July 26, 2017

Wise Giving Wednesday: Photographs in Charity Appeals

Earlier this year, Wise Giving Wednesday featured a news item about an alleged fundraising fraud involving the use of a photo of a boy fighting cancer. When we hear about things like this, our heart sinks and we wonder how someone can commit such an unconscionable act in the name of philanthropy. 

This previous story also brings to mind the power that pictures have to motivate many to give.  They grab our attention and can bring an emotional response: a suffering child, an abused animal, a refugee camp, or an area devastated by natural disaster. The vast majority of appeals today whether online or in your mailbox will include one or more photographs or pictures to help illustrate the problem or issue that the charity is seeking to address. Recipients may not review all the solicitation copy, but they all see the pictures. 

The potential power of photos is all the more reason we believe that charities need to make sure that they are making accurate use of them. For example, if an appeal includes a picture of a child assisted by the charity, readers will likely assume that it is a relatively recent photograph unless told otherwise. If, for some reason, a photo is more than three years old, we believe the fundraising copy should note its age. When old photos appear in appeals, it does not necessarily reflect an intent to deceive. Rather, a charity may decide to reuse all or part of a successful fundraising letter long past the time it was first distributed, and may inadvertently distribute photos past their prime. 

Another potential problem that can occur is the use of photos of past similar events – such as an earthquake or a hurricane. Again, unless told otherwise, potential donors will assume the pictures they see displayed in appeals reflect the current natural disaster and not a past one.  Relief organizations should properly identify photos if they are not depicting the specific tragedy described in the solicitation.  

BBB Charity Standard 15 calls for solicitations and informational materials, distributed by any means, to be accurate, truthful and not misleading, both in whole and in part.  If appeals include outdated photos that are represented as being current, the charity will not meet this standard. 


As part of our Building Trust Video series, we are pleased to provide a video that features Ambassador Daniel Speckhard (Rt.), President & CEO, Lutheran World Relief (a BBB Accredited Charity) which works to improve the lives of smallholder farmers and people experiencing poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America, both in times of emergencies and for the long term. The organization reports that, with the financial support of US Lutherans and other donors, it strengthens communities to achieve lasting results through programs in agriculture, climate, and emergency operations. 


We are always working with charities to publish or update reports for donors. Visit Give.org or local BBBs to check out any charity before giving. Our recently evaluated charities include: 

Finally, remember to let us know by going to https://www.give.org/ask-us-about-a-charity1/ if you are  interested in seeing a report on a charity not on the list and we will do our best to produce one.   

H. Art Taylor, President & CEO
BBB Wise Giving Alliance