Are you a Br’er Rabbit Storyteller working with nonprofits?

Project Gutenberg’s Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit, by Joel Chandler Harris

I grew up listening to the stories of Uncle Remus about Br’er Rabbit. In case you are not familiar with the character of Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Rabbit is a trickster who succeeds by his wits rather than by brawn, provoking authority figures and bending social mores as he sees fit. The name “Br’er Rabbit”, a syncope of “Brother Rabbit”, has been linked to both African and Cherokee cultures.

You see the animal trickster represents an extreme form of behavior that people may be forced to adopt in extreme circumstances in order to survive. The trickster is not to be admired in every situation. He is an example of what to do, but also an example of what not to do. The trickster’s behavior can be summed up in the common African proverb: “It’s trouble that makes the monkey chew on hot peppers.”

Working for Free

There are some very good reasons to work for free or donate your time and resources to a nonprofit organization. Being altruistic is truly the best possible reason to give of your time and resources.

Another great reason to donate is that when you offer to give your storytelling skills to an organization you are more likely to remain more in control of the project and therefore more likely to do your best possible work that you can produce. Many personal projects that I have seen done through my career by photographers were altruistic acts of kindness.

There are countless people who launched their careers by giving away their work for free and using these projects in their portfolios to get work.

I actually do encourage those who have no real portfolio this is the way to build your portfolio. You find something you are passionate about, which often might be something that a nonprofit could use. The advantage of doing this early in your career is they can provide you the access necessary to put together a project that will showcase what you can do for clients in the future.

Almost no one will spend the travel expenses and let alone actually pay someone to produce something if they do not have GREAT examples.

Business Model Changed

There are just a few things that have impacted photographers doing work for nonprofits.

  • Stock Photography—years ago a photographer could go overseas and shoot and then come back and put images into a stock agency and make some pretty good money. It was very common for photos to sell from $350 up to many thousands of dollars. Today with people giving their photos away for free through things like Flicker this has dried up as an income source. It was not uncommon for a photographer long ago to shoot for free and due to the access make money and lots of money from the stock sales later. This revenue stream dried up years ago.
  • Digital—Before digital you had to really know photography skills because you would have to wait till the film was developed to see the results. Now with the LCD on the camera you can see right away and adjust instantly to be sure you have a photo. So where many organizations would pay for a pro just because they needed to know they had photos, but now with digital they just look on the LCD for that confidence.
  • Good Enough—this is what social media has contributed the most to for our industry. People are seeing that OK videos and photos are getting traction and that great photos and videos do not always get more traction for going viral. 
  • Baby Boomers Retiring—many people are retiring and wanting to just donate their time to doing something worthwhile. Most nonprofits are welcoming the volunteers with open arms and enjoying the free rather than worrying about the quality.

What to do & What not to do

When it comes to working with nonprofits I am seeing more and more Br’er Rabbits. A good number of storytellers will contact a nonprofit and even do outstanding work that in the long run doesn’t really help sustain the nonprofit.

I have watched most of my career the demise of professional communicators and especially those in journalism. Loving what we do and feeling called to do it has many of us behaving like Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Rabbit represented the enslaved Africans who used their wits to overcome adversity and to exact revenge on their adversaries, the White slave-owners.

I am not seeing anyone planning revenge, however, I am seeing people do just about anything they can to do storytelling.

There are many hobbyist/pros who do not need income from their photography because they make really good money in their full-time jobs. Some of these are even professional communicators who are on staff of a corporation or even a newspaper for example.

There are many people who just love to travel and see the world. They are looking for another stamp of a country they have never been to that they can add to their passport.

What is happening with these people is they are not thinking long-term for the organization they are donating of their time and resources.

Managerial Accounting

I think you need to understand this business concept in order to do the right thing when offering your work for free to an organization.

Too many people see the savings they are providing an organization by donating of their time and resources. This is how financial accounting tracks things, but those organizations that mature over time do not use this method only. They use managerial accounting method in addition for their organization.

       Provides information to make decisions regarding the future
       Relevance of data is emphasized over reliability
       Focuses on timeliness of information
       Reporting is focused on parts of the organization such as departments or      
       divisions and not on the organization as a whole.

Here are just a few things that organizations address due to using managerial accounting procedures:
       1. Just in time inventory
       2. Total quality management
       3. Enterprise resource planning
       4. Supply chain management
       5. Benchmarking

Do you want your donations to an organization to multiply or just help temporarily? Most would want to know they were helping long-term.

Think about each of these when you donate next time to an organization:

  1. Is my donation helping the organization meet it’s mission statement?
  2. When I stop donating is what I am doing for the organization something that they need to continue and pay for this service going forward?
  3. Am I helping educate the organization on how to use my gifts the most effective way possible.
  4. Will you be disappointed if your donation isn’t used?
Storytelling is core to successful organizations
I know that every organization must do effective storytelling of what they are about at the core or they will not be successful. I do not mind donating my time as I choose, but highly resent organizations that expect all storytellers to donate to their organization. 
I believe organizations need to have a budget for their ongoing storytelling. They need to have materials that they can use over and over that help tell their story. They need to tell new stories of how they are continuing to make an impact or sooner or later they will start to die. 
Just like movie studios must continue to come out with a new movie to get people to spend their money to watch, so too must organizations continue to tell their stories or people will stop being apart of their organization. 

Time to Pay for Free

There should come a time in a nonprofit’s growth where they will slowly mature by doing the right things. The day will come when the organization cannot just rely on Free.

I know one organization that has built up and continues today relying predominantly on free and all their staff raise their own support to work for free full-time. When I have worked with them I have been trying to give a presentation and the room I was too use was not useable. Due to improper wiring by free volunteers over the years the rooms were not just unusable but fire hazards.

I couldn’t get the work sent to my email accounts one year because all the free IT support didn’t wire their campus properly.

Even Habitat for Humanity knows it must rely on professional electricians and plumbers to meet code for their homes.  Maybe more organizations need to realize their really is a code standard for good communication.

Here is the bottom line for organizations that do not create a plan to budget for storytelling.

Organizations that continue to go to professional communicators asking for free and never budget for communications never mature.

Thought I would end with the sunset.

My response to all those who ask how to do “Missions Photography”

Young photographers and old, but all those fairly new to missions, want to know how to start photographing missions. Their attitude and communication says they are ready and should be doing this now. This is my opportunity to empty out all those emotions that are running through my head and articulating what I’m feeling, without risking saying something to someone that I’ll regret. So here is that letter I often write to get it off my chest and never send. By the way this could also apply to doing NGO work as well.

Dear ___________________:

I get contacted almost weekly from someone wanting to do missions work.  Your request to know how to get into the field is similar to all those other contacts. You reference seeing others going on mission trips or even a short term trip yourself. Your desire seems to be to do this full-time using your photography to capture missions.

Let’s just be honest with one another—traveling the world and taking pictures just sounds fun. It has to be better than what I am doing here every day.

I believe there are four phases to becoming a missions photographer: 1) The call; 2) The Preparation; 3) The Affirmation & 4) The Corporate Sending.

The Call

You hear the call from God that this is what he wants you to do. How you hear that call is different for every person. One of the most famous calls is of Isaiah in the Bible.

Isaiah 6:8

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

The Preparation

If you were called to be a ditch digger, a doctor, a pastor or a communications person each of these would require you to become more proficient and develop that talent.

For the most part this would entail some formal training and some on the job training. Doctors go to college, then medical school and then they do a residency. My recommendation for most photographers wanting to cover missions abroad is to get some formal classroom training, work with some pros and then do a residency type of position for a year or two, just like the medical doctors do.

The Affirmation

You need others to affirm this call. Before a person is accepted into a Seminary to further their biblical studies they must have a letter of affirmation from a sending church. So to a photographer should have this same type of an affirmation where people are confirming not just that you know photography but are using it now to further the gospel.

The Corporate Sending

You need a client who is willing to pay for the content you are creating. Some missions agencies of different denominations have positions for journalists and photojournalists. You must go through an interview process just like you would if you were to be a church planter. They want to see examples of you doing now what they will send you to do somewhere else.

Where are you on these steps?

From your correspondence with me it appears you think you are ready now, but I have some hard questions for you.

What are you doing in missions right where you are?  Would God call someone to do missions photography in your neighborhood?

God hasn’t put you in Africa or somewhere else—he has you here. You are in a mission field. Do you think it is all that different just because you are in a different town, state or country?

You are like so many others who live right here with me in Georgia.  Right near me in Clarkston, GA are refugees from all over the world. There is even a book on one of these groups “The Lost Boys of Sudan.” Here is a link to that book  Missions of the cross-cultural experience it is right there.

I am sure there are opportunities in your community for a cross cultural experience if that is where you need to serve.

Here is a NGO that works with the refugees in Georgia.

How will it be any different for you to shoot in some city in Africa than right where you live? Too many “Christians” think that missions are like a worship service. Missions is so far removed from a worship experience. Missions agencies send their missionaries to those places of highest need. Those places are where there is less than 2% of Christians in the population. This is like going to solitary confinement as compared to going to a place where the people are like you.

If you don’t like working in the secular world now, then you are not ready for the mission field.

Now up to this point I have only addressed your willingness to do mission work. Now I want to address another concern I have for missionary work.

Do you think God deserves our very best effort? Based on the assumption he would want us to do everything we could to be prepared, how well prepared are you for the call? Have you taken the talents you have been given and refined these?

Christ selected 12 disciples and then spent three years training them before they were sent out completely on their own for good. He did an internship program with them where they went out and then reported back to him.

Lets just say you have really prepared as best you can. You went to a photography school and got your training. Now you are working somewhere to get your apprenticeship time in. Just like a medical doctor must do a residency, so too you must work somewhere with supervison.

Now comes another perspective. Who will send you? If you think agencies or churches will be the supportive body to help pay for the expenses of you traveling the world to tell the story of missions why would they send you?

Another way to think of this, think of it like National Geographic Magazine. Should they send you to cover a story or someone like a William Allard, Joe McNally, Steve McCurry, Joanna Pinneo or some of their many proven professionals?  I would think they would send the person who has a strong portfolio and track record of delivering content.

So too the church and agencies should send the person best because it is good stewardship of what God has entrusted them. Sending someone because they are willing is a good way to burn relationships on the mission field.

I hope you see mission coverage can be where you are now. You should be producing content of the stories in your neighborhood. If you are able to produce solid content right where you are now—which is the mission field, then those groups that can send you to foreign mission fields will see you as a good stewardship choice for them.

Remember the Apostle Paul was not readily affirmed by the disciples. Church history shows us there is a time from his calling until the time he was sent out as missionary from the church. Paul’s Damascus road experience was when he was about age 34 [Acts 9:1-9]. Paul was not sent by the church until he was age 47 with Barnabas [Acts 13:2-3]. He preached in the synagogues in between, but sent out was not for years. He first worked in his neighborhood. If it was good enough for Paul, why not you?

This may sound harsh, but I feel you need to hear this from someone and it might as well be me.

Maybe the thing you need to do is pray for God’s guidance and let him lead you. You might be surprised at all the doors that open through him verses by our own hands.

Sorry I am so pushy with this, but I am really sad to see so many people wanting to go overseas when the largest mission field in the world is here. More missionaries come here of all types of faiths to proselytize than any other country of the world. Who should God send to your neighborhood or city to do mission work? Could it be that he has already called someone–YOU?

Your backyard is your first mission field. This is where you will refine your craft and get the affirmation of others. It is here that your friends will then recognize your calling and send you.

Your call doesn’t always mean now, but you now knowing your path. Keep the faith and fight the good fight.


Stanley Leary
Roswell, Georgia
404-786-4914 |

Part 2: The exotic location might be your backyard

I am always looking for interesting visual elements.  While this won’t win a Pulitzer it is different and I think makes you take a second look.

On our local TV station Channel 11, an NBC affiliate, they are promoting doing random acts of kindness. I get goose bumps when I think of all the mission projects our church is involved in. A good number of the mission partners we work with were actually started by members of our church.

One that I go to often is the North Fulton Community Charities.  We donate clothing and things we are no longer using to the Thrift Shop. North Fulton Community Charities (NFCC) is a non-profit human service agency dedicated to preventing homelessness of individuals residing north of the Chattahoochee River in Fulton County (Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton, Mountain Park and Roswell). NFCC assists families with basic needs such as food, rent and utilities, and clothing during short term emergencies.

The Roswell Presbyterian Youth group works on an older ladies home.  They scrapped the old paint off.  They have sanded the boards and also filled holes. 

If you are a professional communicator you can create your own blog and tell the stories of those in your community.  You can help educate those around you about the needs and opportunities for others to serve in their community.

You can see the places they sanded and see how the new fresh coat of paint will help the home last longer against the elements.

The age of service starts young in our church.  The vacation bible school had a competition last week. The kids all brought in pennies and see which class raised the most money to help with a charity.  They raised over $1,000.  This was children as small as the toddlers.

I am using a flash off camera to be sure you can see the youth as they work.  If i didn’t the faces would be primarily back-lit and the flash helps you see their faces.

The other cool thing about this project to me is you don’t have to have money to get involved.  You can give of your time.  Volunteer your elbow grease and make a difference.

Bill Silzle, chemical engineer and member of Roswell Presbyterian, donated his time to replace a garbage disposal on the same house they are painting.  I think he maybe over qualified.

I believe my gift in these project is creating compelling images that helps tell the story and inspires others to get involved.  This fall our church is going to have a display of photography up in what we call “Main Street.”  it is the major hall of our church that folks walk through where we will hang large prints (20″x30″) to help tell the story of our mission projects around the city, nation and world.

We will have captions to tell you where the photo was taken and what the church helped with the charity. After the exhibit runs for a couple months we will then take the prints down and put them in other locations through the church.

What are other ways you can use photography to help charities?  Leave your comments below.