Having worked with and advised many think tanks and non-profits on how to most effectively use video to achieve their organizational goals, I’m often asked about using video for fundraising purposes. It’s no secret that moving images are a powerful way to spark emotions that can lead viewers to open their wallets. A quick viewing of Sarah McLaughlin’s classic animal cruelty infomercials should be enough to put any doubts to bed. But how can organizations with limited means take advantage of video to boost their coffers? What sorts of qualities do effective fundraising videos share? The answer to those questions, I would argue, are not very different from the broader question of what makes for an effective video to begin with. The key is approaching the video’s production and distribution with a strategic mindset. Here are six things to consider in developing your strategy.
1. Video is an investment; invest wisely.
Without a doubt, the number one constraint that think tanks face when considering video production is the price tag. While there are definitely ways to keep costs down, video is expensive when compared to most other media. For many organizations that are relatively unfamiliar with the video space, an initial grappling with the costs can lead to sticker shock that scares them off. One of two things ends up happening: the organization decides not to pursue the video at all or they try to cut corners and make a video on their own as cheaply as possible. In my – admittedly biased view – both outcomes are suboptimal. In the first scenario, the organization is left without an effective fundraising tool and in the second, they end up spending money on something that often doesn’t help them achieve their goals (of course, that’s not always the case as there are exceptions that prove every rule).
What is too often unappreciated is the important fact that video has tremendous value. It can allow your audience to see what your organization’s work looks like in action and help them better understand the importance of your work and its impacts on people’s lives. Because of this value, think tanks should not be scared off by price tags, but rather should become smarter about creating videos in a way that allows them to squeeze as much value as possible from the end product. This begins with a mindset change: video is not an expense, it’s an investment. Decisions around whether to pursue video production should therefore be based on a consideration of both the upfront expense and the expected return, which can be substantial in a fundraising context. Once the think tank decides to make the investment, they should do so wisely and work to maximize their returns.
2. Who is our audience?
When setting out to create any video for a client, my work begins with two questions: What are your goals and who is your audience? In this case, the goal is to raise money. You may have secondary goals (i.e. raise awareness for your work, raise the statute of your experts, etc.), which are important to note as well, but the main outcome you’re after is funding. Who are you hoping to get that money from? Like a researcher trying to drill down a precise research question, push yourself to be as specific as you can about who your target audience is. Having a specific audience in mind will allow you to tailor your video to them and make the most compelling case as to why they should lend their support to your work.
I recently edited a fundraising video for a medical research organization working to develop a cure for a terrible genetic disease that affects young girls. The organization is working to raise a large research budget to further work toward a cure. After my first day editing the video from a script they had written, I called to deliver some bad news: without some serious editing, the video was not going to work. At nearly 9-minutes, it was far too long and way too technical to spread around social media as they hoped. After a short conversation with the client, however, I realized I was wrong. They explained that the video was aimed at parents and relatives of girls with the disease. This is a relatively small and very active community of people who are directly impacted by the disease. They’d be willing to sit through a long video, would understand the technical details and, in fact, such specifics would be helpful in convincing them that the effort was legitimate and worth supporting. The client clearly knew their audience: a month later, the video has more than 100,000 views on Facebook with thousands of shares and comments and has helped the organization make great strides toward its multi-million dollar fundraising goal.
3. What does our work look like on the ground?
One of the first lessons that any student learns in film school is simple: “Show don’t tell.” It’s a mantra that speaks directly to film’s comparative advantage over other media, namely its ability to allow the viewer to see something for themselves. And, unlike photography, which allows the audience to see a single moment, film can capture a process. It can show change over time. That’s good news for people working in the policy space. Allowing viewers to see a problem play out on the ground is a powerful and uniquely cinematic way for them to engage in an issue. And letting them see how a program changes the lives of its beneficiaries over time can convince them of its efficacy in a way that is far more difficult with a written report.
Ask yourself what the problem you are addressing or the program you are administering looks like on the ground. Who are the people whose lives are affected by this issue or have been changed by your work? Then, take your audience to the field and allow them to meet those people and see the issue/program through their eyes. This on the ground/narrative driven approach has the added benefit of being emotional over informational. Video is an incredibly effective tool for conveying emotion and emotion is an incredibly effective tool for raising money.
4. What’s our call to action?
The first rule of fundraising is that you don’t get what you don’t ask for. The same holds true for video. Don’t just show them your work and expect them to give you funds as a reaction. You have to ask for it explicitly. A succinctly phrased text-based ask at the end of the video will work fine. Don’t forget to tell them where to go to give! Make this as easy as possible for your audience, include a link along with the video and, if possible, within the video itself. Also keep in mind the context in which the video is being seen – i.e. is this on Facebook? Your website? – and try to provide easy ways for your audience to learn more about what they’re supporting if they’re interested.
5. How are we going to distribute our video?
One of the biggest misconceptions around online video in general is the idea that if you make good content and put it on your Facebook page, people will discover it on their own and share it simply because it’s good and it’s online. I call this the “myth of virality.” With the exception of unbelievably adorable videos of cats walking on treadmills (just like people!), videos don’t simply “go viral.” Far more often than not, virality is the result of a well thought out strategy that is effectively executed. I could go on for a whole article on effective distribution strategies and in fact, half of my upcoming short course on video will be dedicated to just that, but for now I’ll focus on two important pillars:
- Don’t wait until your video is finished to start. While distribution may be the last phase of the production process, it shouldn’t be the last thing you think about. From the get go, start dedicating time to thinking about how you’ll get your content in front of your audience – what distribution platforms you’ll use, what partnerships you’ll form to get the word out, and other media you can use – i.e. blogs, op-eds, etc. – to help shine a spotlight on the issue in general and your video in particular. And all that work you did earlier, drilling down into the details of who your audience is, use it to help you understand where your audience will be, how to reach them, and what supplementary materials will be important to engage them.
- Don’t forget that distribution is part of the investment. Blinded by the myth of virality, many organizations think that if they put the resources into the production of a video, distribution will take care of itself. It’s inevitably the first line item to be cut from a budget. That’s a shame because making sure your video is seen is at least equally as important as making sure it gets made. Don’t forget that you’re making an investment in a valuable tool and distribution is part of the product, not an optional add on. A good rule of thumb is to dedicate equal resources – such as time and money – to the distribution of a video as you did to its production.
6. What else can we do with these materials?
The elements of a good fundraising video are the same as the elements of any good video about policy – a good story, an on-the-ground view of the issue/program, and compelling people who can serve as our tour guides. If you follow these “rules,” you’ll be able to milk far more content out of your investment than a single fundraising video. By mining the footage and repackaging it – i.e. editing several versions, pulling out short clips, or in some cases, making simple changes to the text – you can create a steady stream of content that can be used on your social media channels, sent out through your mailing list, and used at events and conferences to draw attention to your work.
To stick with the investment analogy, think of the video materials you’re collecting as source material that can be capitalized on through multiple revenue streams. Yes, the main purpose might be the fundraising video, but stopping there would mean leaving a lot of value on the table. If you think creatively about the material you have, you can continue to mine the content of a single shoot to maximize the returns on your investment.
Over the last few years, I’ve been heartened to see many think tanks finally start to take video seriously as a way to engage audiences in the work they are doing. Video is quickly becoming the most prolific medium of our time, with many online platforms favoring video content over the written word and still images. It is a powerful tool for raising awareness about policy issues and one that has tremendous value to organizations. To make effective fundraising videos – and to make effective video content in general – think tanks need to think strategically about who their audience is, what kind of content they are creating for that audience, and how they will make sure the finished product reaches their intended viewers.
To see some examples of videos that profile think tanks and their work, check out the On Thinks TV series.