Donating Your Photography Services to Auctions Without Getting Burned

Donating your photography services to a charity auction might seem like a win-win situation. After all, you’re supporting a great cause, and it doesn’t cost you a dime. Everyone who attends will see your name and your work, and they’ll know that you’re not just a talented photographer but also a caring member of the local community. Right?
Well, sort of.
The first part is definitely true -- you’ll be supporting a great cause. But realize that there are actually very few benefits to your business beyond those feel-good vibes. From a business standpoint, here are a few things to consider before you contribute.

The benefit: “It’ll get my name out!”
The reality: Bidders rarely become clients.

Most people who stumble across your display at an auction either don’t realize the value of custom photography or can’t afford it. Either way, if someone is used to paying $49.99 for a portrait package at the nearest chain store, they’re not going to see your donation as a high-value prize. And those who do value custom photography likely won’t bid hundreds of dollars without thoroughly researching your work against their other local options. That all translates to lower bids, which means all your hard work may not make as big of an impact as you’d like.

The benefit: “If they love their session, I’ll have a new client!”
The reality: Your prize will hold them over for a while.

Most people get their family portraits done annually at best. So even if the auction winner looooves their images, it could be ages before you hear from them again -- and even then, they may balk when they hear your regular prices.

The benefit: “It doesn’t cost me anything!”
The reality: It totally does.

All those hidden costs that are factored into your usual pricing -- your gear, your memory cards, your online storage, gas in your car, electricity in your studio, props, batteries, insurance, childcare, etc -- still apply when the session is for charity. You’re also spending time. A donated session takes up a spot on your schedule that could’ve gone to a full-price client. Remember: When you own a service-based business, donating time is donating money.

The benefit: “I’ll make money on the back-end sale!”
The reality: Don’t count on it.

If it’s a raffle, the winner is in the mindset of getting something for free. If it’s a silent auction, the winner has already paid what they wanted to pay. The odds of a huge print sale are very, very low.

The benefit: “It’s no sweat off my back.”
The reality: It’s harder than a typical session.

Normally, you chat with potential clients before they book. You have a chance to outline your services, your pricing, and your policies before they sign the contract. With a donated session, however, they haven’t agreed to anything -- and as a result, they may expect the moon. We’ve heard horror stories from photographers who donated their services only to have it bite them in the you-know-what when they realized the winner lived 100 miles away…or wanted to use their free session on Thanksgiving Day…or waited three years to cash in their free session.  
The thing is, a HUGE part of being a custom photographer is having the confidence to put a price on your work and stand by it. Auctions, on the other hand, are a way of saying to the general public: “You tell me what I’m worth.” Needless to say, it rarely works out without a few headaches and hurt feelings. And then you feel like a jerk for complaining because, y’know, it’s for a good cause.
Luckily, there are a few ways to be charitable without feeling cheated. First, look for an auction that truly caters to your target market. It should be held within a few miles of your home or studio; bonus points if it’s part of a benefit dinner with a steep per-plate charge. Make sure your display includes a lot of stunning examples of your work so potential bidders can see that you provide consistent quality. When the winner contacts you, treat it as you would a normal session -- outline your pricing and policies, and explain what is and isn’t included in their prize. And most importantly, do it because you want to help the organization, not because you want to promote yourself. The latter is bound to let you down.
On that note, remember that auctioning your services isn’t your only option. Ask if you can donate $100 or $250 to sponsor the event instead. Or offer to donate money directly to the charity on behalf of the local organization. You’ll stress less -- and, most likely, help more. Plus, it’s tax deductible, unlike your time. Now that’s a win-win.

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