed to put their contributions in an envelope. In the nonconfidential condition, the people handed their
donations to the solicitor directly. There were no statistically significant differences between the photo
condition and the no photo condition with respect to the percentage of people making a donation and
the amount donated. Moreover, including a photo did not have a different impact on the amount donated
when the donation was made confidentially (the interaction was not statistically significant).
Bekkers and Crutzen (2007) investigated the influence of a color picture on the outside of an envelope
on donations. Some people received an envelope with a color picture on the outside of the envelope.
Other people received an envelope without a picture on the outside of the envelope. Among the
planned donors, there were no statistically significant effects on the percentage of people making a
donation and the amount donated. In one analysis among incidental donors, a smaller percentage
of people make a donation in the condition with the color picture than in the condition without the
color picture. Moreover, in one analysis with the people who donated, for incidental donors, the
average amount donated was less in the condition with the picture than in the condition without the picture.
Countertop Displays and Donation Boxes
In a fourth study, Thornton, Kirchner, and Jacobs (1991) investigated the impact of having a photo
versus no photo in countertop displays in stores. More money was donated to the countertop displays
that included a photo than the countertop displays that had no photo. (the familiarity of the charity was
also investigated in the third and fourth studies).
Perrine and Heather (2000) investigated the influence of pictures of puppies (picture versus no picture)
on donations to a Humane Society in two studies. The studies also involved the investigation of the influence
of legitimizing small donations. The pictures of puppies were placed on donation boxes. In the first study
(field study), the donation boxes were placed in several locations (e.g., veterinary offices and stores). In their
first study, they found that more money was donated when there was a picture of puppies than when there
was no picture. Perrine and Heather conducted a second study in a laboratory setting. The participants
were informed that the study was concerned with how people make decisions about charitable donations.
Each participant was given fifteen cents to donate, and there were two donation boxes. They were told that
they could divide the money in any way they wanted to. There was a different organization for each donation
box. The findings of this laboratory study were similar to the first study. More money was donated to the
donation box involving the Humane Society when there was a picture of puppies than when there was no picture.
Making Sense of the Findings
The findings from several studies are conflicting. It's possible that pictures may be effective for countertop
displays and donation boxes becaue they attract attention. Pictures may not be effective for other types
of fundraising beasue the solicitor already has the person's attention.
Bekkers, R., & Crutzen, O. (2007). Just keep it simple: A field experiment on fundraising letters.
International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 12, 371-378.
Isen, A. M., & Noonberg, A. (1979). The effect of photographs of the handicapped on donations to charity:
When a thousand words may be too much. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 9, 426-431.
Perrine, R. M., & Heather, S. (2000). Effects of picture and even-a-penny-will-help appeals on
anonymous donations to charity. Psychological Reports, 86, 551-559.
Thornton, B., Kirchner, G., & Jacobs, J. (1991). Influence of a photograph on a charitable appeal: A
picture may be worth a thousand words when it has to speak for itself. Journal of Applied Social
Psychology, 21, 433-445