How to Work with NGOs: Two Approaches


During my career, I have worked for NGOs such as Care International and Greenpeace, as well as smaller NGOs that focus on more local issues, such as the DC Central Kitchen. Separately, I’ve worked with the corporate suppliers of NGOs — like Motorola and Glaxo — who see value in associating themselves with charities and non-profit causes. So, as a photojournalist, which is the better route to take professionally?

I’ve had good experiences with both NGOs and their suppliers. But for a photojournalist trying to break in to this kind of work, I think the supplier path usually makes more sense.

The Problem with NGOs

Working directly for NGOs is great experience if you can get it. Unfortunately, NGO work is in high demand among photojournalists building out their portfolios. NGOs recognize that in many cases (not all), the photographer benefits more from the relationship than the NGO.

So, when you approach an NGO for work, you will need to overcome their doubts over your true motivation for working with them. Even then, unless you are James Nachtwey, these organizations tend to place a lot of rules and restrictions on the relationship.

As a photojournalist, there are certain things you want to achieve in your career, and specifically, from your work with an NGO. Your list might look something like this:

  • Recognition for producing work that makes a difference.
  • Strong material for your portfolio that will lead to more work.
  • To get paid.
  • Material for a book project or editorial assignment.
  • A simple sense of satisfaction and being able to help.

With NGOs, all these things are very much in their hands. They can easily restrict access to your subject whenever they want to, demand unreasonable usage terms for the work, demand a percentage of royalties from commercial deals, and so forth.

Look at it from their perspective. They are always looking for sources of funding — and the old line that your work will help increase awareness of their cause which, in turn, will result in more funding, just does not cut it any more. This is certainly true of the larger, more established NGOs. With smaller organizations, this approach may still work, but there are no guarantees.

Working with an NGO Supplier

As a photojournalist, your aim should be to remove as much dependency on the NGO as possible, while still getting access to your subject. I’ve found that a good way to do this is to work with an NGO’s suppliers rather than the NGO itself.

NGO suppliers are often large corporations, devoting some aspect of their time and/or budget to social and humanitarian responsibility. They may supply food, medicines, tents, bedding, water pumps, generators, financing, political influence, transportation, books for children, building materials and tools, or communications equipment. And they are regularly looking for opportunities to be seen making such efforts. It’s good for business. And a good photojournalist can help them deliver that message.

Where can information be found on such organizations? Take a look at www.devdir.org, www.onphilanthropy.com and www.thecro.com. You will need to do some research and make some contacts within the organizations you want to work with.

This kind of project is about establishing a working relationship with a valuable partner, getting to do what you want to do, and getting paid to do so. Yes, there is work involved, but if you are passionate about it, and committed to a cause, it should not feel like work.

By doing your work through the NGO suppliers, the NGOs still benefit, but not at their expense — or yours. You get to work in a freer, more creative environment with a better budget and more control over what you produce. The only real requirement is to show the supplier’s products or services in a positive way. Other than that, once you are on the ground in a remote environment, the NGO team is likely to give you the freedom to take the shots you want.

Whichever path you choose to follow, I encourage photojournalists to pursue more assignments based on their value to the subject, rather than the bottom line. Yes, earning a living is critical for us to be able to continue doing what we do. But few things are more rewarding than helping the causes we believe in through our work.

[tags]photojournalism, NGO, assignment photography[/tags]


12 Responses to “How to Work with NGOs: Two Approaches”

  1. Brilliant entry, Mike.

    Thanks for getting this out there.

  2. Wonderful. Thank you. Helps me alot. :)

  3. Thank you for this insight and point of view. much appreciated.

  4. i want detail of how to work in NGO

  5. I HONESTLY LIKE THE FACT THAT NGO'S ARE FOCUSED ON BASIC HUMANITARIAN ASSISTANCE AND DEVELOPMENT.AND ARE ONE GROUP OF PLAYERS WHO ARE ACTIVE IN THE EFFORTS OF INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND INCREASING THE WELFARE OF POOR PEOPLE IN POOR COUNTRIES.

  6. WOULD LIKE TO BE A PART OF THE HUMANITARIAN WORK OF AN NGO, WHETHER AS A VOLUNTEER OR FULLY.

  7. Thank you. Great Help. Can u tell me more about volenteers for ngo.

  8. I feel so happy when i hear that poor people are been helped by NGOs. eventhough am into this work but at the district level. I would like to know much about the job both locally and internationally. I am a GHANAIAN

  9. as was a bit confused abt NGO's but now its clear to me and i would also like to join it

  10. More sense, good to work with them, good to work for them, knowing them better means understanding them better, be bale toshare with them products for their standards and requirements.

  11. As a photographer who is looking for creative ways to start working with NGO's, I found this article so very helpful. Thanks so much for taking the time to break it down for us!

  12. To with a NGO is great task becaouse if so we doing something good for the sake of betterment of society. this really a work of humanity.

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