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6 Steps to Establishing a Photo Policy that Boosts Giving & Shows Respect

There’s no question that compelling photos are a powerful component of a successful fundraising campaign. Many organizations go further by sharing donor, volunteer, and staff photos. That’s because, “a picture may be worth MORE than a thousand words. A new study shows that text is more credible when accompanied by photos,” says neuroscientist Roger Dooley.

Despite the potential, positive impact there’s a significant challenge in taking and using “real people” photos and videos. Permissions are a must for every people photo. But the challenges for beneficiary or participant photos are particularly tough. A colleague recently asked:

“Our recent campaigns were fueled by client stories that featured a photo or two. Naturally, I planned to feature the same kind of memorable profiles going forward.

 That plan changed radically last month, when our social workers urged us to put our clients’ privacy first and stop using client photos. We agreed to honor their request but now we’re stuck: How do I move forward with using client photos and videos?”

My advice is to take these six steps and develop a photo policy that addresses both legal and ethical concerns:

1) Talk with your program colleagues.

Come together with your colleagues to share your fundraising goals and approach and learn about their front-line perspective.

During your meeting, talk about how stories work, share examples from your organization if possible, and highlight why photos make them even stronger. If possible, use your fundraising software to pull statistics from recent campaigns to show that the fundraising campaigns with photo-illustrated stories did better than campaigns without those stories or photos.

The more your colleagues feel that they have a role in year-end success (and get that they’ll benefit from that success via increased revenue and the ability to provide more services to more clients, and keep their jobs), the more eager they’ll be to brainstorm on creative solutions to your donor-engagement dilemma.

2) Listen to your colleagues’ point of view.

Instead of making assumptions, dig in to understand what’s behind your colleagues’ concerns.

Ask them about their worries. Are they concerned that showing the faces of clients or beneficiaries may put those individuals in danger of deportation, domestic abuse, or another threat? Are they uneasy about losing clients’ trust? Have they promised clients that their stories are confidential? Or are they concerned that photos are being taken and used without permission?

All of these concerns are valid. You need to understand the specifics to develop the best solution.

 3) Work together through the ethical dimensions of photo use.  

“When considering photography, it’s important to examine the motives for creating particular images and their potential impact. Not only must a faithful, comprehensive visual depiction of the subjects be created to avoid causing misconception, but more importantly, the subjects’ dignity must be preserved,” says photographer Margot Duane.”

Margot’s statement reinforces the importance of ethical photo use.

These reporting guidelines from UNICEF clearly reflect the organization’s ethical considerations:

“Obtain permission from the child and his or her guardian for all interviews, videotaping and, when possible, for documentary photographs. When possible and appropriate, this permission should be in writing.

 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. This is usually only ensured if the permission is obtained in the child’s language and if the decision is made in consultation with an adult the child trusts.”

Angela Crist, executive director of Findlay Hope House, shared how her organization’s staff works together to ensure that ethical photo/video practices are in place:

“I trust our case managers to tell me where their clients are and if it would be good or bad for them to be highlighted. We have stories we’ve never shared because a client’s life has taken a bad turn or they are struggling hard at the moment. We also have people whose stories, while triumphant, would potentially hinder them if they were publicly identified. So we never share those. 

We also hold back to avoid overexposure. One, to not become exploitative and two, especially for our folks in recovery, the exposure can have negative consequences to their recovery process.”

Whether you decide to develop guidelines or develop a less formal policy, ethical photo/video use should be considered.

4) Collaborate on a clear, succinct approach to taking and using images.

Consider how you will answer these questions:

  • How will you use of 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 use of client 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 photo subjects?

WaterAid addresses these issues in its Ethical Image Policy.:

  • 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.

The Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois’ clearly conveys its simple, but comprehensive photo policy in this brief summary included in its social media policy:

“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 daughter online.

GSSI has media release forms available for leaders if they prefer to keep these for their records or to get permission to share images or video that includes a non-member, such as a non-registered parent.”

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

5) Going forward—Get (written) permission to take and use every “people” photo.

Your organization must get permission to photograph and use photos of any subject for both legal and ethical reasons. I urge you to require written photo permissions from all beneficiaries and guardians of child subjects whenever possible. This practice will offer them with the dignity and respect they deserve, and ensure their confidentiality if desired.

The good news is that there are many ways to get photo permissions. If necessary, consider alternatives to illustrating your story when you can’t get photo permissions.

6) Get as many photo permissions as possible.

A standard release lets a person say “yes, you can take my picture,” and you can use it as you wish, in any format you want. See sample releases at the end of this article

Fellow fundraisers suggest:

  • Including a photo release (with an easy and clear way to opt-out) in your program registration, event sign in, or volunteer agreement. Then, for in-person gatherings, visibly identify those who opt out with a nametag sticker or, for children, a colored dot sticker to be affixed to clothing.
  • Placing a sign at the entry to your event or gathering place indicating that by entering, all participants agree to have their photos taken and shared.
  • Identifying strong candidates (especially good stories) ahead of time and talk to the parent or guardian about what you’d like to do and the possible implications for the child and family (i.e. exposure).

The following index features several photo releases and policies from nonprofits nationwide. I hope you’ll check it out.

What’s your approach to using photos of clients, donors, and other individuals? Please share your policies and methods in the comments below.

Model Photo Releases and Policies*

Photo Release Forms

Policies and Agreements incorporating image capture and use

*Thanks to Beth Kanter, Jayne Cravens, Rachel Braver, Anysa Holder, Maggie Graham, and Laura Gauthier for sharing photo policy models and methods.

By Nancy Schwartz

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