Using Positive Visual Storytelling for Fundraising: The Science Behind Personalising a Cause

Hope foundation, Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, India, toe painter
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Using Positive Visual Storytelling for Fundraising: The Science Behind Personalising a Cause

Rockefeller Foundation, Vietnam, flood risk, children
In the autumn of 2013, two psychology researchers from Stanford University gathered to discuss the findings of their recent graduate research project into the neuroscience behind charitable giving. Both academics in the early stages of their careers, they wanted to better understand what many non-profit fundraisers had felt they’d intuitively known for some time: that people are far more likely to give when presented with an identifiable individual’s story than by statistics about a problem alone. Their conclusions lend scientific credibility to much that we do, so we thought we’d devote this post to a brief exploration of their seminal work.

Oxfam, Vietnam, Quang Binh, land rights
This is Oanh from Quang Binh Province in Vietnam, as photographed by our Creative Associate Lisa in 2016. Aged 17 at the time, she was already the sole income provider for her household, a story that Lisa told in full for Oxfam. Though we ourselves do not like to talk in terms of ‘victims’, we accept that the ‘identifiable victim effect’ makes people more likely to give for the support of fellow humans than to faceless problems or causes. This is especially so where images are perceived as positive.
Alexander Genevsky and Brian Knutson had taken 22 young adults and imaged their brains while asking them to donate to an orphanage in Sudan. The participants were presented with two images to prompt their generosity: one of a silhouette, along with the information that this was an orphaned refugee from Darfur, and another that clearly showed the face of a child from somewhere else in Africa. The test group leant towards supporting the child whose image showed an identifiable face. That autumn, as they published their conclusions, the researcher duo conceptualised the ‘identifiable victim effect’. But why do people behave this way?

It’s all about the accumbens!

Our researchers discovered that the participants’ decisions were strongly governed by the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain that helps us perceive and feel pleasure, inducing the release of an organic chemical called dopamine. The more activity detected in the accumbens, the more participants in the study group were observed to want to give; the image of the identifiable child clearly led the way.

Alexander and Brian continued in their quest to understand positive images, pleasure and the urge to give. Microloans and crowdfunding were of particular interest to them. Psychologically speaking, it seemed bizarre that people would give a loan or a donation to complete strangers without necessarily having the certainty of anything in return. Would you?

It seems that actually, millions of us do. Again, brain imaging showed that positive arousal through visual images provoked the highest rates of lending, and the most activity in the accumbens. In contrast, negative stimulation of the pleasure centre did not lead to generosity.

Even with these scientific studies out there, we sadly still come across many NGOs that prefer to provoke pity in us using distressing images of suffering. In contrast, using positive images seems like a win-win to us here at Communication for Development Ltd: we retain people’s dignity by demonstrating their resilience as fellow human beings, while activating viewers’ pleasure senses, prompting them to donate. Everyone feels good and everyone benefits.
Rockefeller Foundation, Vietnam, flood risk, children
Positive images are more likely to cause activity in the nucleus accumbens, in turn making people more likely to donate. Here’s another of Lisa’s images, shot with this principle in mind.

How can visual storytelling maximise the feel-good factor in fundraising?

While our Stanford researchers are still trying to gauge what it is about pleasure and positivity that prompts us to give, we as a company believe that seeing a real person and hearing his or her personal story evokes a feeling of connectedness. (Likewise, feeling relaxed can similarly lead us to open our wallets, which you can read more about in this blog post on colour theory.) In addition, knowing that one can assist this person, and perceiving oneself as generous, creates more positive feelings, and more accumbens activity, so a positive feedback loop is born. What does this mean in practical terms for fundraising campaigns? Here are our tips:

  • Use positive images of real people in real situations.
  • Keep it personal. What’s the person’s name? Where, and with whom, does s/he live? How exactly has support from your project changed his or her life for the better?
  • Once you have found your ‘identifiable victim’, or ‘resilient community member’ as we might prefer to call such people, continue the narrative. If the donor has already formed a connection with that person, understood the personal circumstances and decided to give, why not follow up with another visual story from the same person to further personalise what the donor’s support has meant? This is not only a great way to say thank you and to demonstrate how support has made a difference, it also has strong potential to evoke further generosity.