Video For Nonprofits: Six Ways to Compete With Kittens, Netflix And Porn

Forget viral stardom (for now). Discern a concept that mainly targets your most accessible, most valuable stakeholders like donors, board members, staff, partners and beneficiaries.
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The video train has left the station. Is your nonprofit on board or are you running to catch up?

That question was posed by an important report and survey called Into Focus: A Benchmark Guide to Effective Nonprofit Video. It is readable, reasonable and informative.

But the real executive summary of the report for nonprofits should be this:

Videos are very valuable. Sometimes. They are highly effective. Occasionally.

The Data: Encouraging Or Intimidating?

The report tells us that social media is important, that online videos via YouTube, Facebook, etc. can be effective and engaging and that YouTube has created a valuable resource with it's Nonprofit Program that helps organizations tell stories and raise funds.

But, consider the study's data (as of February, 2013):

  • More than half of all Internet content is now video (including, yes, kittens, Kony, Netflix and porn).
  • 4 billion hours of video are viewed on YouTube monthly [That number is now 6 billion hours!]
  • 20,348 active nonprofits participate in the YouTube nonprofit program.
  • Nonprofits have received 6,450,608,282 views.
  • 588 have over 1 million views. [The report is not clear on whether this is 588 videos or non-profits. There was no reply to our request for clarification].

I suppose this is meant as encouragement for nonprofits to create videos for YouTube. But I found those numbers daunting. Less than three percent (of nonprofits or their videos) have gotten a million views. The vast majority of clips reach a much, much smaller audience, often in the dozens, not the thousands. And another study in The International Journal of Press/Politics found that the bottom 50% of NGOs got a mean total of 83 YouTube views. The number of videos is expanding much faster than the number of potential viewers.

So viral videos are as rare as they are coveted.

What's The Secret To Creating Viral Videos?

Nobody knows.

The most brilliant minds in advertising are grasping for that answer. We do know that it requires varying measures of vision, skill, promotion and luck. (Money helps, but does not guarantee measurable impact.)

There are extensive online examples and plenty of advice about catching that "video train," much of it useful. But a solid dose of reality is needed for neophyte nonprofits or those that have been disappointed by previous high-cost/low result efforts.

So my first piece of advice at my workshops is to aim low and narrow. Forget viral stardom (for now). Discern a concept that mainly targets your most accessible, most valuable stakeholders like donors, board members, staff, partners and beneficiaries. It's about leverage: an impressed donor or board member is more valuable than a few dozen "likes" on Facebook.

Then, be practical and cheap and exploratory. Before you even plan, consider your existing visual resources, including graphics, images and videos. Do you already have enough raw materials to create a cheap "pilot" video by repurposing your archives? If not, here are some of my suggestions I have given to my clients. I suspect you can come up with many more.

1) Find the year's best pictures. Create a narrated photomontage embedded in your Annual Report. Using audio and video, dry details can be turned into showcases of projects and successes. There are several websites, apps and programs that help beginners create effective "slide shows." Supplement your boring budget with a simple narrative budget video. Use photos, video, narration and text to illustrate how the money is being spent.

2) Use the same technique to produce an interim report about a new program. It may be too early for M&E, but anecdotes and smiles go a long way towards encouraging staff and assuring donors. Post to your own website and YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Create a well-crafted email campaign with the video embedded or linked.

3) Add video to a project proposal using narration, interviews, photos and infographics.

4) Create training videos for beneficiaries (and staff!). Supplement existing printed and oral material with illustrated video lessons by expert trainers. (Full disclosure: I am on the Board of OMPT, which distributes tiny, solar chargeable video projectors to play instructional videos.)

5) Encourage field staff and beneficiaries to record illustrative videos and photos using mobile phone technology. Post online and incorporate pieces into promotional material. Basic but authentic videos can be the most powerful.

6) Buy a couple of cheap action cameras and let your beneficiaries tell their stories. There's video gold and potential talent out there!

Beyond their specific purposes, such videos are morale-boosters for staff and beneficiaries. Many of us feel validated seeing our pictures online. We might even share that link with friends and contacts.

And be persistent. Think of those early efforts as research and development.

Even if no one ever sees your video online, it might be an excellent way to attract media attention -- a subject for a future article!

How Much To Outsource?

I knew you would ask. I would love to give a simple answer, but it depends on the organization, its purpose, resources, budget and in-house expertise. The range and permutations of services and costs is endless. Here are a few examples:

  • Find a skilled volunteer or staff member to take on the project. Be sure to set deadlines and limit your expectations.
  • Hire a consultant to implement your effort using available resources, staff, volunteers and outsourcing where needed.
  • Engage your beneficiaries in the creation process as producers, videographers and spokespersons. Hire a producer to implement their vision.
  • Contract with a production company. Many offer everything from shooting and editing to scripting, online placement and Search Engine Optimization.

At a recent workshop in Nairobi, I was asked how to find the right videographer. That's really the subject of another article, but basically I would suggest that any cameraperson who always uses a tripod and rarely moves the tripod is not suitable for anything but speeches and ceremonies. (Videographers: please send angry emails to

Finally, I hope you'll excuse a bit of preaching. No matter how you create your video, remember that authenticity almost always trumps polish and perfection.

Promote pride, avoid the maudlin and celebrate our shared humanity. Have hope, and fun.