Should Photographers Work for Nonprofits for Free?
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?