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Is Not-For-Profit Photography Sustainable – Even For A Good Cause?

Last time, we discussed giving back with your photography business.

But how can you give free sessions sustainably – especially when that’s mostly what you want to do?

The answer should be considered by anyone looking to give back with their businesses:

Q:  I’m in the Canadian Navy. My love for photography has gotten me into starting my own company to offer free photography to members of the Canadian Forces and their Families. 

I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to get people interested. I’ve been using Facebook to get friends and co-workers to Like my page so they can see any updates. However a LOT of people are still uninterested, even friends…   How can I get people more interested in this? 

I know you offer a one-on-one, however as this is a non-profit I don’t really have the money to put forward.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

– C.S.

A:  Ah, the unfortunate discovery:  Giving something away for free can be JUST AS HARD as charging money for it.

We’ll get into some psychological reasons for that later on.

First:  Cue wild, happy applause for your motivations.  I imagine that military families are under special kinds of stress that make such photos and tangible memories even more important.  Providing services to them is a wonderful idea, a kind-hearted way to fill a need many may not realize they have.

Because you’re onto such a great thing, let’s make sure that you can do this sustainably.  Meaning – let’s make sure you don’t get started, provide a few services, and then get burned out or have to give up.  Your mission is noble, and deserves to make it past the first year.

Because I’m sure you want to be doing this longer than a few months, let’s be clear about one thing first:

All nonprofits need to make money.

If you Google “how to start a nonprofit,” you’ll find that the bulk of the advice is related to how to raise capital or create a business plan.  Every nonprofit leader I’ve ever encountered spends the vast majority of his or her time raising money or dealing with finances.

As this article points out, the very term “nonprofit” refers to tax status – not a sustainable operating model.

It takes more than time and a camera to provide photographic services. 

Heavy operating costs are one of the major reasons so many for-profit photography businesses fail.  Costs include:

  • Gas and other vehicle expenses for driving to/from sessions
  • Insurance for your gear (what happens to your nonprofit if your camera is stolen or damaged?)
  • Continuing education on both running your organization and becoming a better photographer
  • Computer and/or software upgrades (how will you back up your photos?  what happens when your computer crashes and you can’t afford a new one?)
  • A lawyer to review your contracts (because you will need contracts, even for free sessions)
  • Website or email list maintenance (relying on Facebook alone can be disastrous for your ability to get your message out there, as algorithm changes continue to reduce your “free” reach to fans)

In short:

It isn’t a sustainable nonprofit when one grumpy toddler spraying your camera with a hose can shut down your entire enterprise. 

With zero income, the only alternative is to either 1) pay it all yourself, or 2) set up fundraisers, which take up a tremendous amount of time and money in and of themselves.

Self-funding is a risky proposition, since your own personal financial situation will dictate what your nonprofit can and can’t do.  And frankly, asking for people to pay for your gas and gear insurance is probably even harder than getting people to donate to other causes like cancer research.

You mention in your question that you’ve already run into a problem with money:

You said you can’t seem to get people interested in participating, but you can’t afford mentoring with someone who could help you plan out a strategy.  Of course, there may be great free resources in your town or online for people starting nonprofits, and they may or may not provide the specific help you need.  And I’m happy to answer this question on the blog as a donation of my time to your cause.

But at some point, you’ll probably need education, time, or strategic help from someone who isn’t willing to donate their time to your nonprofit.  (They may already be donating to someone else, or they may not be in a position to afford it).

In many unforeseeable cases, you’ll need a stash of capital to help you keep going.

By the way:  This review of nonprofit finances is all by way of encouraging – not discouraging you.

You want to do good, and you want it to be more than a flash in the pan before your energy is burned away.  You can absolutely do this.  But you’ll need to figure out a way to have a replenish-able reserve of money on hand.

You might already know all this, but it bears repeating.  Because when you have a line of appointments with service families, it would hurt to have to tell them that you dropped your camera and can no longer honor their session times.  Even if you eventually got it repaired, it could damage your reputation and lessen people’s future interest.  Making sure your nonprofit brings in some operating money ensures your ability to give at all.

Okay, on to the strategy.  If I were in your position, here are the six steps I would take to start:

1) People have to know something has value first before they’ll value it.  Create a profitable price list.

Rushing through the airport once, I was approached by someone who handed me a brand new book.  They explained they were trying to get the word out about it, and this was a new marketing campaign idea.  I thanked them and dashed on.

I’m a total bookworm, so you think I would have devoured it.  Especially on the long flight when I had nothing better to do.

But I didn’t.  I glanced at it and tossed it aside.  Matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I left the book on the plane.  A shocking failure in marketing – they put a book in the hands of a book nut, and the book nut didn’t even crack the cover.

But what if the book had a $23 Barnes and Noble price tag on it?  I would have felt like I hit the jackpot.  I would have understood its value.  I would have felt like I’d gotten away with something.

They had left one critical ingredient in their marketing campaign – convincing me that the freebie actually had value to me, not just to them

What if they had handed me a free laptop?

I would have been immediately interested – because I know how much a laptop costs.   I know what its’ value is to me.

People need to know what your services are worth.  Even if they’re not paying.

If people don’t know how much your services would normally cost, then to them, you may be indistinguishable from their Aunt Millie with the dSLR she got for Christmas. 

In fact, you might be worse off:  You’re a company giving away something for free, which always arouses suspicions of “where’s the catch” and “it must not be that great if they can afford to give it away for free.”

Plus, photoshoots are a pain, and not exactly “free” either.  Unlike handing someone a free laptop that they can cash in on, giving them a photoshoot means giving them responsibilities.  They have to get dressed up, drive somewhere, get there on time, and behave themselves for an hour.  That is no small undertaking for a family.

But if a coupon-cutting mom knows she’s getting a $2,000 (or whatever) service for free?  She’ll be much more likely to have her kiddo’s hair slicked back, lickety split!

Creating a profitable price list helps people see what they’re really getting.

This is more than a few snaps with Aunt Millie.  This is a professional service that most people would pay big bucks for.  Not only will they appreciate the service more, they’ll also feel more valued themselves.

After all, what you’re saying with your service is that military families make huge sacrifices, and they deserve some extra, wonderful compensation for it – and you provide it in the form of beautiful images worth $_____.

The process of setting profitable prices also requires you to determine what the hard costs of running your enterprise will be (gas, insurance, etc).  This will help you know how much money you’ll need to contribute or raise to keep your company going.  (More on that in #5.)

Having a price list also avoids setting unhealthy price anchors that can harm the industry.

(If you don’t know what a price anchor is, read this post.)

Someday that military family you’re giving a free session to is going to move somewhere else, and they may want a session with a local photographer there.  If they’re used to getting stuff for free and have no idea what the market value is, they’re going to get mad at that hard-working photographer who is charging $xyz for the same service.  The sticker shock may prevent them from hiring the photographer (depriving them of new, beautiful images), or just make them grumpy and enjoy the process less.

Whatever you do as a photographer, you’re setting expectations that other photographers have to live with.  Be sure people know what the market value for your work is.  It helps you, it helps them, and it helps the industry.

2) If people don’t seem to want what you have to offer, find out what they DO want, and tailor your language accordingly. 

To do this, make a profile of the person or people you’re trying to reach, and figure out what their needs are.  What are they really after?

For example, a military wife might not care about “free photos.”  Maybe she wants “A way to keep in touch with family that lasts longer than a Skype call.”  Maybe she wants something precious to send with Daddy when he gets deployed.  Maybe she wants some permanence and predictability in her life, and you can show her how your photos accomplish that.  In other words, don’t talk to her about photos.  Talk to her about the problems she has – and show her how your photos solve those problems

Essentially, if you can talk to people in a way that shows them that your photography meets needs that they already have, you don’t really have to “sell” them on the idea.  They’ll come to you.  (For more step-by-step help with this, you might check out the Irresistible Website e-book).

3) Drive demand using non-price strategies.

What gets people out of bed at 2am on Black Friday?  The fact that they’re getting an $800 TV for $400.

Since you are giving something away for free, you can’t use discounting strategies to drive demand.  (And in fact, discounts can be dangerous for service businesses anyway, as discussed here.)

Even if people know how much your service is worth (covered in #1) and why they want it (#2), if you’re always there, then there’s no urgency to get it done.  It becomes just one more “cool thing I might do someday, when the kids grow out of this hyperactive phase/when I get a haircut/etc.”

To create urgency, you can try one of two things:

Strategy A:  Make the service scarce.

If you’re just always around to do photos, there’s no reason to hurry.  But if you only do 2 sessions a month?  They’d better hustle to grab one before they’re gone!

The mere fact that you’re a limited resource makes your value go up.  You’re not just hanging around waiting for them – they have to hurry over to YOU.

Strategy B:  Make the free service by invitation only.

When Gmail launched, they were just another free email service.  People could easily have ignored them – but there was a catch.  Gmail was free, but you had to be invited. 

It was like they were throwing a party with cool free stuff inside, but you had to know someone who knew someone to get in.  

People love that kind of exclusivity.  They didn’t just get it for free – they got it for free because they had an “in.”

Of course, it wasn’t hard to get an invitation.  They weren’t trying to keep people out.  Far from it – they were trying to get people in!  And they used exclusivity to make it cool.

For every shoot you do, you might try giving them three invitations to give to friends.  When friends ask them who did their photos, they can say it’s by invitation only.  This makes them feel cool because friends will clamor to get the invites, and will make the friends feel cool for “scoring” something.

The goal of scarcity and exclusivity is NOT to limit your reach or ability to do good.

Your reach is naturally limited – there’s only so many sessions you can do, anyway.

The goal is to increase value by making people aware that you’re not available all the time, and making them excited to get something that their friends have.  And you can always choose to extend extra invitations, anyway.

4) Set up a reliable way to communicate your message.

Facebook is an awesome tool, and by all means, use the heck out of it.  But it’s inadvisable to build a house with just one tool.

As Jamie over at The Modern Tog explained here, anytime you rely on a third party to help you get your message out, you’re subject to whatever changes they want to make.  Including algorithm changes that dramatically cut your reach to your audience.  I’ve known people who accidentally violated Facebook terms of service and had their page shut down.  If that’s the only way you’ve gathered and communicated with followers, you’ve got a major problem.

Setting up a blog or website will establish a reliable presence where people can see what you’re about.  It gives you a chance to quickly and coherently tell people who you are, who they are, and what you can do for them.

You might also consider an email list to keep in regular contact with people, and so they don’t forget you.  You might also consider an email list to keep in regular contact with people, and so they don’t forget you.  MailChimp has a service that is free up to 2,000 subscribers, and might be a good place to start. (You can even make signing up for your email list exclusive – make it invitation-only to get on the list to hear about the next round of free sessions.)

5) Decide where an income stream is going to come from.

As discussed above, at some point you will need money to keep things going.  You can decide where it comes from:

You can have each family pay a minimal retainer to cover bare-bones costs.  Having them pay a token fee might actually increase their commitment to the session, discourage rescheduling, and make them feel like they’re getting a great deal (because they’ve seen what the full price would be).  People often value free things far less than things they paid for, even if it’s the same thing.  Not on purpose, and not all the time, but often.  We value what we have to sacrifice for.  Thus, you may find that this option of a small retainer is even better than something that’s totally “free.”  That possibility is worth investigating.

You could give each family the option to donate something in lieu of a retainer.

You could offer regularly-priced sessions to the general public, and let it be known that the profits go to helping military families get family photos.  You could do twice-a-year mini sessions for the general public and make an event out of it to raise funds for the next six months.

Unless you’re independently wealthy and are okay with bankrolling the entire project, including unforseen extras, not creating cost-covering income makes it much more likely that you won’t be around to serve these families very long. 

However you do it, be clear where the money is coming from.

6) Warning:  Some people can become difficult to deal with when they are getting something for free.  Create a contract and set exact policies.

Just because YOU are doing good doesn’t mean people will always be good in return.

In my decidedly un-scientific sampling of P4P readers, I’ve discovered that the danger in giving free or discounted sessions is that you sometimes attract a segment of people who tend to show up late (or not at all), demand more than you can give, reschedule a thousand times, disrespect your time, and exhaust you with unreasonable requests.

Not everyone behaves like this, but it doesn’t take many sour experiences to turn you away from serving a good cause.  You don’t want it to happen even once!

Having everyone sign a contract is a MUST.  Just because they didn’t pay doesn’t mean they won’t sue you. 

Or sell your work.  Or do something else that’s illegal.  You need to ensure they understand your policies, that they’ve signed a model release, and that they’re committed to showing up at the appointed time.  Contracts are a golden opportunity to set everyone up for a smooth ride.

As we talked about in this popular post, contracts aren’t “mean” or “untrustworthy.”  Using a contract (including for friends) simply lets them know that you care enough about their experience to make sure everyone is on the same page at all times.  Otherwise, unhappiness will result.  If not now, eventually.

In your agreement, outline clearly  1) what they will receive, 2) what they can get if they want to pay extra (e.g. extra retouching beyond what you normally do), and 3) what you cannot provide (e.g. endless free re-shoots).

You can purchase pre-made contracts online and/or hire a lawyer to review/create one for you.  Make sure you’re protected, even as you go about doing good things.

Running a non-profit is not much different from running a business.

To stay around long enough to serve your target audience you have to map out:  Who they are, what they need, how you’ll communicate the value of what you do, how you’ll use non-discounting strategies to attract them, how you’ll communicate regularly with them, how you’re going to cover your costs, and how to keep yourself legally protected.

If you plan that out, you’ll be better-equipped to run any kind of enterprise.  Best of luck to you!  Let us know how it goes.





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  1. Jamie Swanson on November 1, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    GREAT post, Jenika! And thanks for the shoutout!

    • Jenika on November 1, 2012 at 4:23 pm

      Thanks Jamie! Thanks to YOU for always providing great explanations of things. 🙂

  2. Andrew Mills on November 1, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Another thing to consider:

    Do they actually want to be bombarded with free stuff?

    I’m not sure I can explain this properly, but military people can be prideful. They may not appreciate being thought of as second class citizens and can only “afford” free stuff all the time.

    I’m sure it’s the same in the US as it is in the UK. Our military are not exactly highly paid, but they’re not exactly impoverished either.

    We all love a good deal, and the odd freebie, but perhaps (if you’re not careful) they can feel patronised by your offer.

    For what they do, they definitely deserve our support, but perhaps do it in a way that their pride won’t get dented.

    • Jenika on November 1, 2012 at 4:23 pm

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Andrew – definitely something for C.S. (and all of us) to consider. (I mentioned in my last post – before embarking on a giving campaign, it’s important to check with the audience that what you’re giving is what you actually need.) I’m sure there’s a way, as you mentioned, to support them without implying that they “need” or want free stuff.

  3. Kaylie on November 1, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    Thanks for this post! I love how you talked about how getting education is important. I’m studying photography and lately I feel like I could do more if I was done with school and put my whole time into making my business boom.

  4. Maryanne on November 2, 2012 at 9:24 am

    Great article as always. Loved the bit about making it invitation only – given me some ideas for a project Im starting! Thanks M x

  5. Nicole on November 2, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    My husband was an active duty Marine for a little over 4 years. We were long distance for three years so during leave time, any pictures we were able to take meant the world to us. I actually looked into having pictures done at one point for free through a program called Operation: Love Reunited, but my thing was quality of the photographs. I would suggest taking as many pictures that you can to continue to improve and network to get the word out there. There are a lot of military support sites out there that you can connect with to help.

    Wish you the best 🙂

  6. Matt on November 3, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Great great post. Money simply has to be made or it won’t work in the long run. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Michelle JN on November 17, 2012 at 12:39 am

    Such a great post (again)!! I’m a fan of ‘vouchers’ instead of using the word free. It gives a sense of value to services being rendered. C.S. may consider giving out one voucher to get a booking and provide another voucher for the client to give to a friend to use. Jenika, you always seem to have the right posts for me when I need them, thank you for taking the time!

    • Jenika on November 17, 2012 at 12:41 am

      Thanks for your additional suggestion and kind comment, Michelle! 😀 Both are appreciated.

  8. Bryant Little on March 18, 2016 at 2:05 am

    Thank you for such information that was exact what I needed. Literally what I was looking for.

  9. John on March 20, 2016 at 12:50 am

    I randomly found this post looking for information about non-profit photography. Really helpful post!

    Regarding the initial question, in the US, there’s an organization called Hearts Apart that accepts volunteers near military installations to take photos of service members and their families before, after, or during deployments. I don’t know how the administrative and/or business side of it works, but thought passing along their website may be helpful…

    It’s great to see members of other militaries inspired to do this, best of luck to C.S. and appreciate the info in the post!

  10. Kent Dolezal on December 31, 2016 at 8:47 am

    I started my photography business because of my faith and wanted to show the world what that’s like. That being said, I didn’t start out thinking I would be non-profit but since I still have a full time job and haven’t got a customer base yet, moving more towards non (or not?) profit seem like I can add it in. I still want to make a profit just because what you said. Equipment, Insurance, software, education etc isn’t cheep and I love what I do.

    Can a photography business work when say, haft of the clients get a very good discount, maybe even free? If done right, could this drive paying customers to the business. It’s thinking outside of the box but I have never been the kind of guy that likes to do what everyone else has done.

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