Are Photographs Always Necessary to Elicit Charitable Donations?

When you think of charitable appeals, what do you think of? Given the abundance of charitable giving materials, you probably have an image in your mind. Charitable appeals (like this) often use photographs of recipients to elicit empathy, and hopefully, donations. However, our results suggest that photographs of recipients may not necessarily increase donations or empathy.

Photos of potential recipients provide illustrative examples of where donor funds may go. Unfortunately, the collection of these photos can be costly and time-consuming, especially if you hope to collect a photo of each individual recipient who could receive a donation. Moreover, if you are going to take the time to collect these photos, you should first know whether they will actually be effective in eliciting donations.  

Do Happy or Sad Recipients Lead to Greater Donations?

As you may know, our global health and development team is currently helping the Joep Lange Institute and Pharmaccess Foundation to develop a peer-to-peer charitable giving platform called Mbrella. On this platform, donors from the United States can contribute to the healthcare costs of low-income African families. As shown in a mockup screen below, donors can cover part of the insurance premiums ranging from 1 month ($5) to 11 months ($55). In this mockup design, adding a photo of the “recipient” can potentially increase the likelihood that someone donates, and the number of months someone is willing to help cover. Moreover, the expression of recipient can play an important role, as previous research (and the multitude of emotional appeals we see on a regular basis) suggests that donors would be more willing to give to a recipient with a sad expression compared to a recipient with a neutral or happy expression.

Elicit Charitable Donations

To test this, we conducted a study on Amazon Mechanical Turk to examine the impact of differing facial expressions on donation using a prototype of the Mbrella mobile site. On the donation screen, participants saw no photo, or a recipient with a sad, neutral, or happy expression (see the screenshots below for the exact photos used).

impact of differing facial expressions on donationWe found no significant differences in donation amount or donation propensity whether participants saw a photo or not. Moreover, while the screen with sad expression photo triggered slightly more donations than the screen with no photo, neutral and positive expressions display a pattern indicating that they could potentially even decrease donation amounts compared to no photo.

We saw a similar pattern with feelings of empathy – participants actually felt significantly less empathy toward the recipient when we showed a neutral or happy expression compared to when we included no photo at all.

Our results suggest that a donation solicitation is not necessarily more effective with a photo than without one, but it is important to note that participants in all conditions saw an emotional description about the recipient (see the “about” section in the mock up screen above). It is possible that this description created empathetic feelings on its own, leaving little room for the photographs to have an additional impact on donations. This will be the subject of future tests.

Here are some tips based on our research:

Photos may not always be necessary to elicit empathy. Our results suggest that simply providing a detailed description of a specific person may be enough to elicit empathy on its own. Future tests will provide more insight on this.

If you do include a photo, a sad expression may be best. Past research indicates that a sad expression may elicit greater donations, and our research suggests a similar (though not significant) pattern. A happy expression may seem incongruent with the recipient’s situation, leading to a decrease in empathy toward the recipient, and possibly, lower donations.

Test the impact of different appeals. Perhaps it is unsurprising that we as behavioral scientists are promoting experimentation. Nonetheless, we truly believe that the best way to know which donation appeals are most effective for your organization is to formally test what works and what doesn’t. Our results may be unique to our platform, and could differ in the context of your organization. While testing can be time-consuming, it is much better in the long run than blindly guessing what will compel donors to open their hearts and wallets in support of your cause.


The results of this experiment suggest that including a photograph of the donation recipient does not compel donors to contribute more in the context of our insurance co-funding platform mockup. It is worth testing the effect of photos on donation, as they may be specific to your cause. If photos are not necessary, the overhead cost of gathering the photos can be spared, enabling you to channel more funds directly toward those who need them.



Small, D. A., & Verrochi, N. M. (2009). The Face of Need: Facial Emotion Expression on Charity Advertisements. Journal of Marketing Research, 46(6), 777–787.