12 Rules of Non-Profit (Video) Storytelling

12 Rules of Non-Profit (Video) Storytelling

There is no doubt that video storytelling is the most powerful tool to get up close and personal with your supporters.

You can communicate your mission and mandate by telling a story of someone (or animal) that benefits from your organizations. That testament is an effective moment to ask for a donation, whether it’s from a celebrity or from the subject themselves.

See examples of our successful storytelling.

“HJC has helped Amnesty International capture some incredibly magical moments by filming and scripting the reunification of a wrongfully imprisoned man with his family at the airport, assisting a woman to reach out on video to help release her imprisoned husband, allowing torture survivors to be tell their stories. We’re always confident that HJC can bring both the creative sensibility and the sensitivity needed to film individuals whose stories are difficult to tell but need telling. We’ve used HJC’s powerful video work to inspire Canadians to be activists and to give money in support of human rights.”

Andrew Bales, Digital Communication Manager, Amnesty International Canada

DRTV has proven this approach is effective if the stories are told properly. But now, you can have the same kind of powerful videos online for fundraising purposes, done cost effectively and integrated fully into all of your fundraising channels. Inspired by Pixar’s 22 Rules for Telling a Great Story, and coupled with my decades of documentary and non-profit video storytelling, I’ve come up with these essential rules to follow when you make your own video.

The 12 Rules of Non-Profit (Video) Storytelling

#1: It’s about characters, not about the wonderful things that you do for people or the planet. People want to identify with individuals (although they may be PEOPLE or ANIMALS). Tell your stories through the prism of living, breathing creatures.

#2: Your subjects may not always have a happy ending. What matters is that they tried and they did their best. We admire someone for trying more than their success.

#3: Themes and big ideas are important, but what appeals to an audience is the personal story. All stories have individuals and their struggles in the foreground, but the complex ideas and themes are woven into the background.
#4: Once upon a time, there was ___________. Every day, _______ happened. One day, ______ came along to help. Because of that, _______ happened. Until finally, ________ happened, and things got better.

#5: Keep it short. You don’t have to tell the whole story of your organization to get the mission across. A person’s story and experience may be enough.

#6: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard. Get yours working up-front.

#7: Putting it on paper allows you to start fixing it: If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#8: Let your subjects speak for themselves. People always trust information coming from the source.

#9: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the subject. The stakes have to be high for us to root for them and the cause they represent.

#10: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later. Some stories might not fit now, but they might fit into a campaign later. Know when to let go.

#11: What’s the essence of your story? What is the most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there. Break your story into one statement that encapsulates everything you need to say about both your subjects and the mission of your organization.

#12: When you finally get to weaving your story, be succinct. Lean on your subject to tell their own story (in their own words) efficiently and capture the attention of the audience. People stop listening after a minute or two. Keep it short but powerful!

I’ve been making dozens of documentaries for more than 25 years, telling disparate stories of people around the world, whether they might be indigenous peoples facing modern pressures; youth resisting radicalization; or people climbing Mount Everest. These films, for the BBC; PBS; CBC; Sundance; National Geographic; Discovery and many others. Over the same time period, I’ve been working with hjc to make sure that we tell the important stories that our non-profit clients need to share with their supporters. I follow these rules myself, and I believe they work every time you honestly apply them.

View hjc’s video reel here.

Mark Johnston, hjc Video Director and Documentary Filmmaker


posted on Mar 23

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