By Scott Umstattd
Business Photography Tips: Have you been approached by a non-profit to take photos for free or at a reduced cost? I certainly have.
I'm here to say, don't get mad when this happens! Instead, look for the hidden opportunity and figure out in advance how you're going to respond.
My perspective is perhaps a bit unique
in that I have seen this issue from two angles, both as a freelance
photographer and working for a non-profit.
Non-profits are judged, in large part, by the percentage of organizational expenses vs. actual program costs (the actual work intended to improve someone's life). No one makes a donation to a charity with the earmark that their donation be designated for hiring freelance photographers. When people give to a non-profit they like to think (and know) that their dollars are going directly to program costs. And good-intentioned non-profits act accordingly.
To keep operating costs down, non-profits approach car dealers to ask for reduced costs on leases, rentals or outright purchases. Lawyers and accountants will be asked to work pro-bono. Restaurants are asked to provide free meals to volunteers. A yard service company may even be asked to provide free grass cutting or weeding around the office building.
Point is, photographers (and many, many others) are often asked to provide their professional services for free. And it can be challenging to be “the bad guy” and say No to a request for help.
After working in development and communications for a large international non-profit (Habitat for Humanity International) for more than 10 years I can say clearly that it is the duty of the directors and leaders of any non-profit to find ways to minimize, reduce or simply eliminate overhead, administrative and marketing costs.
Even though you may be approached by a non-profit to work for free, worrying that you will not be paid is the wrong mindset to have. You are being sought out because you are an expert. Your skills are needed. Someone has recognized that your work can be beneficial to them. These are the same thoughts you would want any paying customer to have about you.
There is no better advertisement for your work than being seen by others doing your work. The next volunteer you photograph may be a bank president, business owner or mother who may very well need your services somewhere down the road. Meeting these kinds of people as you are all volunteering is a very fine way indeed to make a great first impression.
But the opportunities for your business don’t end with networking. Here is a list of other ways your business can benefit from supporting charitable organizations.
“No” is not a four-letter word. Using it will not gain you any additional time in purgatory if you say it to a non-profit. If you can’t do it, you can say No. But that doesn’t mean you cannot still be helpful. Maybe you can answer some photography questions or lead them to purchasing a camera that will meet their needs. Maybe you know of a friend who is into photography who would be willing to take pictures for free. Point here is, don’t just say No! and hang-up. See what you can do to help solve their problem.
Whether you are just starting out as a photographer or you are a seasoned professional who isn’t “looking” to do a job for free, the photos you take during your volunteer assignment are yours and you should be able to resell them to others if you so choose.
This is part of the win-win. Whether you will be selling these pictures as stock photos or if you simply know of a business or two that could benefit from the pictures, make sure the organization you are volunteering with understands that you have ownership of the photos. If they have an issue with this, then you may need to reconsider if this is a win-win. Or you will need to determine if giving ownership of the photos is a concession you are willing to make.
In any case, as a business owner, you need to make sure that your involvement in any charitable organization has some direct or side benefit to your business. Maybe the benefit is that it makes you feel good. That’s a good benefit. I like to feel good. But if your business is too busy or you simply cannot afford to give away your services, then you should let the non-profit know. It is not the desire for any non-profit director to put out of business those businesses that help to support the non-profit they work for.
Businesses do and should approach relationships with non-profits in a different manner than they would approach a vendor or customer. A business knows that a little community service can go a long way in ensuring that the business remains in touch with its customers and that it remains welcome in the community.
You run a photography business and that is no different than running a Walmart (maybe a little different). But you and the Walmart manager are both seeking to minimize expenses, increase profits and secure that tomorrow will be a little better than today.
Non-profits, by nature, are public service institutions. Businesses are not, by nature, public service institutions. When these two differing types of institutions conduct business there are different “transactions” available to the business and the non-profit that are not available to a traditional donor, customer or vendor. Ever notice why there are sponsor logos on signage non-profit events?
These businesses understand the business value of being associated with a community improvement organization. Bartering for professional business services and non-profit recognition of the services provided are commonplace in these types of “business” transactions. Think outside of the box when your business is working with non-profit organizations.
I enjoy supporting charitable organizations with my photography.
Yes, photography is where I make money but I have everything needed to help others with their photography needs. Why wouldn’t they ask me to take pictures? Trust me, none of them will be asking me to cook at their next big event. They (and I) know that I am better at eating than cooking. It only makes sense that non-profits seek out people and businesses with the skills, equipment or services they are looking for.
When a non-profit organization needs something printed they go to a print shop (and they ask if they can get their prints for free or at a discount). Don’t be upset if you are being approached to provide your services for free. And know that you are not the only one in town being asked to give away your professional services. Find a way to work with those that are asking for help.
If you don’t offer a discount to charitable organizations, your conversations about discounts will be short. Simply give them your prices and treat them as you would any other business or traditional customer.
But, maybe you want to help (or help even more) and just don’t have the time or have been burned in the past by ungrateful recipients of your good will or maybe you’ve learned the hard way that if you give away something for free the first time it only makes it harder to try to get money the second, third or fourth time your services are needed.
If you find that you are becoming known as “the nice guy” and have had an increasing number of non-profits ask for free or discounted services from you, take control of this open line of communication with potential clients by informing them of your business rates for non-profits.
Create a one page flyer to share with every non-profit in your area. Let them know that you are a professional photographer and that you are anxious to earn their business with a special rate just for non-profits. Show them what you charge other clients per hour. Then show the discounted price you are offering to every charitable organization in your area.
Even with a discount you will likely find that there are still many charitable organizations that cannot afford your services. Anticipating that, you can add to your flyer that you will be conducting a free photography workshop to the first ten charities that sign up.
Show them how to take pictures. Give them the confidence to go out and take some great pictures that will help their cause. They may soon understand the difference between photography and picture-taking and come back to you again, with money, because they better understand your value as a photographer and you were helpful before.
These charities may never become paying clients. But the people who run them and those people that support these non-profits will become your clients because they know you went out of your way to be helpful by sharing your expertise.
If you can’t offer your services for free maybe you know of an up and coming photographer who would be glad to take the assignment as a learning experience. Help out two people that need one another.
At the end of the day, we are all trying to acquire more money - the manager at Walmart, the director of a local charity and you. And me.
Complicated conversations and ruined relationships can be avoided by having a business plan in place that describes how you can best offer your professional services in a charitable manner. And don’t forget to be just a little grateful that your reputation as a photographer has led someone to you.
Have you ever been asked to work for free by a non-profit (or anyone else)? How did you handle the situation? Please share below! Or got any other photography business tips you'd like to share?