How to Create Compelling Video for Your Nonprofit
By Tim Jacobson
~The Nonprofit Provocateur~
Gearheads (people like me!) immediately want to know what camera equipment to buy, what nonlinear editing software to use, what kind of microphones to acquire and how to set up good lighting. Those are useful, practical things to deal with, but they are the least important component of creating compelling video. According to Danial James, a media and marketing professional:
The fact of the matter is, a kid with an iPhone 4, motivation, and the right technique can shoot an entire feature-length picture that rivals the quality of HD cams from the late 1990s. Or a group of creatives with a digicam can easily shoot a web series that is seen by millions, skyrocketing them all to stardom on YouTube, as is the case with “The Guild.”
Video production values are not irrelevant, but really your primary goal in that realm should be to avoid having production quality so bad that it distracts the viewer from seeing the real subject of the video.
What are the top three things you need to create a compelling video that can motivate people to action? Story, story and story. You have to have a gripping story! (Stay tuned for an upcoming article about how to construct a compelling story.)
Take some time to think about who the compelling characters are in your organization’s story. Who are the good guys—the protagonists? They may be people on the inside, such as staff or board members or volunteers, or they may be people on the outside, such as the people your organization serves. Chances are that your most compelling protagonists are the people you serve. They’re likely to hold greater credibility and a greater sense of genuineness, since they’re not being paid, like a staff person, to advocate for the organization and its mission.
Seek these protagonists out. Then take time to listen to their story. You may not even have to give much thought to developing a three-act structure—at least initially. These genuine people you serve and their life circumstances are your story. Fortunately, by being cognizant of the elements of a good story, you can help tease out the details you need from them.
Capture their personal stories on video. Don’t let these incredible opportunities slip away. Far, far too often, nonprofit organizations fail to take the time or initiative to capture the stories of those they serve. Eventually, the people move away or die or their circumstances change such that they’re no longer caught up in the narrative that has driven them to your organization.
Not only can a nonprofit use video for fundraising events and to build awareness for the work of your organization through YouTube videos but, also, 30- or 60-second video public service announcements (PSAs) can be created that can be aired, possibly for free, on local television stations. You might be able to have local college student interns create perfectly fine PSAs, or you might want to turn to a TV station or a professional videographer to create the TV spots.
Worry less about the video camera equipment you might use and worry more about whether you are going to miss ripe opportunities to capture passionate and personal stories of the positive impact your organization makes in the world. Don’t hesitate to capture the video on your smartphone, if that’s all you have to work with. Chances are that it shoots in high-definition anyway. Or hire a videographer intern from the local college or university. There’s bound to be aspiring moviemakers all around you. Of course, the best option, if you have a budget for it, is to hire a professional videographer. And if you don’t have a budget for creating video, make it a priority to get it included in the next budget or conduct a special fundraising appeal to make this happen.
Video Production Basics
Whether you are planning to shoot video with professional-level equipment or with something as ubiquitous as a smartphone, there are several basic principles that will help ensure you create compelling video that will advance the goals of your charitable group:
Tip 1: Plan your story. Spend as much time as feasible in advance of shooting to determine the overall story you hope to capture on video. Good planning will help ensure that you aren’t left with missing components and will help you avoid re-shooting interviews or action scenes. Bring good notes or interview questions with you to be prepared and to avoid the “Oops, I forgot that” syndrome.
Tip 2: Use compelling backdrops. If you plan to shoot an interview, select a location that amplifies, rather than detracts from, your message. For example, if you’re shooting video of husband and wife landowners talking about how they conserved their property with the help of your group, shoot the interview outdoors on a scenic part of the land where your interview subjects will be emotionally connected and where the ultimate viewers will develop an emotional connection.
Tip 3: Use good lighting. Bad lighting can turn what could be an amazing video into a mediocre or poor video. Digital video cameras, especially those small lenses on smartphones, tend to take grainy images in low light. Also, shooting an interview of a person in the overhead light of a typical home or office usually will result in the person looking tired with dark circles around their eyes. If you don’t have fancy lighting equipment, at least place a couple of lamps off to the sides of the camera, and maybe some sort of backlight, to get rid of shadows and to brighten up the subject.
Tip 4: Capture clear sound. Is there anything more horrible than the sound of nails on a chalkboard? Is there anything that will cause people to lose interest in a video faster than muddled sound in which it’s difficult to hear what people are saying? Sound is important—more important than the picture, although that seems counterintuitive. Use a good microphone. For interviews of people, a lavalier mic (the kind that gets clipped to jacket labels or ties) is the best way to go. It’s even possible to get a lav mic for use with a smartphone. For example, RØDE makes the $60 smartLav with a recording app for Apple iOS devices. A shotgun mic on a boom is good to have, too.
Tip 5: Hold ‘er steady. Although some edgier videos are intentionally shaky, this probably won’t be your default goal. Use a tripod whenever possible. They even make tripods for use with smartphones. If you don’t have access to a tripod for a particular shot, try bracing yourself on the side of a tree or wall and keep your elbows tight against your body for added stability.
Tip 6: Use the right camera for the job. Although what you put in front of the camera (your subject and your story) is more important than the camera equipment itself, it still makes sense to select the most appropriate camera for the job. A smartphone may work acceptably well for shooting an interview of a person at a close distance, but it’s nearly worthless if you hope to capture footage of a small, distant object. For example, if you manage a local chapter of the Audubon Society, you may want to create a video featuring rare songbirds found in your area. A smartphone camera, with its wide-angle lens, won’t even capture acceptable video of a songbird 20 feet away, let alone grabbing footage of a shy bird 200 feet down the fencerow. For that, you need a camera with significant optical-zoom capabilities.
There are plenty of video camera choices. Make sure to get something that shoots in widescreen (16:9) format. If your old camcorder lacks this option, it’s time to ditch it. I’d also run from an analog camera, like an old Hi8, since you’d need to convert the analog recording to digital before you could edit it. You’ll also want a camera that shoots with a frame rate of 24p (24 frames per second), as that is the speed generally used for the motion pictures we’re accustomed to.
Did you know that many filmmakers today use digital SLR cameras (DSLRs) rather than dedicated video cameras? I appeared on-camera in a Dutch documentary and served as executive producer of a documentary in the States, and both were shot, at least in part, with DSLRs. Filmmakers like the fact that documentary footage can be shot in unobtrusive “stealth” mode (people are less shy when around a camera that looks like it's only shooting still images), the cameras provide superior low-light performance, and one can easily achieve a shallow depth of field, with the out-of-focus areas of a shot blurred (a stylistic technique referred to as bokeh). Also, the cost can be considerably less than a professional-grade video camera. (The Canon EOS 5D Mark II was among the first HDSLRs to offer broadcast compliant 1080p24 video, although there are a number of options today.)
If you’re planning to have action scenes, perhaps to promote a camp for kids, add a GoPro Hero3 camera to the mix for grabbing B-roll footage. For a few hundred bucks, you can shoot HD footage, including underwater scenes, and the camera will fit in your pocket when you're not using it.
Tip 7: It’s not just what you shoot; it’s also how you edit. There are a variety of computer programs you can use for nonlinear editing of digital video. (Be thankful we’re no longer in an era in which we’d be forced to shoot video on film, which has to be painstakingly cut and spliced.) Modern software allows editing of video similar to the way word processors allow the editing of text. You can move and reorder sections around with ease. Some of the more common editing programs include iMovie, Microsoft Movie Maker, Final Cut Pro, Avid Media Composer, and Adobe Premiere.
Every Mac comes with iMovie, and that’s an easy choice for beginning video producers. You can even download and install iMovie on iPhones and iPads, which can work fine for simple video podcasts.
Final Cut Pro currently retails in the Mac App Store for $299.99, which should be within reach for many nonprofit organizations, and it’s a big step up from iMovie. Avid will set your organization back by $1,000 or more, unless you happen to have a student intern doing the editing, in which case they may be able to get their hands on a $250 student edition.
Any of these systems will do just fine for most basic video editing. The most important element is having access to someone who is skilled at weaving a compelling marketing message out of clips of video and sound.
‘Like’ and/or 'Share' this article below if you agree that video is an important marketing and fundraising tool for nonprofit organizations, and use the comment field to add your own thoughts or examples of how you've seen video put use. I'd like to hear from you!
Tim Jacobson is president of Visjonær Consulting & Communications. He's the executive producer of a documentary film, Mysteries of the Driftless, broadcast on PBS, and he had a significant role as himself in the European-produced documentary Amsterdam Stories USA. (You can see his film credits at imdb.me/timothyjacobson .) Also, he's the author of the book Explosive Marketing for Nonprofits: Trajectory for Success, to be published in 2014. He has been featured dozens-upon-dozens of times by TV and radio stations and newspapers for his consulting, filmmaking, writing, conservation and legal work and for his exploration of international justice and peace issues.
This article is copyright (c) 2014, Timothy S. Jacobson. All rights reserved.