A friend of mine posted to Facebook today asking for advice on engagement photos. She’s already hired the best photographer in town and she’s thinking through wardrobe options. All that’s left to do is find that perfect location that serves not only as a backdrop for their smiling faces, but conveys their sense of style, and complements their feelings of joy and excitement.
Nonprofits don’t give photography half this much consideration. They understand the need to flesh out their newsletters, brochures, and websites with images, but they often lack the real photos that convey emotion and create a personal connection with their work. Instead, they show a giant check being passed off from a major donor to a beaming executive director, a bunch of muckety-mucks in tuxedos standing around a table at a gala, or a group of uninterested kids surrounding a politician. While these photos convey facts, they are unlikely to move your audience. It’s like writing without adjectives. These photos say, “give us money and we will spend it.” Not the most convincing message for a nonprofit.
So what is a “real” photo? Check out the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Virginia. Their annual report shows kids and volunteers participating in their programs. It may not be the fanciest example out there, but their photos are bright and clear, some posed, some candid, all conveying what their organization does.
If you can’t hire a pro, your best alternative is sheer persistence: take a lot of photos all the time. Enlist your staff, your volunteers, even your program participants as photographers. As my friend Tracy says, “even a blind hog can find an acorn now and then.” It’s all a matter of being in the right place at the right time. And don’t just take photos at events and fundraisers—get out in the field. The Local Food Hub does a great job of this. Take photos of volunteers, donors, “a day in the life” of your staff or constituents, of the people and places you serve, and of projects as they’re being built or created (and not just when they’re completed). Your photos may not be professional, but it will be clear that they are originals.
Some nonprofits prefer to use stock photography instead of original images. They may be pretty, but there’s some risk in using slick photos of people and places that aren’t really associated with your organization. Take a look at the image header that Hospice of the Piedmont uses on their website. These smiling, happy people look a little too good. Sure enough, a quick search reveals that they were purchased from a stock photography site.
So what’s the big deal? There isn’t one, really. Hospice’s clientele probably doesn’t want their photos used for marketing purposes, and who can blame them? This is an organization that deals with extremely sensitive and personal issues. The stock photo of grandma with her nurse will surely suffice and convey the message that the organization wants. (I should point out that Hospice of the Piedmont helped my family manage my grandfather’s, as well as my husband’s grandmother’s, end of life and palliative care, for which we are forever grateful.)
The only problem appears to be grandma’s popularity. While she represents a patient receiving end of life care at Hospice of the Piedmont, she also represents a homebound senior who’s surviving on boxes of food from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. If you must use stock photos, at the very least, make sure that they’re not already in use by nonprofits in your area.
Google Image Search can help with this. The search engine allows you to search by image and not just words. Copy the link to the image into Google and see where on the web that image or similar images are being used. Try to make the photos as relevant to your cause and community as you can and help maintain your credibility.
Flickr is a great alternative to stock photography websites. There’s a very active Charlottesville group. Check them out the next time you need photos. Many of them are released under a Creative Commons license. If you find that perfect photo and it’s not available under a Creative Commons license, go ahead and contact the photographer and ask for permission. One year, when I was working for an area non-profit, we needed an image for a holiday card, but kept coming up short. None of our in-house photos had any relation to the holidays. I did a local Flickr search, found a perfect snowy photo and contacted the photographer. He was thrilled for us to use it, as long as we credited him, which we were happy to do.
A photo gives you the chance to share your message visually, to show your mission in action. Hiring a professional ensures that you’ll get some good shots, but even if you can afford it, chances are that you’ll only use a professional for a special event, headshots, or a marketing campaign. Stock photography, especially of people, rarely works for a nonprofit with a local focus and is a poor substitute for original work. Creating a series of meaningful photographs is more than simply taking snap shots. Just as with words, thought, skill and a critical eye are fundamental in telling your story effectively.
Check out these tips for getting better photos on a budget.