NGOs Do Good — But Make Sure They Do Right By You, Too

With the number of media outlets financing and publishing international photojournalism on the decline, many documentary photographers are looking to NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, as an alternative route to shooting in faraway lands and creating work that has a positive impact.

But how do you know if a particular NGO opportunity is right for you?

For a Good Cause

PBS defines an NGO as

A nonprofit group largely funded by private contributions that operates outside of institutionalized government or political structures. In general, NGOs have as their agendas social, political, and environmental concerns.

If you are hired by an NGO, you might typically travel to a Third World locale to document the plight of a disenfranchised population or region. The NGO then uploads your photos to online galleries and uses them in printed materials for fundraising purposes. In a short period of time after taking your pictures, you can see them doing good.

Unfortunately, many NGOs only wish to pay you a pittance — or even nothing beyond travel and other costs — for your efforts.

And while NGOs do help people, they also have a marketing agenda, which can transform your role from that of a photojournalist into that of a propagandist.

What Should You Be Paid?

While NGOs are nonprofit organizations, they are also businesses. Some are small with relative little funding, and others are huge behemoths that can afford to pay you a decent rate.

To know which is which, and how much you should expect for your work, you’ll need to do some research. According to (here), the average NGO CEO earns $97,000 a year — a low salary for a chief executive. But many NGO CEOs make $250,000 or more.

NGOs often have offices in downtown areas, where rental costs can be $65.00 per square foot, per month. If they have 1,000 square feet of space, that’s $780,000 a year in rent. If your potential NGO client has an office with 47 employees in downtown Manhattan, should they be asking you to work for next to nothing?

Remember, if you are not charging a sustainable fee for your creative talents, you will have a limited ability to make a difference — to do good — over time. How unfortunate would it be if your talents were not properly compensated as a photographer, and thus, they wasted away while you waited tables to pay your bills?

Doing Your Research

NGO Watch is one good resource for your research, and there are many others. Here are just a few questions you should investigate before choosing to work with, and setting your rate for, an NGO:

  • Where does their money come from?
  • How much covers salaries/staff/office rent/overhead, and how much actually makes it out to the target beneficiaries?
  • How much accountability and transparency does the NGO exhibit?
  • What are my tax implications if I donate my work?

Although NGOs do charitable work, their tax status may not be one that qualifies a donation to them as tax deductible. Furthermore, as a photographer, your work for them is generally not tax deductible, except for your actual expenses.

In other words, suppose you shoot for a week for an NGO and burn them a CD of your images. The $0.50 cost of the CD is all that would be deductible, unless you had other receipts for expenses directly associated with that work.

Photojournalism or Propaganda?

Ansel Adams and Edward Weston were criticized by Henri Cartier-Bresson for not photographing the social crises of the 1930s. Cartier-Bresson said, “The world is going to pieces, and Adams and Weston are photographing rocks and trees.”

Adams was hurt by the criticism. He believed that photojournalism often veered into the realm of propaganda — and he wasn’t interested in sending a message about his subject.

Adams had a point. And this is all the more the case when working for NGOs.

Working for a newspaper or other news outlet, you get sent somewhere on assignment. If all goes as planned, you come come away with compelling images from a legitimate story. However, from time to time, the story doesn’t pan out. Perhaps the crisis or tragedy you were sent to cover wasn’t as severe as first thought. You cut your losses and come home.

It doesn’t work that way with an NGO. Your images must always illustrate, with great intensity, the work that the organization is doing — the difference that it’s making. And an essential part of the story is that there is much more work to be done. That’s the crux of every NGO’s fundraising message.

This is not documentary photography. It’s activist photography, also known as propaganda.

This is not to say that you are manipulating images, or that your images are lying. But you are not telling the whole truth. The minute you slant your perspective from neutral observer to purveyor of propaganda, you need to realize you are no safer against challenges of having a political agenda than Fox News or CNN.

Similarly, you should consider what is expected of you when, as a journalist, you are transported to a location via an NGO. Occasionally, as with the Congo a while back, the only way in is on a flight by one of the United Nations NGOs.

In the travel/tourism trade, this would be called a “familiarization trip” or “fam trip”, where the visit is carefully orchestrated so that travel journalists get to see only what the sponsor wants them to see. If you are being shepherded around by the NGO, you likely won’t see everything you need to make an honest and balanced assessment of the story.

Think Carefully Before Giving Your Talents — and IP — Away

I understand the attractions of NGOs, particularly in today’s environment for photojournalists. But in this as in every case, you must think carefully before giving away your creative talents.

It’s one thing to donate your time doing physical labor, where, once you stop the heavy lifting, your contribution is complete. Donating your talents and your intellectual property is a much bigger deal.

Your talent is valuable; make sure your prospective client understands this. Educating the prospect that your photos can seal the deal on thousands of dollars in donations can make the difference in earning you decent compensation.

If you do decide to donate your work, you should think twice before doing so unconditionally. For example, you might be fine with the NGO using your photos on their Web site and in their newsletter. But are you comfortable with them using them in advertising or selling them as prints as well?

It’s nice to do good. But it’s also important to bear in mind than an NGO is a business, and you are a business. And if your clients don’t compensate you fairly for your efforts, you can’t remain in business. In the end, the NGO’s job is to help people, and yours is to make images.

5 Responses to “NGOs Do Good — But Make Sure They Do Right By You, Too”

  1. Nice post. It's definately something to think about how much you want to get paid when working for a non profit, or an NGO. Sometimes I think it's best to think about how much good your shots might be doing. Or how much bad, if it's for a strong political agenda.

  2. Many editorial stock photographers have learned to work the right deal with NGO’s. In many cases the subject matter is usually of social significance. Although the payment is low, photographers consider it just a down payment. The real money comes in subsequent sales of the photos to social organizations, boook publishers, film companies, TV networks, and eventually museums. The secret is to make a “limited rights” agreement beforehand.

  3. During my recent summer break which happened to be the best holiday i could ever have, I joined a N.G.O named LEADERS FOR TOMORROW which is a college based organisation aimed at bringing a social change among the society and integrating the youth to the system to make the world a better place to live.
    Our programs include cleanliness drive ,adopting a plant,visit for compassion and IYM ie Igninting young minds.
    For me ,joining it, was a wonderfull experience as I learnt immense about the world which I never knew.
    "Right to Food" became an integral part of my life after I heard Supreme Court comissoners seminar under the NGO`s program and felt sorrow for the vitim and passinate for their cause.

  4. I'd like to add to the list of things to consider when working with an NGO: "Does the work move you?". At PhotoPhilanthropy, we encourage photographers to connect with NGOs to document some of the incredible work going on around the world. Rather than approach an NGO with suspicion that they might take advantage of you (which seems to be the tone here), do your research as suggested, and accept roles that are meaningful to you.

    Yes, some large NGOs could afford to pay more than other smaller orgs. And they are making a similar effort to raise funds and spend those funds in the most effective way possible. Of course photographic services are valuable, and just like a cash donor decides how much to donate because s/he believes in the work, so must a photographer come to a similar decision -- is this something they are doing to give back and help the NGO (or partially) or is this just a fee-for-service job. Both are fine, but starting there will help you figure out whether you are participating as a photophilathropist or a full-fee photographer.

  5. What a timely and much needed article. Too bad it wasn't written 3-5 years ago, but it's still very useful.

    I was quite vocal about this same point while working as a media practitioner in Cambodia between 2005 and 2010...but what happened is I ended up being 'banished' from the NGO community for rocking the boat.

    The NGO world is quite insular, often orbiting the capital of their respective developing nations, and the folks that work in the NGO world often are very sensitive about any statement or suggestion that challenges the (apparent) sanctity of their missions.

    I do agree with the article of course - especially since the function of an NGO is to help support a viable civil society, including normal private sector/freelance activities.

    But if you are too vocal or outspoken about your position as a freelancer, if you don't tread very carefully and walk on eggshells basically when presenting your position, you risk being blacklisted or banished from working with them.

    Just curious: is the author of this article still able to work with the NGO community under his name?

    Thanks though, this article speaks a very much needed truth


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