New study: Sad images can help charities attract donors

Television advertisements showing sad-faced, hungry children may seem cliché, but they’re probably an effective way for charities to attract new donors.

That’s one takeaway from a new study conducted by Xiaoxia Cao, an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies (JAMS). Cao looked at whether images of happy or sad people in need were more successful in getting people to open their wallets.

She created a fictitious campaign for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, showing participants messages involving children who were happy or sad and then asking them how likely they were to donate to the hospital.

She found that people with a history of charitable giving were more likely to donate in response to a happy child, while those with little involvement in charity were better swayed by a sad-faced child.

Cao believes that when people are not involved in charitable giving, they must be convinced of the urgency and need for donations. In comparison, people with a history of giving already believe in the importance of charitable causes and are more likely to donate when they see the positive effects of previous donations.

Cao’s work, published in the Nonprofit Management & Leadership, may help charities better tailor their calls for donations.

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