How to illustrate difficult causes and subjects

Images are an important part of web (and social media) content. But for many organisations using images is problematic. There are thousands of charities who cover sensitive or difficult to illustrate causes. Many therefore don’t use images at all which makes their message hard to engage with. This post focussing on websites looks at some ways around the problem.

The purpose of images

A web page without images can feel overwhelming. Images help skim reading as they break up the text and work as shorthand to help the user make sense of what the page is about. Therefore images play an important part in boosting the usability of a page.

They also help to soften difficult subjects. Websites with no photos can feel cold and impersonal with no human connection. Using a photo in a case study or an information page about an issue or condition can help to bring the subject to life. On a donation page it makes us feel empathy. We relate to text more if we can picture the person or issue being described.

For example, here is Albert’s story from St Joseph’s Hospice, shown here with the image taken out. It has good headings and an engaging first paragraph.

Case study with no image

Here is the same story again but as it appears with an image. The image instantly connects you with Albert and the care he received at the hospice. It draws you in to the story as you can relate to him straightaway. It also brightens up the page and humanises a potentially upsetting story. It helps that it is a beautiful picture clearly showing care in the setting of the hospice.

Case study but with image

“We can’t use images”

But what if Albert’s story was so sensitive that he couldn’t be shown? Or the page was one about a medical condition or dealing with bereavement – much harder to represent? It can be tempting to just not bother because it is too difficult. A culture of “we can’t use images” can develop and become the norm without anyone challenging the fears or trying out some creative solutions. It is understandable that worries about alienating readers or lack of time, budget or skill create barriers to solving the problem.

I looked at hundreds of small charity websites while researching this post. The vast majority didn’t contain any images at all. In a competitive market, having a dense text-only website where users can click on to something more friendy within seconds, means you can’t afford to ignore images. Images perform an important function and there are creative ways around the problem.

What makes a good image?

Images can appear at lots of different sizes depending on how they are formatted and what type of device is being used to look at them. Images that work well online are therefore clear and uncluttered. They are unambiguous. They instantly tell a story and are emotional where they need to be.

It can be tempting to use a literal image; something which shows the obvious and is easy for everyone to understand. But being too literal can help to reinforce stereotypes. Time to Change’s Get the Picture campaign provided alternatives to the standard ‘headclutcher’ which they argued stigmatised mental health. To date they say that their bank of alternative images have been downloaded 17,000 times. And this blog post by Patrick Murray from NPC called Do charities need a ‘Gran test’ for fundraising argues that stereotypical images of beneficiaries used in fundraising material are doing much to reinforce negative views in order to raise funds. He cites a few examples of organisations who are consciously not using obvious images.

But even if you aren’t working to change attitudes, showing the same type of literal image over and over again can lose impact. If you are medical condition charity how many pictures of people wincing in pain can you show?

Images don’t have to be literal – the actual person going through the actual thing being discussed. They can instead create a tone by showing the context of a situation. Or they can help to reinforce your brand by showing images of the work you do and the people you help. How you do this depends on the style of image you use. Finding your own “tone of voice” for images should be part of your branding (for example Parkinson’s UK include their image style in their brand description) and your content strategy.

Remember that what works offline might be different from what works on your website or Facebook. And what works on your donation pages might be different from the images you use in your services section.

Images of people

Stories which describe the work you do can be very powerful. For many organisations there will be sensitivities around privacy. There are lots of different ways to illustrate a story if you can’t directly show the person involved.

This case study from drug and alcohol charity, Addaction tells the story of Alison, a young mother. The image preserves her anonymity as it only shows the side of her face. It could of course be a model rather than Alison but it helps us to connect with her story. It feels like an appropriate image to use.

Addaction: Case study image of woman looking towards a window. We can see her hair and cheek

Images don’t always need to show a face to give impact. Showing a personal object or situation can be just as effective. This survivor’s story from Women’s Aid uses a close-up of women’s hands holding mugs. It suggests warmth and support.

Woman's Aid: close up two women's hands around tea cups

Images of children have to be handled sensitively. If you are a children’s charity you can’t avoid the issue. Options include using images which protect anonymity, making use of very clear model release forms or good stock photography.

This page from Adoption UK about aggression in adoptive families uses a very strong image. It is quite brave but having an image of an aggressive child might help to normalise or reassure families going through the same thing. The page wouldn’t feel as supportive without it.

Adoption UK: page about aggression showing a young angry boy shouting direct to camera

Other images

Images don’t have to be photos of people. This Prisoners Abroad case study includes an image of a quote. It helps with skim reading and to highlight the important message.

Prisoners Abroad: use an image of a quote to break up the page

Images of things can also bring your work to life. These stories from Make Lunch use a thank you letter and an image of the food cooked.

Make Lunch: close-up of a thank you letter and an image of pizza

Illustrating difficult subjects

Illustrating shocking stories can be really hard – how much should or could you show? It’s always a judgement call based on the topic and the culture of your organisation. But storytelling is much more effective with images and shocking ones are sometimes needed to show the gravity of a situation. For example, the shocking image of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi in September changed many views on the refugee crisis. Read more about why images trigger empathy.

Images illustrating shocking stories don’t always have to be graphic or shocking themselves. Showing the situation can be really effective. This blog post from British Red Cross on the refugee crisis uses lots of images taken in the camps in France. This picture of a muddy toy is really powerful.

British Red Cross: blog on the refugee crisis showing a muddy teddy in a refugee camp

Simple graphics like this page from NE Child Poverty Commission can work well especially if used sparingly. (See previous blog post on illustrating data.)

NE Child Poverty: graphic showing one in five childrenin the UK live in poverty

Photos from an image library can be a life-saver when illustrating common-place but sensitive subjects. This example from a page on sex by Diabetes UK is a good example.

Diabetes UK: sex and relationships page using a stock image of a couple in bed

Using graphics, illustrations or stylised images can also be used instead of photographs. They can be a good way to illustrate a complex idea or situation. See this blog post from Mind which uses an illustration. Kelly’s story from Crisis is an example of using an illustration to tell the whole story rather than just illustrate it.

Mind blog: illustrated with a cartoon about taking compliments

Filling blank spaces

When your website has a space for a photo on every page, it can be a real challenge to fill those spaces especially on “subject” pages. In these cases it can be tempting to be literal. But images which show detail or pattern or a general mood can work well here.

For example, this navigation page about seizures and the brain page from Epilepsy Society uses a close up of brain scans. The picture doesn’t actually teach us anything but helps to lift the page which would otherwise be very functional.

Epilepsy Society: image of brain scans

Practical tips

  • Sourcing images – can you find an expert volunteer or talented member of staff to take photos of your work? If not, it is worth investing some budget into producing a portfolio of quality images you can use across your work.  Plan your shoot so you maximise the time and resources you have.
  • Model release / photo consent forms – if using images of ‘real people’ you should always get signed permission from them which specifies how and where you will use the image. Take a look at Macmillan’s photo consent form and this one from Parkinson’s UK (Word). Diabetes UK have an open form for people to share theit story.
  • Stock photos – images of ‘real people’ always feel more authentic than stock photography but for some organisations or situations stock images are a good solution. There are lots of free sources available (see below) but remember that the images you choose may be being used by other organisations to illustrate other topics.
  • Alt text – when including images you should always include alt text. Alt text is important for people who can’t see the image due to accessibility or technical reasons. See the 5 golden rules for compliant alt text (AbilityNet).
  • Manage your images – plan where you use which images. Using the same image over and over again means it will lose impact. Build a database or manage your images online (see below).

Useful links

Don’t miss the Social Media Exchange on 8 February, this practical event is a change to develop your skills. There are a few sessions on photography and images.

In summary

If you need alternatives to literal images or find it difficult to find people to represent your cause there are lots of creative ways to use images. Why not experiment with some of the following and see what works for your brand and cause:

  • close-ups of people
  • images of things or text
  • images which show the siutation
  • stock photography
  • graphics or illustrations.

Your tips and examples

Have you seen any good examples of images? Have you done creative things with images to illustrate a sensitive subject? Got tips or thoughts to share? Please join the conversation in the comments box. I’d love to hear from you.

Can I help?

I help charities and non-profits with their content. Whether you are looking for training for the team, copywriting or  input into your content strategy, please get in touch.

Legacy fundraising – tips for persuasive and engaging web content

It’s Remember a Charity week so there is lots being done to inspire people to leave a gift to their favourite charities in their wills. There’s lots of noise about it on twitter via their pick your moment campaign (#pickyourmoment) and many partner charities are promoting RaC week on their homepages (eg Cats Protection).

RaC week is a great as it helps charities talk about legacies. But online legacy fundraising is difficult. It is hard to pitch tone of voice and terminology to a wide audience where saying the right thing around a sensitive subject is important. Knowing where to place it on the website and how to promote it, is equally challenging. What works offline (in person or DM to segmented audiences) may not work online.

I did some benchmarking for a large charity about their digital legacy fundraising, comparing their online presence with their peers. Here’s what I learnt through the process.

Everyone can do it

Even small charities (and especially small charities as they are likely to have passionate supporters) should have a page on their website reminding supporters about legacies. Don’t be frightened about the subject. You don’t have to use the D word. There are lots of examples of charities producing inspiring and persuasive legacy content listed here you can learn from.

You should also think about setting up ‘in memory fundraising’ which is becoming equally standard. (See Much Loved or Just Giving.)

Terminology and location is important

When I researched this, I found that the use of the word legacy as a heading and within copy was not widespread in the sector. (Equally wills was written with lowercase w). The most common section name was ‘Leave a gift in your will’, but also ‘Gifts in wills’, ‘A gift in your will’, ‘Leave money in your will’. Nice to see the persuasive use of ‘your’ here. It is important to think about your audience and ensure you are using words which are appropriate for them. For example, in AgeUK’s case the use of ‘leave a legacy‘ is right.

The majoring of legacy pages were placed in the Donate section. A legacy is a donation albeit a future one. It is not fundraising. Placing legacies in a Donate section, generally meant this content was two clicks from the homepage.

You can be persuasive and sensitive at the same time

Just because you are being sensitive doesn’t mean you have to be dull. Yes, you are making someone think about their own death but the content you write can be engaging and persuasive, bring the subject to life.

Chances are, visitors are at your legacy pages because they already care about what you do. People visiting these pages are likely to be interested in your cause rather than interested in legacies searching for a charity to support. So your page needs to persuade visitors that remembering your charity in their will is a good thing as well as an easy thing to do. So simply, it should cover the impact of a legacy, a thank you for what they are about to do and easy access to the information they need to progress.

Think about why someone would leave you a gift. Are they likely to have had experience of your cause or used your services? Are they already supporting your work? If you have this information about previous legacy donors, you can tweak your content accordingly. The big times that people update their wills are marriage, birth of children, illness, retirement, old age. Could you do more to connect with people at these stages?

Your opening line is important. Many charities start off by saying how much of their income comes from legacies and the difference this money has made (eg BHF: Since we were founded in 1961, donations in Wills have helped us invest £1 billion in funding ground-breaking research, providing vital health information and supporting those affected by heart disease). But the whole page is an opportunity to persuade. Let’s look at some examples.

Beanstalk’s remember us in your will page talks very clearly and frequently about the impact of a gift on children. Their opening line says: “Leaving a gift to Beanstalk in your will is a way of leaving a love of reading to children for many years to come”. They use the whole page to talk about their work, with a small ask.

Beanstalk - Leaving a gift to Beanstalk in your will is a way of leaving a love of reading to children for many years to come

Refugee Action’s leave a legacy page is another nice example of a gentle ask with clear information about the difference a gift will make.

The Migraine Trust’s opening line is also inspiring: “After taking care of loved ones, consider The Migraine Trust in your Will and see how a piece of paper can do truly amazing things.” The rest of the page talks about generosity, the impact of even a small gift, how grateful they are and how much of their income comes from legacies (51%). It ends with what to do next. It is a well crafted page.
The Migraine Trust - After taking care of loved ones, consider The Migraine Trust in your Will and see how a piece of paper can do truly amazing things.

For smaller charities, there may be a worry that the organisations may not exist when the legacy is processed. Prisoners Abroad address this head-on. They reinforce that they will be needed long into the future and a legacy will make a difference. (“Prisoners Abroad is going to be needed for years to come. Prison conditions worldwide are likely to get worse not better. The demand of our services is likely to increase significantly.”)  Their short page is concise and clear.

Prisoners Abroad - Prisoners Abroad is going to be needed for years to come. Prison conditions worldwide are likely to get worse not better. The demand of our services is likely to increase significantly.

RAF Benevolent Fund don’t mince their words when they say: “You’ll probably never meet the people who will benefit from a gift in your will but they’re part of the family because they’re RAF. Supporting each other through life’s challenges is what family is all about, and that’s what the RAF Benevolent Fund does for the RAF family.” They write very clearly and directly about who a legacy can help. Rather than saying ‘we get this much from legacies’, they say: “One in three people who turn to us for help owe the support they receive to the kindness of those who left the RAF Benevolent Fund a gift in their wills” which is much more powerful.

RAF Benevolent Fund

Personal stories work well here too. They say, look, people like you have already done this. A good example is Shelter’s ‘why I’m leaving a legacy’ stories.

Shelter - case studies

What about other types of organisations? People can have close relationships with institutions such as museums, art galleries, churches, schools, city farms, clubs which means that legacy giving may be worth promoting. For example, Warwick Arts Centre says on their website “leaving a legacy allows individuals to make a contribution at a level that accurately reflects their fondness for Warwick Arts Centre”. Churches also get a lot of income via legacies – see this example from Disley Parish Church. So, having a page about legacy fundraising shouldn’t just be for cause-related charities. Organisations such as the above should recognise that patrons may want to show their appreciation in this way and promote the option online.

These are all inspiring examples. These pages work well to connect their causes with legacy donations and communicate the need and impact well with their audiences.

You don’t need pages and pages

The average number of pages within legacy sections was 7. Useful content included:

  • sample legal wording for a will including charity name, address and charity number
  • information about how to add to an existing will / how to make a codicil
  • information for executors
  • previous names of the charity
  • how to leave gifts of items
  • pledge forms to so supporters can let you know they have included you in their will
  • FAQs / jargon buster about types of gift
  • downloadable guides
  • how to calculate the value of your estate (see example from Epilepsy Society).

It is useful to have contact details where supporters can ask questions. Avoid legacydept@xx.org.uk or similar. This is a sensitive subject and it is important to come across as approachable as possible. Use a named address (mary.jones@xx.org.uk) or friendly department address (askusanything@xx.org.uk).

If you have request forms or contact pages, craft your automatic pages to say thank you and to explain what happen next (eg ‘you’ll receive it in 5 days’). Do all you can to maintain the good experience.

It can be fun

Being jolly about legacies has to be right for your audience. It can be easy to get it wrong. Whether it is right will depend on your cause and your brand.

Macmillan Cancer comes across as warm and approachable. Of course they deal with death everyday so it’s not such a shocking topic for them. They have a fun and slightly quirky wills: fact or fiction video alongside case studies, how-tos and other information on their legacy pages. This is under the heading ‘making a will is easier than you think’ and gets lots of messages across in just two minutes.

You can use social media to talk about legacies

But get the tone right. This automatic tweet generated by Shelter’s legacy page is really nicely written:

Automatic tweet from Shelter

If you are going to craft automatic tweets (rather than just relying on the title of your page to generate them), then think about how the tweet comes across. It will be sent from someone’s address and meant for their followers. Therefore it is not your tone of voice which you should be using. So you could try using more direct language to demonstrate an action you want others to copy (eg I just ordered @Shelter’s Will Writing pack to help me remember them in my will).

Tweets and Facebook posts can be used to talk about legacies and the difference they make. This is a nice example from RNIB:

RNIB tweet - “Little pieces of my life being put back together again". Legacies change lives, what difference will you make?

Be careful about writing about legacy success. The character limit and informality of twitter is especially dangerous here as this example shows (“Thank you to everyone who leaves gifts in their Wills. We received one this morning. Time to hoot the celebration horn”). Ick.

Legacy tweet

Conclusions and top tips

So, there’s lots you can do to make your legacy pages more interesting and persuasive. You have a real opportunity to engage existing supporters to take this step. Talk about your cause in a meaningful way and celebrate the difference a gift like this can make.

  • Your legacy homepage should show the impact of legacies, thank donors and clearly link to next steps.
  • Think about why someone would leave you a gift and use persuasive words about your cause which mean something to them.
  • Talk about the difference a gift will make – what impact might it make.
  • Be generous in your thanks without being too gushy. It is a significant and deeply personal thing that someone is remembering you in this important document so do say thank you.

Comments?

What other great examples are there? Who has gone too far? Please do share your ideas and inspirations here.

If you want some help thinking about how to maximise your own legacy pages – please do get in touch.