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How to use nonprofit photography and create a photo policy

November 26, 2021
Two young men work at a shared desk and look at a laptop while creating a nonprofit photo policy.

Compelling photos are an essential component of a successful fundraising campaign. When nonprofit organizations share photos of donors, volunteers, beneficiaries, and staff, supporters see the work they do and the people behind their cause. Weaving original, professional photos into your fundraising campaign marketing materials can elevate your campaign by showing donors your purpose in action.

Before getting started, there are some fundamental aspects of photography nonprofits need to understand, such as gaining permission from subjects and how to pick the right images. Here’s how to improve your branding strategy and get more donations with nonprofit photography.

How is nonprofit photography used?

Nonprofit photography ultimately showcases your organization’s purpose by capturing the work your staff does daily to help constituents and support your community. 

Sharing these images with supporters can boost your organization’s reputation. Studies show that viewers perceive text to be more credible when accompanied by photos. Rather than just telling supporters about the work you do, you can use photographs to show them how you’re advancing your purpose. 

Nonprofit photography is commonly used in marketing materials, annual reports, social media, and even press releases. It is a simple way to connect supporters with your beneficiaries and inspire them to give. 

How to create a nonprofit photo policy.

Despite how straightforward photography may seem, there are a few things to consider when taking photos and videos of real people. For example, some nonprofits such as mental health organizations have constituents in sensitive situations who may prefer not to be photographed. 

To protect your beneficiaries, craft a transparent nonprofit photo policy that respects their wishes and privacy. You can create a photo policy with the help of your legal team by following these steps:

1. Determine your goals. 

Because of the multifaceted nature of nonprofit work, try to meet with board members, volunteer coordinators, program managers, and marketing employees to understand the goals of each department and how they view or use nonprofit photography. Discuss your organization's purpose, current and upcoming projects, and fundraising goals with these colleagues to learn about their frontline perspective. 

During your meeting, have employees share examples of imagery used in their work and highlight how photos could help. You can use Bonterra’s Donor Engagement solutions to pull statistics from recent campaigns and showcase data that compares campaigns that used photographs to those that exclusively used text or illustrative graphics.

When speaking with employees who work directly with constituents, ask them these questions: 

  • Are there concerns about showing constituents' faces?
  • Would constituents feel comfortable having their photo taken or used?
  • How are constituents likely to react to requests to have their photo taken and used in publicly available marketing materials? 
  • Are constituents’ stories confidential? 

Here are some questions to ask employees who use imagery for marketing:

  • What types of tasks should be captured via photo or video?
  • What types of visuals have elicited notable responses previously? Were those responses positive? 
  • How do these photos fit into our existing visual brand?

Once you’ve determined which type and style of imagery is best for your nonprofit and your constituents, you can begin shaping your nonprofit photo policy for capturing images. 

2. Consider photography ethical standards.

Nonprofit photographers need to have a policy to guide them in taking photos that will meet the organization’s goals while respecting constituents’ privacy and comfort. 

For example, consider UNICEF's reporting guidelines:

Obtain permission from the child and his or her guardian for all interviews, videotaping and, when possible, for documentary photographs… Permission must be obtained in circumstances that ensure that the child and guardian are not coerced in any way and that they understand that they are part of a story that might be disseminated locally and globally.

As part of your ethical considerations, conduct conversations with leadership and members of your staff who work directly with constituents about what types of photographs you should be taking. For example, a photograph of a child in need may be emotional and deliver a strong message to supporters, but it may be distressing to the photographed child and their family. By contrast, a photograph of that same child happy after receiving assistance from your nonprofit may better represent your work while also being respectful of constituents.  

Your organization will need to get permission to photograph and use photos of any subject for both legal and ethical reasons. This especially applies to photographs of children, wherein you should get written photo permissions from all beneficiaries and guardians of child subjects. 

Whether you decide to develop guidelines or create a less formal policy, ethical photo and video use should be a priority.

3. Pursue photo release and permissions.  

Photo releases and permission are crucial for nonprofits, especially for the use of imagery in fundraising campaigns. Because social media and fundraising materials can walk the line between commercial and editorial use, it’s always best to retrieve consent for image use. 

For example, the Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois created a clear set of standards for obtaining and using photographs of minors:

Always have parent/guardian permission before adding pictures or videos of girls online. Permission for photo and video release is on the Girl Scouts of the USA membership registration and included in the Internet Safety Pledge form. If parents/guardians have not given written permission, do not post pictures or videos of their children online.

On your release form, be sure to highlight what the photos will be used for. If you don’t know which materials you’ll use them in, generally state whether the photos will be used for marketing, editorial use, or education.

4. Define your approach to nonprofit photography. 

Create clear policies so your nonprofit photographers understand their role and the standards of their work. Ensure your policy answers these basic questions: 

  • How will you use photos of children versus those of adults?
  • Is it permissible to feature photos of individuals who aren’t identifiable if you don’t have a release? Is there any situation in which you’ll use photos of individuals without permission?
  • Will you use names and locations?
  • How will the use of constituent photos on social media differ from use in media with more limited distribution (e.g., a print brochure)?
  • Will you include information about the services you’re providing to subjects being photographed?

WaterAid, a global nonprofit working to reduce inequalities of water, sanitation, and hygiene answer some of these questions in their Ethical Image Policy with these guiding principles of their photography: 

  • Accuracy: How to ensure our film and photos are truthful.
  • Longevity: How long we should keep and use images.
  • Integrity: How to produce respectful photographs that avoid stereotyping and ensure privacy.
  • Manipulation: What is and is not allowed in post-production.
  • Child protection: How to ensure that children featured in our photographs are safe from harm.
  • Equality and non-discrimination: How to ensure that our photographic practice includes everyone, even the most marginalized.

Write out your policy, illustrated with examples, and integrate it into relevant guidelines such as your social media policy, employee orientation, and style guide. Then, train your colleagues and others likely to capture and use photos about the policy.

The bottom line about nonprofit photo policies

Nonprofits should set high standards for themselves when creating their photo policy. Consult ethical and legal experts in your industry to help craft a morally and legally sound photo policy. As long as your photo policy reflects your organization’s morals and empowers your constituents, it will be a powerful tool for gaining support.  

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    Donor Engagement
  • Nonprofits
  • Digital communications & marketing