By Heather Graulich

With so many photojournalists turning to freelance work either by necessity (layoffs, buyouts and downsizing at traditional media outlets) or by choice (more flexibility and greater opportunities thanks to digital media), one area with great potential for contract work is the nonprofit sector.

According to GuideStar, a nonprofit that tracks data from other nonprofits, this realm of the economy is an “incredibly powerful” one, employing more than 70 million people.

Nonprofit workers make up the third-largest workforce among U.S.-based industries - second only to manufacturing and retail – and nonprofits post a total revenue of more than $1.9 trillion each year, says GuideStar. 

An improving economy and stock market have also boosted the coffers of nonprofits, many of which rely on investments, allowing more money to become available within these agencies’ budgets for media efforts.

Kathleen HennessyAnd yet, most nonprofits have no staff photographer, nor do they utilize visual storytelling to their best advantage, says Kathleen Hennessy, director of Activist Awards and Exhibitions with PhotoPhilanthropy, a San Francisco-based nonprofit working to link professional photojournalists with charitable groups to help drive social change. She estimates that as much as 80 percent of nonprofits run websites with lackluster visuals.

 “What we’re finding is that nonprofits just aren’t used to using high quality photography,” Hennessy says. “They’re using professional marketers and publicists, but then getting their uncle or someone to do the photography. We’re trying to show them what a difference professional photography can make. It has to be part of their budget.”

 The benefits to nonprofits that use professional photographers are clear, according to research conducted by Resource Media, a Seattle-based nonprofit public relations firm with eight offices throughout the country that supports nonprofit environmental and public health agencies.

 In its “Seeing is Believing” report, published in April, Resource Media highlighted staggering facts about modern photography: by the end of 2012, 300 million photos were being uploaded to Facebook each day; 10 percent of all the photos ever made in the 150-year history of photography were made last year. 

 Not surprising, considering the explosion of digital media and social networking coupled with the science behind visual communication, the report states. Human beings are visual creatures from birth: we are visual learners before we are verbal learners, and we absorb new information six times better when pictures are included in the content.

 Advertisers have known this for decades, and some of the bigger nonprofits do, as well, and they budget for professional photography accordingly. As the report states, “High quality design without high quality images is a waste of money.”

 “Doctors Without Borders has seven photographers on staff,” says Hennessy, who also works for Picture World Hope, a for-profit venture that works to link nonprofits with photojournalists. “The really big ones have communications departments and they do hire high-quality photographers. We’re aiming at those mid-level ones who haven’t really thought about it. It could really change the landscape for them, especially on the web, because that’s where it’s really happening right now. And as we know, the web is very visual. It’s kind of amazing, because there’s an explosion of photography right now.”

Ken Light by Melanie LightBut taking great photographs and shepherding visual storytelling isn’t the only way pros can help nonprofits, says renowned documentary photographer Ken Light, curator of the Center for Photography in San Francisco and a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

 Light, who teaches a class on freelancing, says photographers have a responsibility to help nonprofit executives understand the value of their work, so that the future of relations between photographers and nonprofits is fair and mutually beneficial.

 So often, he says, nonprofits see photography as an element that can be donated, and ask photographers to volunteer their time and talent. Or, they don’t understand copyright. Be sure your contract with the nonprofit clearly spells out not only the assignment but also future usage rights.

 “One problem that still remains is that nonprofits assume that everything a photographer produces is theirs,” says Light. “Younger photographers can be naïve about the value of the work they create - that it might be worth more over the decades as stock photography.

 “One of the reasons we have (the freelancing) class is that if they’ve made a choice to freelance, they shouldn’t undersell the marketplace,” says Light. 

 This can be a delicate balancing act when working with nonprofits, which have noble objectives but tight budgets.

 “You have to know when to walk away,” says Light. “You can say you love what an organization is doing but also say, ‘I just can’t afford it.’”

 Here, Light and Hennessy share their tips for working with nonprofits:

1. Broaden your skills: Realize that most nonprofits need a multimedia approach to marketing and fundraising. Ideally, you want to show your skills in photography, video, audio, social media and web design. One agency using this approach is Brooklyn-based MediaStorm, which has a client list including top-tier nonprofits such as CARE and the International Committee of the Red Cross. It produces a blog on multimedia storytelling at

2. Research nonprofits you’re interested in: GuideStar is one organization (a nonprofit itself) that compiles data from every Internal Revenue Service-registered nonprofit. You can gain a better understanding of nonprofits you are interested in, and learn key information, such as budgetary information, which can help you decided how and with whom to pitch a project. Another good source for this type of data is the Foundation Center, billed as the country’s largest repository of information on more than 100,000 foundations and nonprofits, including available grant money. Liz Banse, vice president of Resource Media and lead author of the “Seeing is Believing” report, says photographers need to be careful to use this information constructively rather than putting nonprofits on the defensive about their money. Rather than criticize them for how they have spent PR dollars in the past, show them how visual storytelling will help maximize their efforts.

3. Start locally: If you have an idea or project, find out if there’s a local agency that could be interested in your subject matter. “If you love sports photography, and there’s a group that teaches sports to kids, you can see what they’re doing, look at their website,” says Hennessy. “Go to them with an idea. Just like you would pitch a magazine.” On the other hand, if you’ve already shot a project and are looking to sell it, you may find smaller, local groups interested in your work.

4. Be the expert: “You might be the expert in the room when you meet with a nonprofit,” says Hennessy. “Your job is to help them understand how to tell the story, and how can they distribute it. Instead of delivering them a hard drive full of 1,000 images, maybe you want to edit it with video and some text. Be the expert.” And if nonprofit executives already have plans for certain ad strategies, listening carefully, asking questions and understanding their end product will help you early on, says Banse. If the nonprofit executives know they want a billboard campaign, for example, then they will need photos that work best horizontally. It may seem obvious, but attention to details like this can make your efforts stand out.

5. Know the audience: If a nonprofit is strictly going after donors, whom are they targeting? Again, ask a lot of questions. Think about how to reach that group. “For example, if they have an audience who is females in St. Paul, if that’s their donor base, then you’ll take very different pictures than if the audience is male CEOs,” says Banse. “ With homelessness for example, if that’s the nonprofit’s issue, you don’t want pictures of men panhandling, because that is scary to most women. So you should go after photos of women who are homeless with kids sleeping in cars. Women - we know how dangerous it is on the streets and it is understood that we tolerate men on the streets but not mothers of young kids out there. That will get you a better response rate.” 

6. Help them focus: Sometimes the nonprofit wants to show everything it does, says Hennessy, but “it’s important to reel them into one story people can connect to.” Resource Media’s research bears this out: “Common ground between your cause and your audience can quickly be established through pictures of people. People, people, people – we cannot reinforce this point enough,” the report states. “Visuals drive emotions. Emotions drive decisions. Decisions lead to action.”

7. Plan what happens after the photos are taken: Your communications expertise is important here. Resource Media’s report used the example of how it helped International Bird Rescue with communications after the 2010 Gulf oil spill. Resource Media set up a Flickr album with images of the rescue efforts that was accessed almost 300,000 times and led to donations - the kind of proactive publicity work that staffers of smaller nonprofits are often too busy to attend to, especially during crises. Nonprofits need people who can bring them solutions using a wide range of tactics that help them execute their visual communication strategy.

8. Know your professional rights: When partnering with a nonprofit, “be aware of your rights in terms of ownership of your work,” says Light. “Understand the working conditions you might come under.” Nonprofit work should be detailed in a written contract, just as you would with an editorial or commercial client.

9. Do your own multi-tasking: Already planning to be somewhere for another project? Why not reach out to a nonprofit that is doing work in that area to see if they need current images? You may not land a big contract but day rates are possible. Also, keep in touch with your nonprofit clients through targeted communications that keep them up-to-date and engaged with your work.