Building Blocks – Community Involvement

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We’ve worked on your site, your blog and your network. It’s time to start building some brand awareness. It’ll take a couple of articles to give you most of what you need. Let’s start with the most important thing: community involvement.

Years ago, I heard Jay Conrad Levinson speak. He’s known best as the guy who coined the expression guerilla marketing. Even though that was at least 25 years ago, the importance of having a marketing strategy hasn’t changed.

Levinson’s program that I sat in on was called “The Top 100 Things Guerilla Marketers Need To Do.” Right up near the top of the list was to be involved in their community. Why? Because people like buying products from businesses they perceive as giving back.

Here’s another way to look at it: You’re looking for the community to be good to you, so you’d better make sure you’re being good to your community.

Baby Steps

This might be a new concept for many of you. After all, it takes just about every minute of your day to keep your business going in the right direction. But here’s the thing you need to think about: What good is working so hard to create the greatest images of your life if nobody knows who you are?

The great thing about being involved in your community is that you can put in whatever amount of time and money you want, and still have an impact. Let’s start with baby steps—little things you can do to get more involved that require only your time.

There isn’t a school system on the planet with the budget it needs to do everything on its wish list. Get involved in helping the PTA or a school directly. Volunteer to teach a photography class. Volunteer to help out with the yearbook or school newsletter. Volunteer to do a Career Day presentation on professional photography.

Not everything you do has to involve having a camera in your hand. Even serving hot dogs in the refreshment stand at a Friday night football game gets you involved and starts showing people your support of the community.

Then there are charity drives, fundraising walks and endless opportunities for you to participate directly or document these events and provide editorial support, through your images, for the organization in charge.

Stop Trying to Build a New Sandbox

So often I’ve talked with photographers who want to establish their own charity. They think this is the best way to have a bigger impact on a cause.

Actually establishing a legitimate 501(3)(c) nonprofit takes time, patience and work. Plus, even if you’re approved by the government and have the legitimacy of a nonprofit, you still have the challenge of marketing. It’s a new organization, and nobody knows who or what it is.

You’re much better off aligning yourself with an existing organization in the community that ties in with a cause near and dear to you. Be an enthusiastic participant, and let people know you’re involved. 

“But there’s nothing going on in my community.”

I love it when I hear this one, because no matter where you live, there’s something going on there. There are charity events going on everywhere. Check with the Chamber of Commerce, your church or temple, and local businesses, and you’ll find something.

There are groups that help the homeless, animal shelters, school lunch programs, Meals on Wheels, breast cancer walks. Organizations like Kiwanis, Rotary and Exchange Club, just to mention a few, have fundraisers every year.

Don’t forget programs that support servicemen and women. There are programs everywhere that support their deployment and return. 

Doing Your Own Event

One of the all-time best-known fundraisers in the portrait/social side of the business was put together by Vicki Taufer six years ago. It was called Dog Days of Summer, and it’s been copied dozens of times all over the country.

At the time, Vicki was a children’s photographer based in Illinois. She knew there was a high correlation between families, kids and pets. And being an animal lover herself, she wanted to do something to help out the local animal shelter.

She designed the perfect program. Dog Days of Summer was a promotion that encouraged you to bring your pet into her studio for a portrait session for the price of a donation of food to the Peoria Animal Shelter. Everybody got one free 5×7. When the smoke cleared on that first one-day event, Vicki and her staff had done 150 portraits and had 40 more on the waitlist. Two years later, V Gallery was one of the best-known pet photography studios in the area.

One other thing that made the program such a success was the various partners Vicki brought into the program. You had a local dog bakery, a pet food manufacturer and the animal shelter. All the partners became ambassadors for each other. 

Vicki’s Model

The key ingredients of a local fundraiser start with identifying the cause itself. Once you’ve established that, look for a couple of additional partners who also have an interest in the same cause.

Give yourself plenty of time to get the word out. Look for other people, even other photographers, for support. This needs to be a win-win for everybody involved. A few competitors will add to everyone’s exposure.

Along the way, look for opportunities to talk about your event. Get the local paper involved. Enlist opinion leaders in the community who believe in the cause.

Photo-centric National Organizations

The photography industry is loaded with terrific nonprofits to help you build your own link within your community. Here a few that come to mind.
Based in Colorado, NILMDTS was established 10 years ago by Cheryl Haggard and Sandy Puc. Cheryl had just lost a child, and wanted a professional portrait of her son. So many people don’t understand NILMDTS isn’t about photographing dying babies—it’s about helping families heal. It’s a remarkable group of several thousand photographers, and it constantly needs help.
This one was founded by Jeremy Cowart. It specializes in portraiture for people who typically never get their portrait done. Jeremy’s done a pretty amazing job spreading the word and building the organization.
Besides supporting the men and women of our military with photography, what I love the most about this one is its finished product. It’s a practically indestructible print that servicemen and women can have with them at all times. It doesn’t matter what kind of damage the elements might bring—the print isn’t going to fade, tear or become water damaged.

There are dozens more, each involved in some aspect of society, identifying a need in the community.

Our Experiences

Last January in Kentucky, during PhotoPro Expo, I was part of a team working with a group called Crayons to Computers ( It provides educational supplies to schools with budget issues. We did a program for teachers on photography in the classroom, and then a second program for students interested in taking better pictures.

I’m also involved with the Senior Friendship Centers here in Sarasota. My wife, Sheila, volunteers once a month at their Caregiver Resource Center. It’s a wonderful organization. Nursing homes and senior centers have a never-ending need for volunteers to help with a variety of tasks.

Pay attention to things going on in your community, and without a doubt, you’ll find a program that needs volunteers. 

Local Photography Guilds and Camera Clubs

Just about every community has a group of photographers getting together, typically once a month. They range from formal PPA Affiliates to local camera clubs. They have Facebook pages, regular meetings, contests and often photo walks and day trips.

This is all about getting involved, and there’s an added benefit with groups like this: They help to build your network.

The biggest challenge for most of you is to stop procrastinating and get busy. Everything you give back to the community doesn’t have to be Nobel Prize-worthy. But the sooner you get involved, the sooner people get to know you. And at some point, giving back will make you feel almost as good as a Nobel winner.

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