I have yet to meet a non-profit organization that isn't made up of super smart, motivated, passionate people. After a decade of working behind the scenes with these folks, I still marvel at the rock-star government affairs teams that navigate the trickiest politics; regional staff that build their small and effective grassroots armies, town after town; development officers who repeatedly convince high-end donors to take a leap of faith and fund something important. I could never do what they do as successfully as they do it.
But as a creative in their world, I also see where the clashes occur. An otherwise clean and simple video script gets weighed down by higher-ups who insist on driving messages through stiff and uninspired talking points. Program staff who have no experience with visual storytelling attempt to tell complex stories on Flip cams designed for home movies. Boards approve funding for legislative efforts, but truly innovative outreach projects get short shrift.
So I'm constantly on the lookout for groups that have overcome these challenges and produce videos that don't just inspire, but push their mission miles ahead of where they started. Groups that take a risk on a newbie filmmaker like Tyler Stableford, when he offers to produce a fundraising video during a personal trip to Ethiopia. Groups that recognize the value and brilliance a stellar ad agency like Crispin Porter + Bogusky can bring to a good cause.
The video featured below isn't without its flaws, but never mind the few tiny things I would have edited differently. It still garnered pledges of more than $300,000 during its debut in Boston and New York. Why? Because the process behind this project encouraged empowerment and collaboration. Wide Horizons recognized that to get donors on board, they needed to give their creatives the freedom to do what they do best: Market their cause in the most inspiring way possible. Not that the organization was completely hands-off-- they guided much of the assignment and messaging, and rightfully so. But they also managed to strike a balance between creative vision and internal pressures that few groups seem to achieve.
Read more about how this project unfolded in the Q&A below.
TDN: Tell us a little about this project. Why did you do it? What was the goal?
Stableford: In 2008, my wife and I were adopting a young boy from Ethiopia through Wide Horizons For Children-- we were attracted to them because they were a non-denominational nonprofit agency that is deeply committed to providing humanitarian aid in Ethiopia and beyond. One could argue that adoption is an expensive way to haul a single child out of his/her community... whereas the proactive aid work Wide Horizons does really help keep destitute families intact, and helps prevent children from being orphaned. So I offered to shoot a week-long documentary fundraiser project for them before we adopted our kid. The goal was, in my mind, to create a documentary that would raise as much darn money as possible from Wide Horizon's core donor base (mostly adoptive families). Of course it would have been great to expand their reach, but I thought it best to target the documentary to an audience that was already engaged.
TDN: What kind of role did you play?
Stableford: Well, as with many nonprofits, Wide Horizons does an excellent job of providing humanitarian aid relief work; and as with many nonprofits, marketing is not their forte-- that's simply not why nonprofits go into business! So I was able to help provide them with some of my skills as a marketing photographer and former journalist. They provided me with an extremely dialed week-long schedule throughout Ethiopia, where their local employees escorted me to many of their projects in the country's poorest regions. I provided much of the creative direction (I was always open to their direction of course, but they wanted me to bring my storytelling role to the project).
TDN: Talk about your idea to get Crispin Porter + Bogusky involved.
Stableford: Salvation came, as it always seems to do, in an unexpected way. At a commercial portfolio review a couple winters ago with Kari Niessink, the head art buyer at CP+B, I told her about my Ethiopian project. Kari championed my cause, asking her colleagues Alex Bogusky and David Rolfe if they could produce the video pro-bono. (CP+B is arguably the country’s top ad agency, having been named “Ad Agency of the Year” 12 times.) They said yes-- I couldn’t believe my luck! CP+B integrated editor Nick Schneider and producer Liisa Juola did the heavy yet graceful lifting in bringing the video to life. All told, CP+B donated approximately 200 hours of time to the project.
TDN: Did you experience any specific challenges working with a nonprofit group? Like limited budgets, or risk-averse CEOs?
Stableford: In this regard, there weren't any challenges-- I volunteered all of my time and resources, as did CP+B. So we didn't lean on Wide Horizons for anything. They were exceptional in arranging a packed tour for me-- 7-8 days of 12-hour days interviewing kids, families etc, and touring their various health clinics, schools, clean water projects, and their sponsored children.
TDN: That's great. It sounds like they really trusted your creative direction. What can other groups learn from this?
Stableford: I think it's important that nonprofits keep in very close touch and oversee the editing process, to make sure that their brand and messages are being conveyed accurately and masterfully. So yes, Wide Horizons provided a long leash for much of the project, but in the phrasing of specific programs they provide, how we presented their work, etc, it was critical that Wide Horizons was closely involved. They weren't on the ground editing with us, but we sent them daily updates with our latest versions.
TDN: So what else worked really well? What were some measurable results?
Stableford: The measurable results were the donations that people gave after seeing the videos at Wide Horizons fundraisers in New York and Boston, where I showed the video and shared my personal experiences seeing Wide Horizon's efforts transform Ethiopian children's lives. Those audiences ended up pledging over $300,000 to construct new health clinics in Ethiopia.
TDN: That's huge! So there must be some lessons in this. What knowledge did you gain that you'd like to share with others?
Stableford: I think the most important thing for us "creatives" to remember is that we all have incredible skill sets that we can bring to nonprofits. The fact that we can operate a camera, or can edit video, or design a web page, etc, places us in a great position to help nonprofits share their message with a larger community. Equally importantly, I've found that the nonprofit work I've done has been the most rewarding and gratifying of my life; it has brought more joy than I thought possible.
I also think it's important to reach out to creative partners to leverage your resources; particularly in a slow economy, many designers/photographers/filmmakers may have blocks of free time on their hands, and working on a nonprofit/volunteer project can serve as a great portfolio project as well as a feel-good effort. So don't be shy in contacting fellow creatives to help you with your project. I was surprised at the doors that have opened-- I simply needed a solid start on the project to show that I was 100% committed.