Is Generosity Killing Your Photography Business?

Everyone today seems to have a story. And I’ll admit some of them are good … REALLY good. So much so that you really want to hand over your photography for free in order to help the cause.

But the problem with one is it quickly becomes two. And two becomes four. And so on.

Pretty soon you’re doing all of your work for free, barter, or at a discount, and you barely have enough to survive on your own.

Sometimes generosity can become extremely challenging, and have you start questioning why you’re in business in the first place. But how do you stop it? How do you know what causes to take on, and which one’s to pass by? How can you strike a balance between running a business, and still being generous in the process?

What Is Your Policy?

A few years ago I had a real problem.

I would be approached by dozens of different businesses and non-profits, asking if I would provide my services in exchange for “something”. It could be the opportunity to promote to their group, for charitable reasons, for exposure, and a host of other reasons.

But the problem built around who my clientele were and where they were coming from. Because my “clients” were coming from these groups and businesses where I was offering things for free or at a reduced fee, they came to me expecting the same type of deal.

Essentially I had trained my prospects to expect a ton of great stuff all for the low low price of “nothing”.

That was cool, and I enjoyed what I was doing. But it’s no way to run a business. And it’s no way to survive and actually pay the mortgage and put food on the table at the end of the day.

So I began to think about what my core values are, and what I truly believed in.

I realized I could still be generous, and give to things that truly mattered to me … and run a successful business at the same time.

Define It And Live By It

Very quickly I went through all of my past causes. And I looked deep into myself to find out what I wanted to give. And very quickly things began materializing.

For instance, I’m a firm believer in education and literacy programs. So I found several causes that allow me to stay active in those areas, and give to things I truly believe in.

Then I proceeded to train my prospects and clients that I was a business, and ran my business like a business.

Time has value. My products have value. And my services have value. And if people aren’t comfortable with buying from me eventually, that’s okay. I know I can attract the RIGHT people to my business, and I’ll do just fine.

Continue to offer value. Tell people about the charities you give to, and the causes you believe in. The more set you are in your generosity, the easier it is to tell someone “no” when they come asking.

“I have a few set causes I give to and contribute my time to every year. I know you have a great cause too, but it’s outside my contribution amount for the year.”

And while you may not be spending hours working for every cause that comes your way, just think of the amount of time it will free up to do some true marketing.

5 thoughts on “Is Generosity Killing Your Photography Business?”

  1. Completely agree with you on this, good article. I too have had this issue with being to generous, in fact it’s family and friends that cause me the most freebies and that is very difficult to say no to. Personally I dint think they realise what goes into post production. They assume you snap away randomly and a few days later out pops a disc of amazing images! Good call on the just say no and I like the brief ‘outside my contribution amount for the year’.

  2. Good timing – I was actually just thinking about this topic. I don’t know any other business that other people expect so much for nothing from. It’s almost as if they think, ‘well, they like taking photographs, so they won’t mind doing it for free’. I get so tired of all the requests I see on business forums which go along the lines of ‘I need a photographer to do a photoshoot for me / my networking group / my event launch – no pay but you’ll get to meet other potential prospects.’ What if I was a car dealership? Would they ask me to give up my time and value so readily then?

    Other businesses MUST start owning up to the fact that as photographers, we have a finite amount of time per week to devote to work, and giving some of that time up hits us directly in the pocket. So pick your ’causes’ carefully, make sure they are something you believe in and you can be proud of, and don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to all those requests where people are, in reality, just taking the mickey and should be paying for your services.

  3. I’m really curious to know what you said to clients that were already expecting low rates when you decided to remind them that you are running a business. It’s touchy because you don’t want to lose them as clients, but they’ve already decided a price point for your services. And then it can also be a hang up if old clients meet new ones that are hiring you at your new rate.

    Do you just accept that you’ll lose some and move on?

    • Natalie

      Your last question says it all – yes, you just have to accept that your current clients might not remain clients, nor will they be able to refer to you. Its a hurdle you must pass when you’re ready.

      It is a difficult path for a few months as you are moving from one level to the next. But once you’re ready, you simply have to do it. “My prices reflect my business abilities, goals and desires.” is really all you have to say. Yes, some may take it hard. But as long as you are on the right path for you, it will all work itself out in a few months.

  4. Bottomline is free work wont pay bills, and your respective service provider wont offer you anything for free.

    That said…I do offer free work, albeit on a limited basis. I run an annual event called Help Portrait – its a collaboration between professional photographers, hair stylists, aestheticians, local businesses and volunteers with a single aim – giving a free makeover and portrait to people that cant afford a professional sitting. I don’t expect these people to become clients, or to even return for reprints – I see it as our way of giving back to our community in some way. Its one day a year….for which we plan all year.

    I’m also an administrator for a nationwide (Canadian) organization called Helping Hearts. Just around 1 year old now, its comprised of a team of photographers (professional) that volunteer portrait sessions for families that have a child with a life altering illness. Its a vetted application process, and over the year, the team has steadily grown to over 200 now. Families get a complimentary print (HH organization looks after that) plus a dvd of photos. If they order extra prints from their respective photographer, they pay a discounted price. These families typically cant afford a session because of sometimes crippling medical bills, or other circumstances surrounding their child.

    In short, being generous and offering a certain level of work for free can in fact help your business when word of mouth generates from the causes you help out on. No, as I pointed out it doesn’t pay the physical bills, so yes, I agree that we as a business owner have to pick and choose what we can afford to support. Learning how to say no nicely to any client is something we all have to do and being ready to do so when the time arises. Unfortunately I see too many people that offer ‘exposure’ or ‘credits to even ‘promises of further business’ to get you to work for free.

    Once you offer someone free work, its going to be a lot harder to charge them the next time and expect payment.


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