To mask or not to mask: The impact of face masks in supporter communications

June 23, 2021

We’ll admit—if you had told us this time last year that “how to wash your hands” and “how to make a face mask with fabric” would be among the trending Google searches of 2020, we may have been a tad bit skeptical. But alas, it was a year of unexpected surprises for all of us.

On the heels of a season marked by a global pandemic, virtual learning, social justice marches, political turmoil, and, yes, even a toilet paper shortage, it’s safe to say that our world looks a lot different than it did prior. Whenever our culture experiences shifts as drastic as the ones we saw in 2020, it’s our job as leaders in the social good industry to determine how those shifts will impact the work we do for our clients.

What we researched

Our in-house Giving Sciences team keeps a finger on the pulse of current market trends—and, boy, have they had their hands full! They’ve conducted a wide range of in-depth research around the impact of the pandemic on giving. Along the way, an important question arose: Are images of people wearing masks now more compelling to donors than ones of people not wearing them?

"I thought it would be insightful to research the topic of masks because of the early politicization of mask-wearing,” says Lori Collins, senior vice president [CF(&A1] of Giving Sciences as One & All. “It’s important to ensure we’re not alienating a large proportion of potential supporters by using visuals that might be inadvertently divisive.”

Armed with this timely question, our team went to market with some testing.

In September 2020, they conducted an online survey of 1,200 U.S. donors who had given a financial donation to at least one human services charitable organization that provides food or shelter to those in need in the past 12 months.

Demographic targets were used to reflect precise general population distribution prior to donor screener. Age groups were summarized using Pew Research Center’s generational grouping of Gen Z adults (18-23) and Millennials (24-39) combined, Gen X (40-55), Boomers (56-74), and Seniors (75+), a combination of the Silent and Greatest generations.

“Targeting custom content to segments or even individual donors is ideal, but that’s not always possible with many types of traditional media,” explains Collins. “I wanted to understand not only the differences by segment, but also the overall preferences among charitable donors.”

With this test, we were able to gauge both the relative preference and comparative strength of images with and without masked subjects. Here’s a little glimpse into our findings.

What we discovered

For the relative preference test, respondents were asked to evaluate six images in matched groups of two, shown in random order. In each set, one photo featured only people wearing masks and the other photo featured only people not wearing masks.

“I wanted to control for all other variables in the images we tested,” says Collins, “so we photoshopped masks on the individuals in the photos, who were in a food bank environment. That way, the only thing that was different between the images was the presence of masks.”

Across all three sets, the images of people wearing masks beat out their unmasked alternatives with over 70% preference. Even after breaking this research down by generation, gender, region, and political affiliation we heard one thing loud and clear: The majority of respondents across all represented demographics preferred images of masked subjects.

Next came the comparative strength test. For this, the selected image from each group in the relative preference test was then evaluated in a group to rank the preference of all images. This revealed that the image with the highest comparative strength to elicit a donation was that of a masked mother and her son, followed by one of an elderly man and then one of a child. Once again, masked images were preferred by over 70% of respondents.

Both tests were conducted across different types of human services donors to U.S.-based organizations, including food banks, Salvation Army, rescue missions, and the American Red Cross. Overall, donors to the various human services organizations had similar preferences in this study.

What you can do next

With such a definitive margin in the results, our study is quite conclusive.

“Across all demographics, the preference for mask-wearing individuals was universal,” explains Collins, “even for conservative donors, who had the lowest preference for masked images in the study.”

Simply put, this research confirms that showing images of people with masks meets the preference of human services donors. When they see a photo in your communications—whether it’s a newsletter, a direct mail package, a display ad, or any other form of media—it is likely that they will be more inclined to make a gift to your organization if that photo features a masked subject. Try testing this for your specific organization to measure the impact.

“This makes general communications much easier,” says Collins. “We know that we aren’t going to alienate a majority of donors by reflecting the current reality of the pandemic visually.”

For better or for worse, masks are a part of our “new normal,” and they’ll probably be around for a while. This research implores human services organizations to lean into that reality by showing authentic visuals of the work they are doing and the people they are helping during the pandemic.

The past year has reminded us all that our world changes quickly. We went from group hugs and birthday parties to face masks and quarantines in what felt like a blink of an eye. At every twist and turn, it remains our goal to find solutions that unite your donors with your mission. For human services organizations, incorporating visuals of masked subjects in your communications is one simple way to do just that.

We’ve got a team of experts who would love to help you determine what this research means for your organization specifically. For more information, connect with us.


[Source for trending Google searches in 2020: https://trends.google.com/trends/yis/2020/US/]