Why do image makers seem to be always giving their work away? Still and video productions are not commodities; they’re not second-hand merchandise. They’re not restaurant leftovers. Yet image professionals repeatedly give away their services as though they’re out of freshness dateing. The practice of charging little or nothing actually decreases the value of what we do in the public eye. Here’s the back story along with some facts and tips to help you counter perennial and aggressive begging in order to work in smoothly with non-profits.
As small business people, we are on one hand energetically seeking paying clientele and on the other taking pleasure in charitable contribution – giving back to the community. I for one, just love giving things away, either to show a worthy organization what first class video and stills can do for them, or as a reward when clients spend a lot and come back faithfully for more.
This time of year the exhortations to charitable giving come pounding at us through TV, mail, internet, sermons, friends and foe alike. Non profits of all kinds and colors pop up everywhere. Media coverage loosely categorized as “paying it forward” are feel-good stories that applaud extraordinary philanthropy, but also lay the donation guilt trip on us with a pretty heavy hand. And of course we Americans have always been noted for our generosity, a wonderful trait, and perhaps the most beautiful demonstration of that uniquely American concept of fairness and equality.
But you (and we) are running businesses. We’re faced with government regulation, taxes and fees, the excess availability of competitive services in the marketplace, and declining customer base due to economic pressures and equipment that extols do-it-yourself image making. Caught inside this triangular barrier of challenges, we can easily feel we are being fenced off from the dream of prosperity for which we diligently work every day.
I’ve got to tell you, We Are Not, Cannot Be A Food Bank! As far as I can determine, most food bank food is overstock or close to expiration date. Same with donations to Goodwill, Veterans and ARC. Items received are still functional, but they’re used, no longer wanted, out of date and fashion, remnants of an estate, or simply things we don’t want any more. No problem; recycling is good, repurposing things to give someone else a leg up is praiseworthy.
So I ask you, is your photography and videography overstocked, out of date, out of fashion, no longer wanted? Bet not. What we do is both our livelihood and our persona. It’s not an excess supply that must be given away free before it expires. Everything we do is fresh, new, individually conceived and labored over to be an exact fit for the client and purpose at hand.
In a sense we are doctors. We must examine the patient to find out what is the problem, the situation and requirements. Sometimes we’re more like veterinarians, because we can’t get the patient to tell us exactly what hurts. Through education and experience we must make a diagnosis and suggest the prescription to solve the concerns within existing parameters. Our camera-side manner must be amiable, able and available. Then we actually have to do the surgery (shoot the job) to effect the cure (satisfy the need). And finally we deliver the patient back to family and workplace with the memory of a pleasant, fun, valuable and cost effective experience.
Right away I’ll have to admit to giving away more of my work than is appropriate or realistic. I was motivated to re-examine our own charitable giving by an article in Rangefinder, November 2010. Speaking of a profiled photographer, the article reads, “He also does pro-bono work for many charitable causes.” Even knowing the notoriety of photographers for under-charging, (and in most cases giving sub-standard quality), I was still shocked at the words in the article. I guess it was the “many” that got me. Even big corporations choose a limited number of charities to support and set a dollar ceiling of their giving.
Think of this another way. Isn’t your work worth as much as a master plumber? We all do consultation, shooting and postproduction, often not charging for anything but actual prints ordered. Would a plumber do this? Not. There’s a trip charge, a diagnostic charge, the labor, the parts and sometimes you have to do the clean up yourself! So stop giving away what you do. I note with alarm that “give away” can carry the dictionary definition of “betrayal”. Harsh words! Don’t let them apply to you.
I feel it’s ok to work for a reduced fee for any number of reasons. Your giving will inevitably be colored by your personal interests and penchant for various causes. Our preference is arts organizations; our criteria is serious commitment on the part of the organization to quality production. Here’s my best advice for success when you’re donating your work.
- Have an in-depth informational meeting with the qualified representative before deciding to donate.
- Estimate the real life cost for the project, and carefully consider what percentage or dollar amount you are prepared to give as an in-kind donation.
- Do not agree to donate hard costs or products you must buy from others at full price.
- Do not demand that your employees donate part of their salaries to your cause.
- Write a careful proposal stating the project scope and goals, time frame, responsibilities, reduced price with donation amount noted, what product the client receives, who retains copyright and/or reproduction rights. Once details are agreed upon, this document will become the basis for your contract. (MAC users: Pages has a great templates for proposals, contracts, invoices, even story boards and screen plays.)
- Do not work without a contract. A gentlewoman’s handshake will not work here.
- Ask for your fee in increments as the work progresses; don’t trust that big check will be instantly available at the end.
- Be sure to state the cost and time consequences for change orders and do-overs.
- Detail how and who will be signing off on the final version.
- Complete a contact file for everyone who needs to be kept in the loop of the project. Send out pertinent and reasonably frequent email updates or questions.
- Be there for your client; recognize they may be amateurs at PR and presentation. You are just the pro to lead them through it!
- Be ready to over-deliver, just like you would for a client paying the full load. Don’t skimp on your creativity.
If you work frequently with non-profits like we do, be prepared that you’re not always going to be able to negotiate a win-win situation. It can be a lot like how holidays seem to bring out the best or worst in people. Recently after finalizing services included in a contract, the organization came back to us with the irritating request that we throw in one more item worth $500. Another group insisted we negotiate with one administrator, but after we had accomplished months of work, the president decided that her administrator was not qualified nor authorized to finalize the contract. She demanded a 60% reduction in the already agreed upon stipend as well as full copyright release to all footage and stills. Since we had relied on my gentlewoman’s handshake without a contract, we had to walk on the project. But of course the organization got nothing. My first clue should have been that the president wanted us to use popular music to which she had no rights whatever.
But then there are always real winners, as evidenced by a religious group fundraising for an historical mural project. They couldn’t do enough to help us make the film a success. We live for those clients!