Photography Business: Working With NGOs

PhotoShelter member Jerry Monkman stops by to share tips for photographers working with NGOs, including several ideas to make sure you and the NGO can benefit financially.

By Jerry Monkman

Photographers have always worked with non-profit groups on social issues, but in the last few years shooting for NGOs seems to be on more photographers’ radar due to the high profile work being created at Media Storm, VII, and by members of the International League of Conservation Photographers.  Many of these projects require daunting budgets and travel plans, but there is plenty of important work that can be done close to home, and I regularly encourage other photographers to reach out to local and regional NGOs as a way to make a difference, grow creatively, and make a little money as well.

It is local conservation issues in New England that I have concentrated on for most of my career.  My first stock photo sale ever was to an NGO in 1993 and my first assignment was for a regional environmental organization in 1995.  This work inspired me to call my business EcoPhotography, which I run with my wife Marcy from our studio in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  For the first ten years or so, I concentrated on landscape photography, shooting in both 35mm and with a Pentax 6 x 7, always looking for that one great shot.

However, as I did more and more work for conservation organizations, it became clear to me that they were just as interested in imagery that showed how people relate to the landscape, and I began including people in my photography on a more regular basis. 

In 2004, I sold all of my film cameras to purchase a Canon 1Ds Mark II, and focused on adventure sports, kids in the outdoors, and scientists in the field at least as much as pure nature photography, taking a more story-driven approach to my work.  I am now using both the Canon 5D Mark II and 7D to shoot still imagery and video, and I have several multi-media projects in the pipeline, which I feel will work really well for telling the conservation stories that hold the most interest for me.

Working with non-profit clients has been very rewarding for Marcy and me, but it does require different skills than working with traditional commercial and editorial clients. You need to be as dedicated to the cause as much as your art, and you have to be willing to work very hard with your clients to make a project succeed both financially and creatively. 

Here are some ideas to consider when embarking on your own socially conscious photo journey:

1) Follow your passion. Working on social issues is hard work that requires patience and relationship building. Photographing issues you are not passionate about rarely leads to success, and you are more likely to impress potential clients if you sincerely care about their cause.  They can tell the difference between shooters who have real concern about their issues verses those just looking to make a buck.

2) Consistently market your work.
Just like with traditional commercial and editorial clients, market to NGOs you want to work with on a regular basis. Create on-line portfolios that show the kind of work that matches the needs of the social issues you want to work on, and make sure the right people see your web site.  Use direct mail pieces and e-mail blasts, targeting the organization’s communications or marketing director.  Network and show your book.  Use all the SEO tools that Photoshelter keeps drilling into your head. And do all of this consistently – it can take several years to develop the client base you want.

3) Get paid for your work.
  It’s tempting to give in to requests for free images when the person asking is doing important non-profit work, but getting paid makes you a better social activist (plus that person is getting paid, so you should too.) Unless you are independently wealthy, you can make a bigger difference as a socially conscious photographer if you have the resources to do the job right and work on multiple projects. By being diligent about getting paid, I have been able to work on more than 100 land conservation projects in New England during the last decade. That’s something that never would have happened if I was doing it out of the goodness of my heart.  The challenge is to convince potential NGO partners that expect free imagery or think they can’t afford you to cut you a check. Tell them that by improving the quality of imagery that they use, they will actually be more successful in their fundraising. It can be more cost-effective for a non-profit to hire you to shoot on assignment, because you will be more efficient in creating the photography than a non-professional and your images will be created specifically for their needs. 

4) Think about the NGO’s bottom line as much as your own. Yes, you need to get but paid, but be creative in how you finance your work with your NGO partners.  It is important to realize that every non-profit project t has different needs and you’ll have more success in the non-profit world if you can offer a variety of ways for clients to leverage your photography. 

Here are some ideas to consider that have worked for us:

  • Create a standard set of stock prices for non-profit clients that you can quote them from memory.  If you are a Photoshelter user, take advantage of its coupon code capability by giving non-profit clients codes they can use to purchase your stock at reduced rates.
  • For commissioned work, offer to let the non-profit keep your photos for unlimited future use, but retain the copyright of your images and the right to market those images to other clients. This saves the client money by letting them use the imagery royalty free after the shoot, but you can still have an income stream from the resulting stock.  
  • Offer to do slide show presentations and/or exhibits of specific projects. This is a great way to help fundraising efforts for the NGO while also earning you income from print sales.
  • Partner with your client to produce note cards, calendars, books, etc.
  • Run photo workshops in collaboration with an NGO. The NGO can promote the workshop to its membership, saving you marketing time and money.  Create a price point that makes you a reasonable amount of income while also providing some money to the NGO.

5) Collaborate with others.  In my conservation photography, I have found my most successful projects involve collaboration with wildlife biologists, foresters, land managers, and other experts familiar with my subject matter.  This sometimes gives me access to places I might not otherwise gain entrance to, but more importantly it informs me about what plants, animals, people, etc. are important to the story I’m hoping to tell. I have also found that for some projects it is necessary to partner with more than one NGO to properly fund my photography, and sometimes it makes sense to include other photographers as well.  ILCP is finding great success with its multi-photographer projects, and other examples include Steffan Widstrand’s Wild Wonders of Europe, and Niall Bienvie’s and Clay Bolt’s Meet Your Neighbours project.

About Jerry Monkman
Jerry Monkman’s nature and adventure images have been part of more than 100 land conservation projects since 2000 that have resulted in the protection of several hundred thousand acres of New England’s wild places. He has collaborated with dozens of non-profits on these projects, including The Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. With his wife Marcy, he has co-authored seven books about the region, including Wild Acadia, which was named a top photo book of 2007 by Shutterbug Magazine.  He also leads photo workshops in New England and writes a blog for – In the Zone with Jerry Monkman. He was recently named to the board of directors of the North American Nature Photography Association.  Jerry is based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he lives with Marcy and their two children, Acadia and Quinn.

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PhotoShelter CEO. Follow on Twitter: @awfingerman and Instagram: @awfinger

There are 6 comments for this article
  1. Ben Langdon at 3:16 am

    Great post, thank you for sharing. I do quite a bit of work with NGOs and would really like to build on this back at home too and incorporate some of the other ideas you suggest.

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