August 3, 2011

How to find amazing, powerful stories for your nonprofit video

  • Buffer
  • Buffer

Video stories


Strategies for identifying stories that exemplify your organization’s mission

Target audience: Nonprofits, NGOs, cause organizations, social enterprises, brands, educators, video producers, Web publishers, storytellers, individuals.

Part 1 of a two-part series focused on using video to tell compelling stories. Also see part 2:
16 tips for making video interviews come alive

By Lindsay Oberst
Socialbrite staff

Lindsay OberstAll too often, nonprofit organizations fail to take advantage of their greatest asset: stories.

Stories help us interact with our world and make sense of it. They link us together and shape our view of the world. Nonprofits, however, often miss the stories that surround them; the stories that can help them raise more funding, expand awareness of their cause and reach their goals.

Rob Wu is the creator of CauseVox, a platform to help nonprofits raise funds. He believes that nonprofits are missing a huge opportunity in stories.

“Generally, nonprofits use some level of storytelling but not to the fullest,” Wu said in an email. “The nonprofits that use stories in a meaningful way craft an overarching narrative of their organization and supporting stories that compel their audiences to action. Often, I hear nonprofits talk about fundraising strategies or a communications plan, but seldom do they talk about a storytelling strategy.”

Using stories is something that nonprofits can do in many areas of their work, yet videos are a particularly powerful tool. Especially considering that U.S. Internet viewers watch almost 20 hours of online video per month, according to statistics released in June.

Video storytelling draws us in by appealing to our emotions — a faraway woman with big eyes telling us about the children she can barely feed or the excitable entrepreneur full of passion for his idea. And then if done properly, video stories cause people to take action.

If your nonprofit wants to make use of stories, how can you take a step back and find the right stories that support the causes that matter to you? Here are three steps you can take to discover amazing, powerful stories to use in your own videos:

Be open to telling stories

Storytellers for Good

1When stories are part of daily work, people work in a different way. They start asking questions and listening to people more deeply.

Cara Jones founded Storytellers for Good as a platform for telling and promoting stories of people who are making a positive difference. She believes nonprofits should create a storytelling culture in the work place.

“This will have an inspirational impact on all involved,” Jones said by email.

If you want to find stories, you’ve got to weave them into your business model, always seeking them out with a method to collect them.

On the Causevox blog, Jones gives the following tips, which can help nonprofits pay attention to stories:

  • Hold a monthly event where you gather your employees to share inspiring stories.
  • Create an organizational story bank to record these stories.

Danielle Bernstein created Clear Films, an independent production company dedicated to social change. She also encourages the nonprofits she works with to think about the stories that surround their missions.

She carries a camera with her most of the time. With the rise of easy, handy video cameras, it’s possible for all nonprofits to equip someone on their team with a video camera.

Another thing you can do is to stimulate your creativity by watching other great videos. (Here are eight great examples of nonprofit video storytelling.)

When your nonprofit opens itself to stories, it welcomes great work even with limited resources. But you have to find the right stories that people can relate to.

Look for a story people can identify with

2As you begin to see stories around you, you’ll notice how our stories all contain common threads. Keep yourself aware of the stories that appeal to your personal emotions in some way. These stories are often can be used by nonprofits to make a difference.

“The stories that rise to the top for video purposes will be emotionally compelling,” Jones said.

“Without emotion, without that feeling, people just don’t get inspired,” Chris Yates said in a phone interview. He created Huddle Productions, which combines social media and video.

Sparking inspiration with your videos is important. However, the best videos — the ones that inspire people to act — go further and create a feeling of hope. Tragedy and transformation are key components that work well in nonprofit videos. Both of these can inspire hope when the story has a positive aspect to it.

Bernstein talked about the importance of uplifting stories. If people are going to take action after watching a video story, they need to believe that change is possible.

Pinpointing individuals is also critical. “It’s about trusting when you connect with people,” Bernstein said. “There’s always something even with different cultures.”

The charity:water campaign for clean water in Haiti.

charity: water is a wonderful example of a nonprofit using specific stories to support their efforts to bring clean water to people in developing nations. They have a section on their blog devoted to individual stories “from the field” and “from the office.” Also, they highlight stories in their videos. For example, their water campaign for Haiti uses the story of one of their workers to frame the need for help in Haiti.

As Yates said, “You’ve got to make it personal. Nobody really feels sympathy for a brand.”

Be patient and the stories will surface

3The best stories aren’t always the ones that jump out at you. Sometimes the real stories are the ones you only notice after interacting with people several times.

“It’s about taking the time to be where you need to be,” Bernstein said. “And then spending the time you need to spend.”

Yates doesn’t believe in forcing the story. He doesn’t go into an interview with specific questions. Instead, he allows the story to surface from the conversation.

“The best stories are the answers,” he said. “It’s not my story, it’s their story.”

Humans have always communicated using stories. Some stories are hundreds of years old and are still used to teach and inform people today.

How is your nonprofit organization incorporating stories into its strategy? Have you used stories in your video campaigns? Tell us in the comments below!

Coming in Part 2: Tips for getting people to tell stories on camera



Use video to get to heart of your organization’s story: An interview with Cara Jones (Socialbrite)

8 great examples of nonprofit storytelling (Socialbrite)

How nonprofits should be using visual storytelling (Socialbrite)

Articles on how nonprofits can create media (Socialbrite)Lindsay Oberst is a freelance writer who writes about art, culture and topics that relate to social and environmental good. Follow her on Twitter at @LindsayOSocial for social good discussions or at @LindsayOWrite to chat about writing.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 UnportedThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

8 thoughts on “How to find amazing, powerful stories for your nonprofit video

  1. Hey Lindsay,

    Thanks for this great post! While I agree that video can be truly wonderful for a nonprofit, I think that it’s really important to note that not all video is good. For example, while the easy-to-use Flip cam opens up a whole world of media possibility, video shouldn’t be used just because it’s there – people won’t watch a poorly shot, poorly executed video. Storytelling for a nonprofit is so important, but as I see bad quality videos like this all over the web, I want to comment on another multimedia approach to nonprofit storytelling.

    I’m working with an organization in Ghana right now that is gearing up for their big fall benefit, where the theme is going to be ‘Learning From our Microfinance Clients.’ There’s so much great content to share, but the budget for video is small, so I decided to use photofilms to tell these stories. Photofilms are basically a multimedia slideshow with narration over the top – they’re a beautiful and cost-effective way to tell a story without the budget or expertise of a video.

    Here’s another website with a great description and examples of photofilms:

    Thanks again for the great post!

    • Thanks for the comment, Lindsey.

      I absolutely agree that many videos are not good. The ease of creating videos is both wonderful and troublesome. Just because you can film something doesn’t mean you should … unless you’re willing to spend a little time or money to make it good. On the bright side, it also means nonprofits can shoot more videos until they really get what they need.

      Photofilms are great visual tools too, and often you’ll need stories for these too.

    • Hi Lindsay, we’re big fans of the form — though we’ve always called it digital storytelling, and I haven’t heard the term photofilms until now. Would love to learn more about who’s doing it and how it’s done.

      • Hi JD,

        I’m currently working on some for an organization in Ghana, I’ll post the links here as comments when we get them up and going! In the link I posted above, the website has some great examples of photofilms and orgs doing them. Check it out!