Being a photographer is a great way to make a living. Sure it’s challenging, but anything worth doing is. Sure it takes talent and hard work, but anything worth doing does. But c’mon, I’m not saving the world here.
Taking on pro bono, or charity projects is an important part of being a strong part of your community. It’s also good for your business and your creativity. Working on pro bono projects can offer the opportunity to work with people you might not have access to otherwise. You might work with an ad agency that you wouldn’t ordinarily get in with. You might meet some very influential members of your community. You’ll almost certainly meet other people who are passionate about the same causes you are. And, if you’ve planned it properly, you’ll have great fun.
Pro bono projects can also offer an opportunity to flex your creative muscle. Many charities and organizations are willing to let you have a more active roll in shaping how things play out. Sure, you’ll probably shoot your share of grip and grins and headshots–but once you’ve got a good relationship with a group you’ve got the cred to pitch ideas.
Be sure to check with your CPA about tax issues involved with donating services and materials. Last time I checked you could deduct actual expenses associated with pro bono work, but not time or services. For example, if you spent $50 on ink and paper for those prints you can deduct it, but you can’t deduct the fee you would have charged a corporate client.
Also be sure to understand the difference between a non-profit and a charity. Many organizations and associations are officially non-profit entities (501-c) but exist solely to further the aims of their corporate members. I live and work near Washington DC, home of the trade association. I’m certainly not going to give my talents to a trade group who’s mission is to make the world safe for (insert insulting corporate practice here). Use your best judgment about whether a non-profit is worthy of your donated services. Many are, many more probably are not.
Finally, realize that even great charities still sometimes pay for work. My rule of thumb is that if a charity initiates contact I’m not going to work for free. I might give them a discount if it’s a charity I like but I’m not going to be the only one on a multi-million dollar project not getting paid. If the models, the make up artist, the caterer, the magazine running the ad and the art director are getting paid, it’s insulting to think the photographer wouldn’t.
Pro bono projects offer the opportunity to provide support to organizations that need it. Maybe you don’t have the ability to write a big check to the cause, but you can lend your talents. Find a cause you can get behind and call their communications department. I had an instructor in college say to us “Face it, you’re a whore. You’re taking a God given talent and selling it to the highest bidder, if that’s not the definition of a whore, I don’t know what is.”
He was right. I love my job, I take it seriously and I think I’m good at it, but no one is going to live or die based on my work. I’d like to make a contribution to the well-being of my community and not just its tax base.