The Risks of Using Stock Photography to Build Your Nonprofit Brand

  • by Christine Batta
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With stock photography being available at reasonable costs with lots of options, it seems like a good deal to support your nonprofit messaging with splashy, professional-looking images. But in our experience, there are 3 main reasons why stock photography may not be a good solution for your nonprofit communication goals.

1. Can Easily Appear Insincere

With visual literacy improving due to growing exposure, more and more people are able to decipher a real photo from a staged one. Authenticity is also a growing focus of a successful, engaging consumer experience. Audiences like to know, where do products come from? Or for nonprofits, what will this volunteering experience really be like? Does this brand mean what it says? When you don't have your own volunteers, employees, advocates and populations served in your photography, it tells your potential audience that you are trying to misrepresent or glamorize the 'real you.'

2. Wasting time on an impossible quest

It might not be as easy as you think to find the exact image your nonprofit needs. Many stock photography sites focus on the most common, familiar ways to portray a subject that will be appealing for general use and therefore purchased often. Homeless persons are portrayed with stagnant despair and misery while service workers' smiles show self-praise rather than compassion or effort. Have you ever tried to find a stock photo of a child working with a social caseworker? We have and can tell you from experience that you have to get creative, AKA misleading, in order to show an adult and child together that will be interpreted as a child and caseworker.

Complex issues involving the intersection of different communities and change-makers are flattened by limiting your photographic options to images someone else has envisioned for profit-gain purposes. And searching through stock photography takes more time than most people realize, especially with the specific parameters of nonprofit goals. You could spend your money as time hunting down a unicorn or put it into creating your own photographic strategy which will be invaluable in the long run.

3. Risk of repetition

You can very quickly compromise your brand's authority in the eyes (and hearts) of your audience if you apply a photo to your message which is already being applied to many other nonprofit messages. This waters down your message and distracts the audience from taking action. The repetition also says, we are all looking at these same issues. Promote the fact that your organization is doing something unique!

Our Recommendations

We'd like to share a few ways you can get started on taking your own photos of the great nonprofit work you do.

  • Poll your volunteer resources for photographic equipment and talents
  • See if grants are available to hire a photographer or buy a new camera
  • Strategize a plan for organizing, storing and accessing your organization's photos.