Angie MacAlpine, Creative Director  ●  4/26/2019

The Case for Happy and Sad Photos in Your Food Bank Fundraising



When it comes to food bank photos, balance is key.

If you’ve been in this business a while, then you’ve no doubt heard your agency tell you that sad pictures sell. You have to show need. You have to tell the “before” story. This isn’t exactly breaking news, but it’s only half the story.

The truth is there’s no one simple answer — it’s a balancing act. Increasingly, we’ve seen more positive and “on-brand” images with smiling faces pull great results in both direct mail and online in our food bank vertical. In head-to-head tests with pensive or sad images versus happy faces, we’ve seen flat and even winning results with happier photos.


This is great news for marketing teams and fundraisers alike. But before you march off and change all of your creative, hold the phone! This isn’t a universal truth, and it requires careful testing and the right images no matter what emotion you’re trying to convey.

But it is promising because it points to the good work food banks are doing to push their brand in their markets. And for those who are under the Feeding America brand umbrella, it likely means you’re starting to reap the benefits of their marketing efforts, too.

We’ve certainly heard loud and clear how important it is to our clients that we use images that look and feel like their brand. And leveraging brand equity makes sense. Plus, for our clients at least, it’s working. Maybe there’s enough bad stuff in the world that a happy face is refreshing to see on occasion. At any rate, it’s worth taking note of and testing. But it doesn’t mean your fundraising should be all shiny and happy. If you don’t strike a balance and convey need, your campaign will fail.


3 Things to Remember When You’re Choosing Photos for Your Next Food Bank Annual Fund Appeal:

  1. What story am I telling, and does the image fit that story? This is where that idea of balance comes in. Do you have a smiling child with a handful of grapes sitting next to a headline that’s screaming urgency and need? If you’re going to try using a photo of a smiling child, make sure the story is about a positive outcome. Instead, if you’re telling an urgent, need-based story, this might be the right place for a more pensive photo.
  2. Is the image believable? There are plenty of great stock photo resources available, but there are also plenty of awful options. Make sure your photos look authentic. Families should look like families you know and not models. Check out the 9 Tips to Pick the Right Photo That Compels Donors to Act.
  3. What’s going on in the background? Sometimes it’s easy to ignore the background when you find the perfect smiling child. But be sure to look at the scenery, too. Is this child sitting in the kitchen of a million-dollar home? Is there a fully stocked pantry in the background? Be aware of what your donors might notice that could diminish credibility.



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