Podcast 3: How Photographers and Nonprofits Can Collaborate Successfully

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What does a successful collaboration between a photographer and a nonprofit look like? An unsuccessful one? In this podcast, we discuss keys to successful collaboration. If you’d like to see more of this kind of podcast, leave us a comment below or send a note to hello@ngostorytelling.com.

Crystaline: Hi, I’m Crystaline Randazzo.

Laura: And I’m Laura Elizabeth Pohl. And today we’re going to talk about successful collaborations between photographers and nonprofits. So, I have a point of view from both sides because I used to run all of the multimedia for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. And now I’m a photographer and filmmaker running my own business and working with international nonprofits.

So, this may come as a little bit of a surprise to photographers, but I wasn’t always interested in hiring the very best photographers or filmmakers out there when I worked at the nonprofit. So I always expected a certain baseline of technical skill and talent from anyone who might have wanted to work with the organization. But beyond that, I really wanted to work with people who I felt got the organization’s mission and then also made my life easier. Maybe they have some ideas about how to get it done, we discuss it, we agree what’s going to be done, the person does it. They send me their files without me having to push too much and we’re all happy.

And from the point of view of a photographer, I now feel like I want to make the nonprofits I work with feel like I’m an easy person to work with. And that comes from my experience of managing people when I worked at a nonprofit.

So Crystal, what’s made for some successful collaborations for you?

Crystaline: I think for me, the thing that makes a successful collaboration is when a nonprofit sees me as not just a photographer or filmmaker but actually like a team member in the process. So sometimes I get calls from potential clients and they’re like, “We need these seven shots and we want you to go get the seven shots.” And that’s fine. It’s no big deal, right? I can follow a list. Anyone can follow a list.

But what I specialize in is storytelling and that’s what I want to do for them. So, one of the things that I tend to do right out the gate when I get a new client or even sometimes when I’m working with an old client, is I ask them a lot of questions.

I want to know about this campaign specifically, and I want to know about their organization specifically. I want to know what they need. I want to know how I can make their life easier and make something that maybe they haven’t even thought of. To me, that’s a successful collaboration — when they give me enough information that I can go out and really over deliver.

Laura: So it sounds like what you’re trying to do is be, like, really respectful of them but also help them as much as possible because you have this knowledge.

Crystaline: Yeah, I do! And I want them to see me as an equal partner. I’m not just a service provider. I have great ideas and I have enough experience that that experience can help them tell better stories.

Laura: Yeah, that links into something that I’ve found a lot with working with nonprofits now, as someone running my own business, is that I want to work with clients who, yeah, see me as an equal, and part of that is respecting my time. You know, I’m not just a person that just like turns out pictures or turns out videos. I’m a person who’s trying to help you, the nonprofit, create the best stories as possible to get out there. But I also have other things going on, right?

What I’ve found happens sometimes with some clients is what I call “scope creep.” You know, they send me a scope of work and it says like, “We want you to do this, this and this. And the deliverable in the end is this thing.” So I’m like, “Great, I know exactly what I’m going to do, this is awesome.” But then, after I turn the product in, they say, “Oh, can you add in this ….” Afterwards, when I think everything is done, then they say, “Oh, can you do this extra little thing as a favor?”

If I decide on my own I want to do something extra for people, that’s different than when a client is like, “Hey do this extra thing! And this other extra thing. It’s very easy for that to happen.

Crystaline: So it kind of all comes down to communication, right? I mean, what we’re both talking about is having clear expectations and asking the right questions so we can make the right media. So what are some of your methods to create clear communication with your clients and yourself prior to starting a gig?

Laura: Yeah, well I think it’s really important before you even start the gig to define clear roles. And then also to be very clear on what the deliverables are and how you’re going to get that to the client.

So an example from when I ran the multimedia department at the nonprofit was, whenever we worked with video producers or video editors, I made sure I was the point person for all of the feedback. So, the video editor would send me a video and then I needed to get feedback from the different stakeholders within my organization. And it might be 10 people, 15 people. I’d make sure they gave all the feedback only to me. I would talk to my boss about the feedback I collected, we’d decide what was actionable, and then I would email the video editor or the video producer and say, “This is what we want.”

And now that I’m running my own business, when I’m the video editor for nonprofits, I always tell them I really need one point person to give me all the feedback because if I’m getting 10 emails from all these different people, it’s going to make it a lot more difficult to come out with a product that the client is happy with. It’s going to take a lot more time. It’s going to cost them more money. And we’ll probably all be a little bit unhappy.

Crystaline: Yeah, I mean that’s one thing that certainly doesn’t make for a successful collaboration, right, is when the budget doesn’t match.

So one of the things, for example, I charge for — and I think this relates very well to what Laura is saying — is I charge for administration hours, right? Now, it’s of course less than my shooting rate. But sometimes when you’re in a situation where you are getting all of a sudden like loads of email from eight people in the organization instead of one, I did not count on the fact that this organization was going to be sending me mountains of email. I just thought we would have a normal amount of email. Ok, I have eight hours for admin work and if suddenly that’s doubled and I have 16 hours for admin work, they’re not going to be happy. And if they’re not happy, I’m not happy, because we’re not having a great collaboration.

So I think that’s one of the things by designating the roles I actually say “roles” and I say, “Hi, I’m Crystal, I’m the photographer and editor and these are my responsibilities.” And then what my point of contact’s responsibilities are. When I’m writing a proposal I’m actually outlining those things very clearly and also that’s what your contract is for. You have exactly what is expected from all parties — well, at least in your contract, what’s expected from you. That makes it very clear from the beginning. And I think that helps make a successful collaboration.

Laura:  Another thing that I think is really important in collaboration, at least from the point of view of the photographer or the as a person running my own business is, I really want to over deliver. Right, I want people to be totally wowed by what I’ve done. I want them to feel like they want to work with me again and hire me again. And so I never overpromise but I definitely over deliver.

Crystaline: Yeah, I think this is maybe a tip for being a successful business person in general is when I do… like when I do my survey at the beginning, I’m really paying attention if they say they need something specific or they’re trying to build up a certain area of photographs, that kind of thing. I will make sure not only that I get those photographs but that I probably get them a lot of those photographs so that they feel like their archive is really rounded out.

And I think those little extra things that you do for your clients, maybe they never… I don’t know if they’re actually like, “Oh, wow, Crystal, she gave me 100 of the photos I asked for.” But I think they realize like, “Oh, wow, everything’s here and there’s even more.” I think my clients… they may not even notice that it’s so specific for me. Like they don’t know I’m making this little list in the background.

But when I deliver the whole package, I think they’re much happier with what I do and in my work lately, I’ve been doing less one off photo shoots or videos and doing full campaigns where we have a very specific fundraising goal and a sort of list of media.  And I think that makes an environment where it’s a little bit easier to deliver extras because you’re there for a little bit longer and in your sort-of downtime you know they like this kind of imagery and you’re in the place already and it’s happening all around you so if you’re not doing an interview for a video, you’re having your and you see this great interaction happen you just flip around and get it. And then that’s a little extra something in their campaign that a lot of times that’s the stuff that ends up getting used. It’s not the specific deliverable that they gave me the list, which I did deliver, but sometimes it gives me the opportunity to be more creative and make something that they love.

And that is, I think, the next level of successful collaboration, which is you having a fundamental understanding of the organization and their needs and their wants and also what works for their audience.

I mean, we have a whole blog post on understanding your audience, but when you work with a client for a really long time, you know what works for them and that means you can make great media, and that’s exciting. That’s the part we all want to get to in our careers.

I think a lot of photographers, especially, express frustration to me because they’re like, “The nonprofit doesn’t…. they don’t appreciate my work and I gave them these amazing photos and then they just sit on a hard drive somewhere. And nobody ever looks at ’em or touches them.” And I get that. But the truth is that you have to make photographs that the organization needs, not just beautiful photographs that you love. And so you have to find that balance.

Laura: Back when I oversaw all the photo and video storytelling for this nonprofit, I oftentimes got contacted by photographers who seemed to think that just because we shared the same mission for alleviating hunger and poverty around the world, I should want to hire them.

But you know, we need more than a shared mission. Like I said before, I wanted to work with people who were going to make my life easier and I wanted to work with people who fundamentally understood what kind of media my organization needed. You can take amazing photographs or tell amazing video stories, but they don’t necessarily align with the kind of media that the nonprofit wants to put out.

So as an example, a lot of photojournalists would get in touch with me saying like, “Hey, I did a story about hunger in, let’s say, like Uganda, and I think this picture story would be great for your website, for your organization, for any materials you have — do you want to license some images from me?”

But I look at the images, and even though they’re beautiful, … they show children with flies in their eyes. They didn’t show a lot of hope. And that wasn’t the kind of imagery that my organization wanted to put out. We wanted to show that there is hope out there. And the work that a lot of photojournalists do, it’s wonderful. It’s beautiful. They tell great stories. But the stories that we told at the nonprofit, they were actually more kind of like marketing stories. It’s not journalism. It’s totally different.

Crystaline: This is sort of an interesting discussion because I wonder how often a nonprofit will actually use work that does not directly represent their beneficiaries. Like sometimes I think photojournalists think, “Well, I told a great story about this. This organization should use my images.” So, I think there’s maybe this idea out there wandering around, like, “I’ll do this great photo story and then a nonprofit will pick it up.” But it’s not like a newspaper or a magazine. They’re not picking things up. They’re hiring people to create work that surrounds their mission, and they are businesses. I mean, there’s this misconception that nonprofits aren’t businesses, but they are businesses and they have a brand. You’re making media toward that brand and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable because they don’t like to think of nonprofits that way, but that’s really the truth.

Laura: So we’d love to hear from you on this topic. What’s been your experience with successful collaborations or unsuccessful collaborations. You can let us know in the comments below or you can always email us at hello at ngostorytelling dot com. Thanks so much for being with us today. Talk to you next time.

Crystaline: Thanks, guys!

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Photo caption: Domina Niyonteze (left, in yellow) received green peppers after helping to cultivate a field with other members of the Abishyizehamwe cooperative in Kibilizi, Rwanda, on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Niyonteze’s husband and two of her sons were killed in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis. She now finds solace and meaning in the cooperative, which does agriculture and other income-generating activities. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl.


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