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Nonprofit Advertising – Despair or Happiness, What’s the Better ROI?

Posted On  October 8, 2015

I spent several years working with Charitable Nonprofits (NPOs) and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), in the field and at the desk, and I can tell you the question that arises at every NPO and NGO: “How do we tell our story in a way that motivates donors?”

Many organizations feel the pressure to show heartbreaking images that are typically thought of as “call to action” advertising. You’ve seen the images of children in developing countries with flies in their eyes and extended stomachs. These ads tug at the heartstrings, but do they also tug at the purse strings?

On the flip side, you’ve probably seen fundraising ads that show happy, healthy children despite their living conditions. Do these ads motivate people to action or does it seem like the problem is already solved?

So which is it… lead with sad images that stir feelings of empathy, or showcase happy images that let the potential donor feel like part of a solution?  The answer isn’t obvious for any marketer, let alone a nonprofit with a minuscule marketing budget and no money for market research.

As part of our Social Impact program, LRW recently consulted with a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the lives of abused and foster children. They wanted to design messaging that would build its donor and volunteer base. We tested several ads with a monadic exposure (each potential donor saw only one ad), some with sad images and others with more positive images. Two executions were identical with the one small exception: one had a little boy with a sad and desperate look on his face and the other had the same boy but with a smile.

All happy images were found to be more motivating (more likely to donate and/or volunteer) than the sad images, with the smiling boy being the most motivating image of all tested. This finding had a big impact on the organization, which, like many others like them, may have leaned toward the sad, heartstring-pulling advertisement.

I’m not saying we have a universal truth about happy vs. sad imagery in marketing here. But we have established reason to challenge a common notion that desperate images in nonprofit marketing work best.

For more information on LRW’s Social Impact program, please email Nick at


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