By Tucker Walsh
I first discovered charity: water when I was a sophomore in high school. I stumbled upon their gorgeous website, watched a couple of videos, and browsed through their photo galleries. Ten minutes later, I was emailing a woman named Mo asking her what country they would like to send me to first. I was dying to help, and the thought of a nonprofit turning down a photographer's free labor (even if that photographer was an inexperienced 15-year-old) never occurred to me. I was bummed when Mo informed me that most of charity: water's media is done in-house, and that, although she appreciated my offer, my services were not needed. Five years later and a bit wiser, I had the incredible opportunity to interview Mo Scarpelli, charity: water's staff multimedia producer (and for the record, Mo, my offer to shoot still stands). Her organization has brought clean drinking water to nearly a million people, thanks in part to their successful video campaigns, many of which have gone viral. Mo explains how in the Q&A below.
TDN: Why is visual storytelling important for nonprofits to invest in? Why create permanent staff dedicated to multimedia?
MO: Impact. You have the chance to tell really visceral, straightforward, not to mention beautiful stories. Sometimes, you can't beat just hearing it straight from the subject’s voice, or seeing the details of our work in a medium that makes you feel like you're there watching it happen. There is an intense amount of impact in video showing the horrifying effects of the water crisis: leeches in a community's drinking water, the sores on kids' feet from waterborne diseases, the back-breaking work of carrying a Jerry three miles every day. And then there's impact in shots of the opposite nature: wide smiles on women's faces as they hug their children who are now able to go to school again, pump repair teams fixing a community's well, groundwater shooting into the air as a drill rig plunges into the earth... you get the idea.
NGOs operate on tight budgets and not all of them need full-time media producers. But as a fundraising nonprofit where raising awareness is a big part of your mission, I think it's definitely worthwhile and even necessary. A full-time producer opens up your organization to tell more stories and use more ways of telling those stories than you would otherwise. You can find freelancers to handle some of the photos or videos -- we use some really incredible ones -- but it's beneficial to have someone on your team all the time who's managing the content, producing to your specifications with different audiences, sharing the little bits here and there on the blog, etc. And that person can be used cross-departmentally, to help produce materials for partnering organizations, sponsors, private donors and other not-so-public audiences who still need to know about our work.
TDN: Have your video campaigns expanded charity:water's audience and reach?
MO: Definitely. Our videos have drawn new people to charity: water (and to charity in general). Our main campaign videos perform pretty well and the blog's videos get a ton of views. But our videos are key for another reason: Our fundraisers love to use them. We have a fundraising site called mycharitywater.org, where anyone can sign up and start a campaign to fund water projects. In less than two years, individual fundraisers have raised more than $8 million on the site. They're our biggest supporters because they aren't just fundraising; they're passionately teaching everyone they know about the almost one billion people living without clean water. Each mycharitywater.org campaign page has one of our videos on it (right now, it's Water Changes Everything). Fundraisers also embed our videos to their blog, Facebook page or website, they burn DVD copies of them to hand out, they screen them at their school, church or community events. So it's a compelling way for fundraisers to engage their friends and supporters.
TDN: Once you create a video, how do you make sure it gets seen?
MO: We share all our videos with our blog followers, major social media outlets, and email list. But we also promote our major videos (Water Changes Everything, September Campaign videos) through donated ad space, at events or screenings, and sometimes through influencers who support what we do by Tweeting, writing, or talking about us (i.e. Nick Kristof, Kristen Bell, Will and Jada Smith). When it's shown on a network or channel (our PSA has been airing on Hulu for more than a year) that brings traffic to our site, too.
TDN: Which videos have been most effective? Are there any that you feel failed to get the message across? How did you learn from those?
MO: I think our most effective video to date is the September 2009 campaign -- it's the entire story of charity: water. It's the perfect mix of serious, informative, and inspiring. And it was produced the way you'd read a novel or see a great film: problem, climax, solution. I don't know a soul who's seen it and hasn't come away wanting to learn more, get involved or just tell their friends about who we are.
Right up there with our September 2009 video is Water Changes Everything. It's. So. Simple. Everyone can understand, in three minutes, what the water crisis is. And it doesn't have a big ask. 95% of the video just explains the issue.
On least effective... I would say when we get too nitty-gritty about our programs in the field, we lose people. An example of that was last year's September Campaign supporting videos. We made six of them, delving into specific issues about life for this tribe called the Bayaka in Central African Republic. We expected people who watched the main video would want to know more and watch all the videos. But they never got near as much traction as the main one. We learned from that campaign that the general public craves “simple” from us. That doesn't mean we have to skip over the complicated stuff -- it just means we have to focus on a few strong aspects of a story. We could've left out half of the details and still gotten the point across that the Bayaka people needed clean drinking water.
TDN: Your newest video, Water Changes Everything, is a narrated animation. Does this style of storytelling reach a different audience than the films? Is one more successful than the other?
MO: Since it's very new (launched in April), we can only speculate on who is watching and whether they're a different audience. It has generated more views in a month than any other video we've released, but we also have a bigger audience now than we did when we put out past videos. We have gotten a lot of feedback from schools or kids on the video; I think it's really successful there. The other day, we visited a school to pick up their donation, and when we asked "Why is clean water important?" the kids practically recited the video script back to us! With Kristen Bell's voice inflection at that -- it was pretty interesting. Water Changes Everything has a very approachable tone; I think that's made it very successful.
TDN: What techniques do you use to hook people who may not otherwise be interested in watching an advocacy video?
MO: We've grown into a very cinematic feel for our major videos, and that's our hook. We want to teach people about the water crisis, but it's also our job to inspire them to help change it. Beautiful footage is compelling and inspiring.
We also use animation or graphics to explain tough stuff. If you glance at our website or blog, you'll notice right away that we're into simplifying things with design so anyone can understand them. We use the same concept in some of our videos.
TDN: What percentage of your overall budget is dedicated to video, video staff, marketing, etc?
MO: We actually do a lot with very little. We have one Canon Mark II with a limited supply of accessories to beef it up. And I actually use my own Mark II and lenses. All of our big gear, beyond the cameras and lenses, has been donated by some incredibly generous gear companies (Steadicam, Kessler Crane, Evosat and more) who want to support what we're doing. We also get ad placement donated for our videos when we have a big campaign, thanks in large part to our media partners, Razorfish.
TDN: What tips do you have for other nonprofits that are trying to embrace this medium?
MO: Don't be afraid of trying something new. I've made 50+ videos for charity: water within a year's time. Some have engaged and inspired people, some have flopped. But each video, whether a silly staff one or an emotional story from someone in the field, is a chance to engage with people in a new way. That can mean getting serious when you've previously been a little glib. That can mean toning yourself down, finding a fun, empowering situation, or using music for a more light-hearted feel.
For nonprofits especially, I think it's important to remember that your work might be about one of the most serious issues in the world, but with video, you can explore different ways to tell your story. You're not dumbing anything down; you're just approaching an issue like a journalist might, with different angles to the issue. And never, ever trust that people will watch just because the subject is important. You have to make it relate to your audience; you have to make it compelling. You have to employ some of the traditional story methods -- showing conflict and resolution -- and you have to tell it as honestly as you can while keeping it interesting.