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Notes from the Benevolent Media Festival Part One: Non-profit Storytelling

Benevolent MediaLiz Norton spent the earlier part of her professional career working with policy makers and wondering if her efforts truly helped improve the lives of others. After tossing that question around one too many times, Norton started Stone Soup Films. Stone Soup, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating videos for other non-profits to use as part of their overall communication strategy, has now been in operation for more than 3 years.

“Video is now seen as a critical communications tool,” Norton explained to the group assembled for the Non-profit Storytelling Filmmaking Workshop she led as part of both Digital Capital Week and the Benevolent Media Festival, which the Center for Social Media co-sponsored.

Non-profit communication professionals and freelance filmmakers alike attended the workshop, which focused on using powerful stories to communicate the goals and mission of non-profit organizations.

Here are some takeaways from Ms. Norton’s presentation:

1.)    Storytelling Basics – Tell true stories of real people and make sure to use universal themes, that is how you will elicit an emotional response from your audience.  Telling true stories may mean digging into the vulnerabilities of the population you serve.  This can get sticky, but will make a worthwhile story. That said, have respect for your audience and don’t patronize or talk down to them.

2.)    Strategic Process – Before agreeing to create a film for an organization, Stone Soup’s strategy is to make sure they are using the film as part of a bigger strategic communication plan. She encourages filmmakers working for non-profits to assess the perception of the organization as well as the organization’s weakness and obstacles. Doing this will help you decide how to focus the film in a way that it will make an effective tool. Additionally, consider the audience (for example donors vs. clients) and go deep into a small story rather than wide on a big one. One more note, don’t always make your characters success stories, consider people who represent where the organization would like to grow.

3.)     General Rules of Thumb – Keep in mind limited attention spans and aim to make your film between five and ten minutes. With this in mind, don’t feel like you need to tell the whole story, but instead try to use the film as a gateway – get the audience interested and engrossed. And, as with all filmmaking, do your best to be visual: show, don’t tell.