No giant checks, please

I’m a word guy, but give me a good photo and I’ll gladly cut my text to the bone to give that photo space in a newsletter or annual report. Why? Because a photo can deliver news, emotion and human connection to my audience’s mind at the speed of light. My words, set in 11-point type, march into a reader’s head at a comparative snail’s pace.

Young Haitians displaced by the 2010 earthquake. Courtesy of Grassroots International.

Still, I did say “good photo.” One hundred and fifty well-chosen words make a better use of page space than the giant check handoff photo, the shot of bored-looking people  around a conference table, or the glassy smiles of people holding plaques over their bellies. These visual clichés may be easy to shoot, but they lack emotion or meaning for anyone not in them.

So how can you get great images?

Well, the best photographers take the best photos. A well-organized day of professional shooting can result in 100 to 200 good-to-great photos of your key programs and people in action, enough to ensure that you have at least a few good images for anything you print in a year. The Genesis Center invested in a day of work from Ilene Perlman and loved the results, showcased in their 2009 Annual Report.

If you can’t hire a pro, your best alternative is brute force: take a lot of photos all the time. Enlist your staff, your volunteers, even your program participants as photographers. Remember that every photo should be a story and that stories are about people. Are you proud of your new building? Show us the pride, not the bricks, by putting beaming people out front. Make the photo about their feelings.

Grassroots International makes grants to organizations in rural areas from the Middle East to Mexico. They rely on their traveling staff to diligently take photos and upload them to the Grassroots International Flickr account. They get enough good-to-great photos that we have trouble choosing which ones to leave out of the Grassroots International Annual Report.

Even total amateurs will get a great shot now and then, but you can get luckier by copying the professionals: get up close, shoot from a variety of angles, and avoid harsh flash lighting. Mix posed photos with action shots. Be sure to get releases from your subjects. And, did I say take lots of shots? You can find motivation and more tips in this recent article from Michelle Gienow in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Need inspiration? Check out 120 of 2010’s best news photos at

8 responses to No giant checks, please

  1. Pamela Grow

    Hallelujah to the end of the giant check photo! Kill it kill it kill it!

    Wonderful, succinct piece on the use of photos in donor communications. Thank you!

  2. Betsy Baker

    Hey, we’re fund raisers, not photographers, so all tips are appreciated. 🙂 Thanks for your informative post and encouragement – I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Amy Eisenstein

    Great points about the importance of taking pictures and using the best. While I agree that the giant check is overused, it is important to the donors to see themselves and show their friends. I think giant check photos still have a place in our newsletters – next to great program pictures!

  4. Jon Howard Post Author

    Thanks for the comments. I’ve never been a Development Director, so maybe I’m being too harsh on giant check photos. However, you could always frame it and send it directly to Mr. Big Check himself. He probably doesn’t even read the newsletter.

  5. Sherry Truhlar

    Jon, I am a big believer in photos and I am constantly taking photos at an event. I will add that it is so important to have a good filing system in place otherwise it can take days to find just the right photo and it might not be because there are so many good photos but rather finding that one photo means looking in too many places 😉

  6. Future Fundraising Now

    How to get the right photo for fundraising…

    Photos can make all the difference in fundraising. They can capture the essence of your cause with a depth and immediacy you just can’t match with words. Unfortunately, a photo can also torpedo your intended message when it’s wrong. How often have yo…

  7. Katie

    I definitely agree that if you can get a professional in you should. Not only will your funders respond better to them, but also you’re more likely to get good press coverage.

    That said I know some amateurs who are better than pros so you definitely shouldn’t dismiss what they do!

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