Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Going Pro: Pro Bono in Your Portfolio?

Day 48:
I reached out to The Watershed Project today to pitch a pro-bono project.  There’s a never-ending debate among the photography/videography community about whether one should ever do pro bono.  In my view, those that are unequivocally against either have no business sense or are desperate about their bottom line.  They argue that your product is worth more, and/or that freebies steal business from legitimate professionals.  Both statements are overly broad.  At the beginning of your career, your expertise/product is worth exactly $50 (in my case it was $25 and a pair of ugly sandals—my first “paid” photography gig.)  And customers who are willing to bet hours of their time on someone with no experience are definitely not in a financial place where they could pay a small-yet-reasonable fee for a more sure thing.  Many clients who want pro bono can’t pay much more than zero, and those who can have such poor sense that you don’t want to hire on as their Creative.  So should you ever do pro bono work?  When you’re starting out—hell yes.  When you’re established—from time to time for a worthy project.

Theyyam Ceremony - Kerela - Hurricane Images Inc.

Here’s the question: if you were going to spend $6,000 on a video for your company, how many sample videos would you want to see before you felt comfortable trusting that company?  Two?  Six?  Twelve?  Six is probably how many I’d watch, but I get bored easily.  How many samples would you want to see if they were exactly the type of video you wanted for your company? That number is more like two or three.  But even three videos is a lot of pro bono work if you don’t have other videos that are close to that “perfect example.” If you're just starting out, you may need to invest in more than one pro bono offer.  I started with one, with the expectation that my first paid jobs may not be exactly in my niche.

#1 Takeaway: Make the damn pitch

A couple of years back I had a long-standing relationship with The Watershed Project (I was on their Board, actually), which gave me both some credibility and a familiarity.  The Executive Director left the company in the intervening years, but the new head had been on staff when I was on the Board, so I wasn’t starting from scratch.  Since my goal was to work with non-profits, they were an excellent choice for pro bono; the work we created would be almost exactly what my “real” clients would want.  Creating a video for them would help establish my niche expertise.  And if you remember from my earlier confession-- I was not a polished filmmaker.  This video would be a learning project as well as a resume builder.

Theyyam Ceremony - Kerela - Hurricane Images Inc.

So what was my pro bono pitch?  Here’s my email.

Hi --,

Hello from your former Board Member.   And congrats on the directorship-- I seem to be a little behind the times.  When did you take over the helm?  That's exciting and wonderful.

I've been working on a new project that I thought might be helpful for TWP's fundraising activities.  I still work part time as a health educator and community engagement coordinator, but two years ago I started working professionally as a photographer with the rest of my time.  Then about 9 months ago I started getting a number of requests to produce video for companies.  As I thought more about how I wanted to develop that side of the business, I realized that I really wanted to work with clients from the non-profit world.  Video is going to be increasingly important for organizations-- for fundraising, education, and awareness.  But the clients that are hiring me aren't exactly the type I'd like to focus on.

So I wanted to offer my video services to TWP free of charge for a project.  It's an organization I'm personally invested in, you do great work, and it's an opportunity for me create a product that's a perfect example of the work I'd like to focus on.  I thought that creating a fundraising-focused video for Bubbles and Bivalves might be one opportunity; I'm certainly open to anything that might be useful to TWP (such as a more general "this is TWP" video).

Is this something that might be of interest?

You can examples of my work at

All the best,
So what works about this email, and what doesn’t?  Obviously, it’s specific to the organization and our previous relationship. That’s a strength.  I intentionally made the video as unpretentious as possible.  I didn’t sing my own praises or say what a great video they would get.  In fact, I highlighted both my relative inexperience, and my inability to get exactly the type of clients I wanted.  Why?  Why would I want to present myself as less than brilliant?

Let’s be real.  Most companies are struggling to some extent, trying to reach a higher level.  Non-profits are almost all struggling.  So I knew she’d be able to identify with the difficulty in reaching the right clients, right donors to sustain one’s work.  Even though I was a former board member, I figured she would have some suspicions about my motives.  Is this really pro bono?  What was a getting out of it?  I made it clear-- I wanted to work with a different type of client.  I also reckoned that it was better to lower expectations before she saw my samples, rather than raise them.  Maybe I’m being unnecessarily humble, but I think that’s generally a wise idea.  

The number one take away:  just write that damn email.  Make your pitch.

The number two take away:  be as human as possible.  That means not being perfect.  Set aside your ambitions, your agenda, and consider the situation from their angle.

Just found us?  You can find the beginning of our series here.

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