Should Photographers Work for Nonprofits for Free?

Posted by | · · · · · · · | Business · Photography · Storytelling

This year, I approached a nonprofit that worked with the homeless in DC and offered my services free of charge for a fundraising video for their nonprofit. Most of you know that I do photography and video professionally. I make my living off of nonprofit work so going around offering my services for free seems contradictory.

 

In fact, I teach business workshops that explicitly tell photographers that they should not work for less than they’re worth. I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the value of doing pro-bono projects. And here’s why I have a double standard: I believe in giving back. I want to build a community of nonprofits that understand the value of media storytelling. I also want the opportunity to stretch myself creatively, and often feel uncomfortable doing creative experimentation on paid projects. A few years ago, I built a set of criteria for the types of projects that I am willing to do for free and I take two pro bono ones per year.

 

Lately this has started to feel like a failed experiment. The last three free projects I did were uninspired at best and total flops at the worst. In the first, I made solid work and gave the organization what they said they wanted. They used a few images but never updated their website, which is why I was brought on in the first place. I ended up putting the images to use in my print portfolio, but the organization barely touched them. The second, I shot two months for a six-month multimedia project and then the person coordinating my visits had some personal things come up and simply stopped communicating with me. Finally, the nonprofit I approached in DC was willing to do the project but wouldn’t allow me show the work in my portfolio (which is kinda why photographers work for free). So I walked away from the deal.

 

I have to ask myself the question, Do organizations actually value photos they receive for free? My experience consistently keeps telling me, No. I can’t give away what other organizations are paying me thousands of dollars to do.

 

I recently stumbled upon the best reason I have ever heard on why photographers work for free in a book about human motivation. This behavior boils down to three words: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Photographers work for free because we want creative freedom (autonomy). We want to be better at our craft (mastery). And we want to feel like we are doing something good in the world (purpose). Nonprofits look like the perfect solution for us to do all three of those things.

 

But why do nonprofits want photographers to work for free? This one isn’t difficult. They simply want to spend less money. I find that nonprofit organizations do want me to work for free. They want to me to come in, do what they ask, and leave. They don’t really care about all of my creative ideas or how I could use storytelling to increase their fundraising. I’m just a budget line item that was cut.

 

I’m beginning to think that the only way free projects work is if you have a team that is as emotionally invested in the project as you are. A team that is also striving for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. A team that’s not just worried about saving money, but is instead motivated to fundraise using storytelling. The truth is that this only seems to happen in my paid work or in my personal projects.

 

This year, I’m giving pro-bono work one last shot and working with a nonprofit organization in Nepal that is building homes post-disaster. I love the sustainable way that the project is being undertaken and the organization meets all of my guidelines. Call me an optimist but I can’t quite give up on the idea what free work can do for me. If this fails, I think I’ll just go back to doing personal projects.

 

What do you think? Does your organization value the photography you pay for more than the volunteer work you get for free?


11 Comments

Pete says:

April 16, 2016 at 2:42 am

I am currently volunteering as a photographer for an international organisation who develop youth leadership at the same time as creating water and hygiene/sanitaion systems for rural communities. i find that the yeam in the field have little concept of what constitutes a good use of my time. Head office has a tight and clear brief, but to fulfil this the field team does not value the work i do. i am getting some great shots of borneo which is where i am based both for them and some for myself on the side. It can be irksome that i am a free resource which is viewed as almost irrelevant. shame really!

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Crystaline Randazzo says:

April 17, 2016 at 2:11 pm

Hi Pete! So sorry you are running into similar issues. I’ve tried numerous ways to prove my value to the organizations I work with. I normally provide an estimate of what the work would cost them if they were paying me my standard rate, but I really think that unless this is coming out of their pocket it doesn’t seem to mean anything to them. I hope you are doing some great work on the side to supplement your work in Borneo. Thanks for sharing your story. It helps advance my current theory on working for free.

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gary s chapman says:

April 21, 2016 at 8:24 pm

If an organization contacts me for pro bono work, I immediately go to Guidestar.org to check out their financials via their 990 forms. If basically everyone works for free or for very little, I will consider donating my services…but only 1-2 times per year.

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gary s chapman says:

April 21, 2016 at 8:25 pm

I meant to leave my info…sorry.
http://www.garyschapman.com

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Crystaline Randazzo says:

April 25, 2016 at 10:54 am

Hi Gary! This is a great idea! I usually check out annual reports but this is efficient. Do you have to pay the membership fee at Guidestar to do so? Also is it you philosophy to let probono work come to you or do you ever offer your services to organizations that you think is doing great work?

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gary s chapman says:

April 25, 2016 at 10:33 pm

Crystaline…I just saw that Guidestar has changed and it looks like it requires a membership now. But, I just googled several NGO’s I was interested in and found them elsewhere. In the future, I will be willing to pay the fee though to get the information if I have to. Also, I usually let probono work come to me. I think I have gone after a group just once. All the best to you…

Crystaline Randazzo says:

May 11, 2016 at 8:16 am

Thanks for doing that! I normally looking up the annual budgets by checking out the annual report on individual sites as well. I’ve considered Guidestar a few times but not sure I can justify the cost if I can get the info elsewhere. I really am beginning to think that organizations coming to you are a vital part of probono working. Thanks for sharing!

Steve Remich says:

April 28, 2016 at 3:49 pm

Nice post. I like doing free work for ORGANIZATIONs i believe in, but feel like if I work for an NGO (or anyone for that matter) for free, they have to have some sort of “skin in the game” and provide something in return (covering expenses, travel costs, PROVIDing access, etc.). Otherwise they’ve placed no value on what I do in a very literal sense.

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Crystaline Randazzo says:

May 11, 2016 at 8:14 am

This is such a good point. I guess I’ve often looked at it in an all or nothing way. Someone else needs to have some skin in this thing! I’m curious is you approach the organizations for the free work you do or if they approach you? This is a factor that I think might also come into play so I am doing a rather informal poll. Thanks for the comment. Great insight!

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bryan davies says:

November 30, 2016 at 4:51 am

Hi CRYSALINE, i HAVE DONE PHOTOGRAPHY FOR A CANADIAN NGO. THEY VALUE AND APPRECIATE MY WORK, SO MUCH SO THAT I AM ABLE TO RECEIVE INCOME TAX RECEIPTS FOR THE VALUE OF THE IMAGES.

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Crystaline Randazzo says:

December 6, 2016 at 9:19 am

Hi Bryan. Nice to hear from you. I am so glad that you’ve been able to build a relationship with this specific nonprofit. And I’ve heard of other photographers getting in kind donation receipts as well. It’s really great when an organization wants to work with you and are willing to do whatever they can to keep your services.

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