Why We should not do Pro-bono work
[May 4, 2010]
Since I started to play with the idea of becoming a photographer, the question of doing pro-bono work has been an issue that I haven’t been able to address. For long time I didn’t have a concrete opinion, or let’s say, I didn’t pick a side. Now, through the Internet, I’ve found people defending pro-bono work, with good reasons, and others opposed to it, also with really interesting thoughts.
After having some time to chew on this issue, and after having done my research as well, I have come to my own conclusions that I want to share in a trilogy of articles. Today I have posted “Why we should not do pro-bono work.” In a couple of days I will post “The advantages of working pro-bono,” and probably next week, I want to share my personal conclusions as to what I’ve learned in this process and also some links where you can continue exploring this idea.
Before giving you reasons for not working pro-bono, I have to add that, as humanitarian photographers, we have to be ready to respond to this question. Be sure, non-profits will come your way asking you to work pro-bono. What’s your answer going to be? What are the pros and cons of working pro-bono? Am I helping to bring down the market? Am I harming the full-time photographers? Do I need a contract in cases like this? Are all the non-profits a charity as well? These are some questions that we’ll discuss during this trilogy.
Today, for no apparent reason ;-), I want to share the disadvantages or cons of working pro-bono. The list is not in any specific order of importance:
1. Pro-bono work brings down the value of the industry; it harms the marketplace.
This is probably the number-one reason for the opponents of pro-bono work. Their argument is simple. if you give the option to a non-profit organization whose resources are limited, to choose between a paid photographer or one that’s for free (on their end) then most of the time, unless they value quality over price, they’re going to end up accepting the photographer for free.
With time, these organizations get used to it and they only look for free photographs, even though this could mean, mediocre images.
The people in this side of the fence says that the market is going down, among other things, to people that charge little or nothing.
2. Pro-bono devalues the importance of photography for non-profit organizations.
Let me put it this way, not all the non-profit organizations are charities. They work as a business, with the difference being that they cannot as a finance balance, go to profit. They have employees to pay, cars, rent, phone, Internet, website, airfare, consulting companies, etc. So why do these other topics deserve a budget but not photography? People see in this behavior, a “devaluation” for good images. If they value it, why is it not part of their budget?
Working pro-bono maintains this tendency among NGOs.
Matt Brandon gave us this example in his 10.Q Interview: “If I have a costly camera and have no earthy idea how to use it and just keep it on my shelf, then I don’t value it for what it can do. If I truly valued the camera I would read up on how to use it and make it pay for itself. But the reality is if while going into it, I don’t know how to use it, not see it’s potential, then I don’t value it and would never buy it in the first place”.
In the last 50 years or so, we’ve had several examples of how images have made a difference, raised awareness of a situation, or simply raised millions of dollars in donations. Images are powerful, but non-profit organizations need to be educated in this.
3. Pro-bono work sometimes promotes mediocre images.
While this depends very much on the photographer that’s working on the assignment, we can say that, most of the time, pro-bono work is seen as a favor, not as a contract. More often than not, this affects the “severity” or “professionalism” of the job. It’s hard, from the employer’s side, to be demanding on the “volunteer”. At the same time, volunteers, sometimes, are not fully committed to the job, because they are not paid to be.
On the other side of the coin, if you’re being paid to do a job, your reputation, career, and income depends on your performance.
In the end, we come to, “You get what you pay for”.
4. Pro-bono sometimes decrease the quality of images
This point is directly related to points 2 and 3. Most of the photographers doing pro-bono work today are photographers only starting in this business. They haven’t been around situations and experiences as the seasoned professional photographers have. Most of the time they don’t know how to address the needs of the NGOs, or simply don’t know how to tell the story behind the cause of the organization.
When you pay for someone that has been working in the industry for a while, you can be sure he/she knows how to do the job.
5. Pro-bono can harm your business plan
Usually when people speak about pro-bono, they automatically refer to it as working for free. But, as others have said before, this is an illusion, because “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Someone always has to pay the cost of it. In this case, not the organization, but you, the photographer. You are giving time, expenses, materials, photos, etc. So, before you start taking pro-bono work, think about it and see if you have the resources to pay for it.
6. This is where you chime in… I want to leave space to comments. Feel free to comment on this issue and make your respective questions. In a couple of days we’ll talk about “The Advantages of working pro-bono,” and next week my own impressions and decision. (Plus links to keep reading)