Many photographers are asked at one time or another to do work without charge for a non-profit organization. There are a lot of good reasons to help a worthy cause and many more good reasons not to work for free.
One way to view pro bono work is as a marketing activity. It can help associate you with a worthy cause and therefore a good “brand.” It might give you access to situations and locations that are interesting and challenging, allowing you produce work you would not have otherwise done. But viewed as a marketing activity, you need to look at the value of the time you spend vs. the promotional value you receive. Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea for a professional photographer to work for free in exchange for publicity. How do you decide if doing an assignment pro bono makes business sense?
Here are a few questions to ask:
The cause should be something that you care deeply about. There are several reasons for this. First, you will become associated with the mission of the organization so it’s important that the cause is consistent with your beliefs. Secondly, it’s a good filter. You will likely have many opportunities to do pro bono work so you should limit yourself to non-profits that promote causes you strongly support. Lastly, your belief in the organization’s mission should result in images that reflect your passion, which almost always means better images.
Will the images from the assignment be candidates for your portfolio?
How will the images fit into your overall body of work? Will you be shooting under conditions that allow you to produce great pictures? If you are primarily a sports photographer and a non-profit that supports sports programs for underprivileged children approaches you to shoot an ad featuring kids playing baseball, it can be a great opportunity to create some fun and portfolio-worthy pictures. But if they want you to take portraits of the Board of Directors in a conference room, then the assignment won’t enhance your portfolio, unless you market yourself as a portrait photographer.
Is everyone getting paid but you?
It’s hard to say “no” to an organization that provides healthcare to the poor. But it’s worth asking if the doctors and other health care professionals volunteer their time or get paid for their work. If the organization’s services are largely provided by volunteers, then their claim that they can’t afford a professional photographer’s fee is likely genuine. But if most of the staff and service providers are paid, then it’s likely they can afford to pay for photography and they are trying to take advantage of you.
Other things to keep in mind:
An art buyer or art director may ask you to do an assignment and waive your fee for one of their pro bono clients. This can be a very good way to help build the relationship with a client or prospective client. Also, when an ad agency takes on pro bono work they typically have plans to heavily promote the campaign, often getting press coverage, entering the work in contests, etc. If the work features your photography it can be a great promotional vehicle.
Require that expenses be paid.
If you do waive your fee, make sure the organization understands that they are responsible for expenses. Clearly list what they are and get an advance against at least a major portion of expenses. Not only does this prevent you from having out of pocket costs, it filters out organizations that are truly trying to get something for nothing. If they aren’t willing to cover expenses then they aren’t putting any value on the images you produce.
Have a written agreement.
Treat the work as a paying assignment and get a written agreement. Be sure to assert copyright ownership, specify usage rights, estimate expenses, be explicit about how photo credit will be handled etc. All you should be doing is waiving your fee. You are not giving away the images for free. There is an important distinction. Even if you’re giving the organization wide usage rights, you ultimately want to retain ownership and control over any images you create.
You might want to put policies in place that allow you to give a price break to non-profits. For example, you can offer a standard 25% discount off your rate for assignments or 50% off your stock licensing fee. This way, you can offer non-profits a break and help a good cause without giving up a large chunk of income.
There’s nothing wrong with benefiting yourself while helping a good cause. If it helps your business, it might enable you to support the cause even more in the future.
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