Flickr for non-profits – 8 lessons learned

I have been using Flickr for about two years to increase visibility of the work of Red Cross Red Crescent. Today, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned.

Why Flickr?

I believe that most non-profits spend too much time preaching to the choir. Flickr is a great website to show what your organization is doing or why it is doing it to people whom you haven’t reached so far.

1. Know your audience

Quality is important

A large group of Flickr users is really passionate about photography. A second important group is people who are looking for free stock photos that they can use in presentations etc. Both groups have in common that they are looking for high quality photos. Respect that and be extremely critical about which photos you share. I ask myself every time “Could this photo be on a postcard or on the front page of a newspaper?” and try to post only those photos that meet this standard. Please note: photos of conferences or internal meetings never meet that standard.

2. Newsworthiness beats quality

Cyclone Nargis - delta region (Myanmar)

This photo attracted 15,000 views - most of them in the fist 24 hours.

The only time when you can forget about quality and simply post whatever you have is when you have fresh, exclusive photos from a breaking news event: when cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in May 2008, we were the only organization that had current photos from the affected areas during the first few days. As a result, the photos attracted more than 70,000 views in 48 hours.

Update: Please read this post about the impact we had with Flickr after the Haiti earthquake.

To a large degree this was because Yahoo! decided to link to them directly from their news homepage, but I’ve have seen similar, smaller surges when we had photos from other, hard to reach areas. Timing is essential for these kind of photos: to be successful you have to be lucky and fast. Once Reuters and AP get their photographers on location, interest in your less-than perfect pictures will wane fast.

3. Less is more

On Flickr, if someone likes your photos, he can add you as a “contact”. This means that his personal profile page will show your latest photos. However, it will only load a maximum of five photos. I have found that there is no significant difference in extra traffic beyond five photos. Unless the photos are urgent, you will gain more by spacing them out over a few days.

Tip: It seems like you can batch-upload and prepare all photos at once as long as you keep them “private”. I think that the trigger for showing up in your contact’s photo streams is not “last uploaded” but “latest photos that have been made visible.” In other words: I might upload 16 photos at once but then switch them from “private” to “public” four or five at a time over the next days.

4. Understand what you want to achieve

Flickr is not a good tool to fundraise or even to drive traffic to your site. Most people will stay on Flickr and not make that extra click to your donations-form or your site. This can make it difficult to measure impact. I consider Flickr to be a valuable tool to showcase the work of the organization and to increase visibility, particularly with people we normally can’t reach.

In addition, National and local Red Cross Red Crescent societies and branches can take our photo feed (through RSS or the API) to highlight the international work of the organization on their websites without any extra work on their part. I think this a good idea for any non-profit or NGO that has branches.

5. Groups, groups, groups

Almost every time I hear someone complaining that his/her Flickr stream doesn’t attract enough people, the reason is that they are not using groups. Think about it: most people don’t go to Flickr with the intention of seeing your photos. Most of them want to see photos that have a  certain topic and it is in these topical groups that you find your audience. So, if you are an animal-rights organization, upload those puppy-photos to one of the many “dogs” group. If you work in DRC, upload your photos to the “Congo” group etc. I normally add each of our photos to at least ten groups.

Tip: Be on topic, but be different. You want your photos to stand out from the crowd so try to surprise people. Adding Tsunami photos to a “beautiful beaches” group or photos of malnourished children to “children portraits” is absolutely acceptable and can be very effective. Just make sure that they fall within the topic of the group.

6. Appreciate the work of others

You should also consider creating your own group and ask others to contribute to it. As administrator of a group you’ll see a new comment-button under all photos on Flickr, which makes it very easy for you to ask others to add their photo to your group. Ideally this will make them join your group and become a regular visitor and/or contributor. As the size of your group grows it becomes more and more likely that others will be exposed to your issues.

7. Flickr needs attention

I find that traffic to our photo stream falls very rapidly once I haven’t uploaded anything for a few days. Each time I let that happen, I slowly have to work the traffic back up from 40-50/day to 500-600/day, which is realistic for us outside of newsworthy events. This normally takes four or five uploads or about a week.

8. Use creative commons licenses – with care

Philippines after the 2009 typhoon season

A good example of the kind of photo to which we assign creative commons licenses. The photo shows our work and the branding is subtle.

I’m a big fan of creative commons licensing and believe that you should license your photos on Flickr accordingly, if you have all the necessary rights. The biggest advantage is that it allows people to spread your message without any hassle on their part. It also means that your photos show up when someone is looking for CC-licensed material using Flickr’s or Google’s image search. However, the important thing is to only license photos under CC that actually contain  your message.

You should also think about how you would feel about seeing your photos in a competitor’s annual report. In our case that means that I only apply a CC license to photos that contain a visible red cross or red crescent emblem. Basically I don’t want another organization to be able to use one of our non-branded photos without having to ask for permission first. I am far more flexible when it comes to photos that are branded, since it is in our interest that these photos are shared as widely as possible.

What I’m missing

What I find disappointing about Flickr is the lack of  integration with Facebook. There are a number of apps, but none of them do what I want. What I’d like to see is something akin to the existing “Blog this” feature in Flickr that would allow me to selective add photos to the album of our Facebook page. I’m also missing a “share this” button that would allow visitors of our photostream to post a link and a thumbnail to their own Facebook news feed.


  1. chrisdat January 11, 2010
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