How I convinced one nonprofit that storytelling was worth paying for

Note: This blog post first appeared on NGO Storytelling.

I hung up my cellphone and wondered if I had just ruined my chance to get my humanitarian photo career going.

A nonprofit director, who found me through an old college professor, wanted to send me to Laos for one week to write stories and shoot some photos about his organization’s education projects. The adventurous side of me leapt at the chance to travel and jumpstart my humanitarian storytelling career, but the practical side of me that had been a working journalist for almost 10 years balked at the lack of payment. The organization wanted to cover my expenses, nothing else.

“We have absolutely no money,” the director had said on the phone.

“I’ve been writing for almost 10 years, plus I’m a professional photographer and can shoot video stories,” I had replied. “Can I come down to meet you in person and talk about your needs and how I can help?”

We made an appointment for a couple days later at the organization’s downtown Washington, D.C. office. I put together a portfolio of relevant work: a video, an audio slideshow, and a bunch of photo and word stories that I designed into good-looking print layouts. I created a sheet of marketing possibilities for all the storytelling assets they would get from me: blog posts, fundraising letters, photo exhibits, online photo galleries, PowerPoint presentations and one-page explainers (this was 2008, so no social media strategy yet).

I was stumped regarding what to write on my financial estimate sheet. I didn’t yet know about calculating my cost of doing business as a basis for figuring out my creative fees. If I got this job, it would be my first humanitarian photo assignment. A friend recommended I contact his friend Jamie Rose, now of Momenta Workshops, then a fellow D.C. photographer like me. Over coffee, she advised me on the bare minimum I should charge, and how to consider things like copyright and licensing fees in my estimate.

The next day, I put on a dress, slung on my backpack and bicycled down to the nonprofit’s office (I was trying to save money). I spent an hour listening to the staff’s needs and explaining how I could help. Everyone looked at my stories and photos with interest. They asked a lot of questions. But no one said anything when it came to my financial estimate sheet. It felt like an insurmountable obstacle. I got a vibe that this opportunity was not mine. The director said he’d call me within a week.

Exactly a week later, I was eating noodles with friends when the director called. I walked outside the restaurant to talk with him, not excited, not anxious, certain he’d be telling me something like “good luck with your career.”

Instead, he told me my budget looked reasonable and I should get myself to the Laos Embassy as soon as possible to apply for a visa. I was stunned. The director had told me just 10 days earlier that he had no money. While it’s true that many nonprofits have no money for marketing (which is what storytelling usually falls under in a nonprofit’s budget) the director of this particular nonprofit hadn’t understood the value of paying someone for photos, video and writing – until I presented compelling reasons why. What I learned that day is, if you ask, you may just get what you know you’re worth.

How have you convinced a nonprofit to pay you for your work?


Photo caption: Students at Phonsavad Secondary School in Phonsavad, Laos, flocked to the school during vacation for a chance to use one of the school’s 11 computers. Some students waited as long as one hour for their turn to practice typing or get on the Internet. © Laura Elizabeth Pohl


Three ways I stay motivated while working at home

© Laura Elizabeth PohlThis was my “home office” when I lived in Cape Town, but more often than not, I sat on the sofa or worked in the library (and still do).

Sometimes, when I’m editing a video alone at my desk in the corner of the living room while trying to resist all the snacks in the pantry, you know what? I miss working in an office.

Don’t get me wrong: I love making my own schedule. I’m happy I’ve been able to build the career and the life I have. But I miss being in a place filled with smart and interesting people who are game for bouncing ideas around or popping by my desk to critique a video. An office can be a great source of focus and motivation – when you’re not being pulled into useless meetings, of course; I don’t miss those.

Working out of my home, I’m super focused and motivated 85% of the time. For about 10% of the time I’m less focused but still working hard. Then for that last 5% of the time I’m refreshing my email nine times a minute and gobbling all the snacks in the pantry and dusting the inside of my floor lamp while agonizing about getting motivated to work. It’s terrible. (To clients or potential clients reading this: Fear not! I bill only for the time I actually work, not the time I agonize and dust and eat and refresh and repeat.)

So, yes, sometimes it’s hard to stay focused. Here are three things I’ve found help motivate me when I’m working at home:

1. Do as much work as possible before noon.
Morning is the time my mind is most uncluttered. I can focus, especially if I hit my desk by 6 or 7 a.m. When I work a solid four or five hours before noon, I don’t feel bad if my afternoon isn’t as productive. And believe me: a four hours working at home is equal to six or seven hours working in an office because I’m not being interrupted by chit-chat and meetings – just a slightly needy cat.

2. Schedule a call or a date with a friend.
Every day I communicate with people a lot, but it’s almost entirely by email. If I didn’t schedule human interaction on my calendar, there are some work days – even weeks – when I wouldn’t talk to anyone but my husband. He’s a wonderful, interesting human being. But it’s not healthy to converse with only one person a day for days on end. So I try to talk with a friend or meet someone for lunch/coffee/chatting at least once a day.

3. Work at the public library.
Sometimes I need a change of scenery. A lot of other people who work from home do, too. This is partly why coffee shops make a killing. But I don’t want to to buy an overpriced drink just to work in new surroundings. So the public library is my go-to workplace when I can’t stand sitting at home anymore. Surrounded by books and an atmosphere of studiousness, I feel energized to be productive. A bonus at my neighborhood library is the free and fast Internet (I follow these tips for browsing safely on an open network).

Fellow work-at-home folks – what do you think? How do you stay motivated when working from home?

How to write a great photo caption (and why it matters)

Photo captions by Laura Elizabeth Pohl
(Note: This post originally ran on NGO Storytelling, where I’m a co-editor.)

A few years ago I worked on a nonprofit project that required using pictures from an organization’s archive. I searched through file cabinets stuffed with a few thousand pictures, almost none of them labeled with so much as a year, never mind a name, place or context. I would have given anything for a descriptive sentence scribbled on the back of the photos.

I ended up picking a few dozen pictures that I guessed would work for the project. Then I met with a retired long-time staffer who identified most of the people, places and activities in each photo. It was a fun meeting — I loved hearing this person’s stories — but it was a really roundabout way to get caption information.

Captions — they’re not just for National Geographic! They convey vital information about who’s doing what, when, where and (sometimes) why. Solid captions paired with interesting photographs can spark a reader’s interest in a full text story. Without captions, people draw their own conclusions about a photo. Why leave people hanging?

It takes time to write a good caption, but the payoff is big: a recent eye-tracking study funded by the National Press Photographers Association in the United States showed that “the longer or better developed a caption, the more likely it was to receive attention. Most captions were read to completion, as people looked back and forth between caption and image, establishing context.”

So how can you write a solid caption?

• Name the main people in the picture. Yes, this does require that you already know and/or take the time to get everyone’s name when you photograph them. When I’m working, I always carry a small notebook with me for writing down names and other caption information.
• What is happening in the picture? Try not to use too many adjectives like “best,” “biggest,” or “most incredible” unless you have facts to back up these words. Otherwise, it sounds like hyperbole. Consider spelling out acronyms, especially for projects and initiatives that might not be well-known outside of your organization.
• Where is the action taking place? If you can, name neighborhoods, cities and definitely states/provinces and countries.
• Why is the action or people in this picture worth the viewer’s time? Give context.

• If there is more than one person in the picture, name the people from left to right, but don’t begin the caption with a list of names.
• Decide whether you will use present tense or past tense for describing action in all captions and then stick with it. I’m partial to present tense for describing action because this is what I did as a photojournalist.
• Write a caption that is its own mini story unique from the text story that accompanies it (if there’s a text story with it).
• Include a quote in the caption, if appropriate.
• Ensure all spellings and facts are correct.

Metadata is digital information like camera type, shutter speed and yes, caption information, which is stored with the photo as long as it lives; it’s like the writing on the back of a physical photo.
• Free software for adding caption information includes Google Photos and Flickr. The pros of these are that they’re free with easy-to-use interfaces. The cons are that it can be tedious to enter each caption one by one and you may not want your photographs stored online where everyone can see them or where there’s a possibility of being hacked. Adobe Bridge is also free, and a more professional option that doesn’t store your photos online.
• Paid, professional software for adding caption information includes Photo Mechanic (this is what I use) and Lightroom (this is what Crystaline uses). The pros are that these allow you to batch process files for captioning as well as renaming files and adding photographer’s names and copyright information, tag selected photos so you see only the ones you want to see, and in the case of Lightroom, color correct your pictures. The cons are that they are not free and there is a learning curve that can feel steep for some people.

Photo captions by Laura Elizabeth Pohl
Here are a couple caption examples to help you. I made these up, so please don’t think these people or organizations exist!

• OK caption: Charity Mwihia teaches basic nutrition to a couple mothers as part of ABC Nonprofit’s BEAN project in Kenya.
• Better caption: Charity Mwihia, a community health volunteer, teaches basic nutrition to (from left) Joy Rono, Martha Kirubi, and Elizabeth Muchilwa, as part of ABC Nonprofit’s Better Eating and Nutrition (BEAN) project in Nyanza, Kenya, on August 5, 2016. The project promotes growing and eating mushrooms, black beans and kale to combat malnutrition in a country where 25% of children under age 5 are stunted, or too short for their age. “I didn’t know mushrooms were so easy to grow and so nutritious. They also have a good flavor, which my kids love,” said Kirubi.

• OK caption: ABC Nonprofit’s president speaks at an annual conference in Lincoln.
• Better caption: Lisa Stone, the president of ABC Nonprofit, speaks about the organization’s work at the annual “Fighting Malnutrition” conference in Lincoln, England, on August 5, 2016.

When I was working with all the archived photos, I don’t know how the project could have progressed without the staffer full of institutional knowledge. Captioned photos would have been a much quicker way forward.

Top photo caption: This is a captioned photograph in Google Photos.
Bottom photo caption: Pictures as they appear in Photo Mechanic.
Screenshots and portraits by Laura Elizabeth Pohl.

When to put down the camera

Aasima and her children by Laura Elizabeth Pohl
(This post originally appeared on NGO Storytelling.)

Years ago, I spent one week photographing a story on Aasima, a single mom raising two young children in Virginia. We came from such different worlds yet we shared an intense, common experience from our past that helped us forge a quick bond and a strong trust in each other. That trust meant Aasima allowed me to photograph every part of her life from day one. It was the first time someone granted me such complete access. It was an amazing gift for a photographer.

But I didn’t photograph every minute of every day I spent with Aasima and her children. It was more like 60% photographing and 40% talking and hanging out. I put down my camera a lot, reminding myself of something numerous grad school professors, photo editors and mentors had told me over the years: treat your photo subjects as people first.

It sounds so simple, right? Yet sometimes, in the quest for amazing, storytelling images, it’s easy to lose sight of this fact. You see two half-dressed kids playing in a mud puddle at sunset and first you think, “Great picture!” and you click. Second you think, “How did my taking that photo make that person feel?”

Ever since my time with Aasima, I’ve made it a point to think of the latter question first. There are so many pictures I haven’t taken because I’ve instead chosen to shuck corn with farmers or chat about chores with a mother or dance with women at a community meeting. Putting down my camera means I miss pictures. It also means I gain perspective and I listen to stories. I feel that being present without my camera in front of me makes me a better person and storyteller.

When I was hanging out with Aasima, being present without my camera meant I ended up learning things about her that I don’t know about my closest friends, and vice versa. It wasn’t because I was trying to get a good story; it was because I was genuinely interested. We stayed in touch for a few years after I photographed her for the story.

My best stories still happen when I focus on connecting with the people I’m photographing and filming. It will probably work for you, too. So try putting down your camera and having a real conversation with the person you’re photographing. See how it changes the way you look at each other. See how it changes the stories you tell.

Photo caption: Aasima Hajja Spruill readies her children Avemaria, 4, and Zaheir, 2, for school in Norfolk, Va. © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

My daily rituals as a freelancer

This is reposted from my new site The Freelance Life, where freelancers share stories about their daily rituals.


Working in Rwanda. Photo by Vibeke Quaade.

One of the things I like best about freelancing is being in control of my schedule: Accept an assignment or don’t. I can choose to edit pictures as the sun rises or take a random Tuesday off. But when business is a bit slow, as it has been since I moved to South Africa from Rwanda two months ago, then it becomes important for me to have a strict schedule. This prevents me from going crazy worrying about my business – though I do still worry. It also keeps me from wasting time and keeps me accountable, so when I get to the end of the day I know I’ve accomplished at least a couple work-related tasks.

When I’m not on a shoot, I wake up around 6:30, wash up, then stretch and do some yoga. Afterwards I check the news and my emails on my phone. Then I pour myself a glass of water and work for about an hour until my husband wakes up. We like eating breakfast together, whereafter he leaves to go to class and I go sit at my desk again.

As noon creeps closer, my focus drifts. This is when I’m most likely to hit Facebook or fall down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia. Who doesn’t end up reading about the Kardashians when they started out researching vaccination rates in Ethiopia, right?

I’m most alert in the morning, so I do most of my brain-intensive work before noon. I edit videos, caption photos, transcribe interviews, research story ideas, send out estimates, email clients and pitch stories. Lately I haven’t had much paid photography or video work, so a friend and I have been working on a couple projects we hope will bloom into small businesses. I’ve also been writing stories or blog posts for clients. For the most part, I’d rather be working with pictures or videos, but I’m a decent writer and I like writing; I’m grateful to have multiple skillsets. I definitely have no qualms taking on non-photo or video work to pay my bills. Some of the jobs I’ve done in the past include handing out diet supplements at a food and music festival, scheduling patients at an oral surgery clinic and substitute teaching in public schools.

As noon creeps closer, my focus drifts. This is when I’m most likely to hit Facebook or fall down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia. Who doesn’t end up reading about the Kardashians when they started out researching vaccination rates in Ethiopia, right? This is also when I’m most likely to worry about my business: Why aren’t editors answering my pitches? Will I make enough money this year? How can I run my business better? Something that helps is sharing my worries via email with fellow freelancing friends. I also remind myself that life is not work. I work until between noon and 1 p.m., when I break for lunch.

After eating, if I haven’t left the apartment by now, then I seriously need to get out. I go to the gym, run errands or just walk around the neighborhood. I enjoy the library down the street from my apartment. Being a South African library, there are a ton of books I’d never find in the United States, where I’m from. Even if I don’t check out a book, browsing around lets my mind wander into areas that have nothing to do with work or my business. It’s a nice break.

Of course, all breaks must eventually come to an end. When I don’t have evening plans, my second shift begins around 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., usually on the sofa with a bag of raisins or some cookies. I answer emails from the U.S., where people are just starting their work days while I’m downshifting into less brain-intensive work, like color correcting photos, organizing and archiving photos and videos, or listening to podcasts about things I want to learn. I’m a fan of “Coffee Break French” for learning French and “This American Life” for learning how to structure stories. (Of course I also just listen because their stories are amazing).

My husband and I usually eat dinner together between 6:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. We have a rule that when one of us cooks, the other one cleans. Oftentimes he’s nice enough to do both. If I’m really into my work, like when I’m editing a video, I’ll jump back on the computer after dinner. Otherwise nights are reserved for watching a movie, writing for myself or reading a book. I just finished “A Case of Exploding Mangoes.” I go to bed between 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. and read before sleeping.

When I started freelancing, I wondered if I’d have enough work and make enough money. Thankfully, I’ve been busy these past two years and I’ve earned a solid (though sometimes erratic) income. My husband worked the last two years before going back to school. But even if he hadn’t, I would have been able to support our little family and save for retirement. I know that sounds boring. But I feel it’s a huge accomplishment given how uncertain the freelance life can be. I’m grateful I’ve had some amazing clients and been able to make this life work so far.

How to pay your national taxes in Rwanda

Working in Rwanda by Laura Elizabeth PohlA worker mops the floor in the Rwanda Health Communication Center, Kigali.

You’ve registered your business in record time at the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) and now you’re ready to start selling/consulting/whatevering. But don’t forget about paying your national taxes.

Ideally, RDB would give all newly-registered businesses a welcome packet with FAQs about processes like this. When and exactly how to pay your taxes is not clear on RDB’s website or the English website of the Rwanda Revenue Authority (Rwanda’s IRS). Some Rwandan business owners told me the information isn’t clear on RRA’s Kinyarwanda website, either.

What’s a person to do?

Well, you can learn from my mistakes.

I first registered my business in February 2013. My Kigali-based accountant advised me that I needed to pay my national taxes for 2013 at the beginning of 2014. I keep close track of all my income and expenses via a great website called Freshbooks, so when taxpaying time came around, I knew exactly how much I owed. I went to RRA, where a helpful woman asked me how much I earned in 2013 (she didn’t ask for any documentation of this amount, by the way), typed the number into a computer and printed my tax payment form for me. Then I had to run downstairs and get the form stamped and signed by another woman. The second woman almost didn’t sign my form because I didn’t have a business stamp. I kinda laughed and said, “I want to give the government money. Are you not going to let me give the government money because of a stamp?” She smiled and signed off. In all this took me about one hour.

Back in early 2014, the Rwandan government was touting online tax payments. Unfortunately, the system didn’t work for me, so I ended up pulling a bunch of cash and paying my taxes in person at the Bank of Kigali headquarters in town. It was about two weeks before the March 31 deadline and I waited for two hours along with about 20 other people. It was not fun. This was the only time I’ve seen Rwandans get in a tizzy about people cutting in line. I can only imagine the scene if you procrastinate paying your taxes.

As 2014 progressed, I met with my Kigali-based accountant again to make sure I was doing things right. We likely talked about something related to quarterly tax payments, but I didn’t pay close enough attention. My accountant in Rwanda doesn’t actually do my taxes for me – just advise me – so there’s no blame on her, just me for not listening enough. I assumed that paying taxes every quarter was optional, like it is in the United States (where I’m from) – a suggestion to keep you organized throughout the year, not a regulation with consequences.

Oh, the consequences!

More about those in a minute, but first a word about the regulations as I recently experienced them.

During your first tax year in business you pay national taxes only after the end of that calendar year. So if you register your business in August, you don’t pay any taxes until after Dec. 31 of that year. Then you have until March 15 of the next year to pay your taxes for the previous year (or portion of the previous year). In your second and subsequent years in business, you must pay taxes every quarter based on the total amount you paid the previous year. So, if last year you paid a total of 200,000 RWF in national taxes, this year you will pay 200,000 RWF / 4 = 50,000 RWF each quarter.

And now about those consequences.

Each quarter you don’t pay your national taxes you must pay a flat fine of 100,000 RWF plus an additional fine of 60% of the taxes you should have paid that quarter. Plus, you still owe the actual taxes for that quarter.

As an example, let’s say you should have paid 50,000 RWF in taxes in a quarter but you pay late. Your fine amounts to 100,000 RWF + (50,000 RWF x 60%) = 130,000 RWF. That’s in addition to the 50,000 RWF in taxes you should have paid. So when you pay late, you end up shelling out a total of 180,000 RWF for a quarter where you originally owed 50,000 RWF.

In 2014, my second year in business, I didn’t pay any quarterly taxes. As a result, I recently paid almost as much in fines as I did in taxes. It was awful. I was mad at myself for not fully educating myself about the tax regulations. I had to fill out and sign tons of forms where I admitted I didn’t pay quarterly taxes and agreed to pay the penalties. I didn’t even try bothering with online tax payment. I again pulled out a bunch of cash and paid up at the bank.

Please note that I’m not giving tax advice in this blog post. I’m the daughter of an accountant but that doesn’t mean I can help you calculate your taxes owed in Rwanda or give you other tax advice. I’m just sharing my experience for peoples’ benefit.

If you need tax information or assistance you might try talking in person with the mostly friendly and helpful employees at RRA. Also, I highly recommend my Kigali-based accountant, Lindsay Hodgson. Fair warning that she’s pricey – you get what you pay for. She’s the auditor for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Rwanda and she can quote straight from Rwanda’s tax code. Just be sure you carefully listen to her. Be ye not like me.