How Pro Bono Work Pays

Photograph: ©

There’s more to life than money. That might sound a little strange coming from a blog that’s intended to help photographers make cash from their hobby but even we have to admit that money can only buy so much.

It can get you a new camera model. It can upgrade your lens. It can pay your mortgage, give you a new car, send you on a dream vacation…

Actually, money can do quite a lot.

What it can’t do though is give you the sort of warm fuzzies that you can only get when you donate to charity. And not just by writing a check but by donating skills that only you can provide. There are few things better than offering your time and your photography talent to an organization whose goals you support.

And it just so happens that pro bono work can be good for your photography business too.

Help a Charity, Don’t Be One
The first thing you have to decide though is who you’re going to help. That’s not as easy as it sounds. While it might be simple enough to search for environmental groups in your area to see if any need images of local woodland, for example, often you won’t have to. They’ll come to you.

Post enough well-tagged, well-taken images in the sort of places that get lots of traffic – like Flickr – and it’s only a matter of time before someone asks if they can use one… without paying.

That’s where things can get a little confusing. Even if you like the cause, as photographer Josh McCulloch points out on his blog, not every non-profit is a charity. Many are businesses and organizations that pay salaries and suppliers; they’re just not allowed to show a profit. If they’re prepared to pay the copywriter who wrote the publicity material, the stationery store that supplied the paper and the designer who laid out the newsletter, shouldn’t they also pay the photographer who created the picture?

That’s an issue you’ll need to consider every time someone asks for the right to use one of your images but even if you agree, the cost is relatively painless. You will only have lost the price the organization might have been willing to pay, and you can consider that a donation to a group that might still have to live on handouts.

More serious is when you’re not just offering images but time and effort as well.

The Benefits of Free Commissions
Mark Rogers is a professional photographer who has provided pro bono work for a number of non-profit organizations, including a homeless charity, an AIDS group, a disabled sports organization and several animal welfare groups. Much of his work though is for Give A Dog A Bone, an animal rescue center in San Francisco, and his images appear on the group’s website, promotional material and grant proposals.

In fact, it was as a result of his volunteer work with GADAB, that Mark found himself gravitating towards a specialization in pet photography, and he now calls himself a professional pet photographer.

“I began honing in on pet photography about five years ago through my volunteer work,” he told us. “We started using my images on the GADAB website and blog, and it sort of took off from there. I also photograph kids, people and events but pet photography is my real passion.”

That ability to gain exposure to a photography niche you might not otherwise have considered is one of the commercial benefits of pro bono work, but there are plenty of others. You can certainly enjoy all of the advantages that people who use FlickrMail promise: your portfolio will be richer, and it will contain tear sheets showing published images rather than just photos that you think are impressive; and your images should be credited – you can insist on that, it’s really the least the organization can do – spreading your name to other people with a similar interest.

You can also make the most of the networking when you volunteer at an organization, and that’s something that’s much harder to do online. Spend the day taking pictures for a local sailing club because you love boats, for example, and you shouldn’t be too surprised if one of the yacht owners ask you to shoot their ship for a fee.

When you take on commissions pro bono in this way, it’s worth asking whether your expenses will be covered, although again, you might want to consider those costs as part of the donation. Much will depend on the wealth of the group… and how much you support them.

It’s certainly possible to use pro bono work as a form of promotion, networking and portfolio-padding but it’s not a reason to do it. Those benefits are just the good karma that comes from doing good deeds. Pro bono work is really best done for the right reasons: because it’s right.

“I’ve always done volunteer work,” says Mark. “I think it’s really important to give back to society and your community – especially if you have a talent or skill that can truly help an organization or cause.”

2 comments for this post.

  1. Ivan Makarov Said:

    That's an excellent point. I donated few prints to the local grant supporting Utah Lake, and they have pictures displayed in their front office. As a result of it, I got published in the local Commerce magazine, and in the end felt like I am part of the cause of preserving the lake. I blogged about it here -

  2. Henrik Said:

    This is a brilliant tip. I will research the different charity groups in my area to find something suitable. Thank for the tip.

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