The more saturated society becomes with media and mobile devices, the more powerful short films can prove for nonprofits to get their stories in front of new audiences. When done right, short films are inspiring, moving, and bite-sized—they can be quickly watched and easily shared, setting off a viral groundswell in the process.
It’s therefore surprising how often nonprofits fail to capitalize on their short films from a fundraising perspective. After all, social innovators don’t just need views on a YouTube screen; they need those views to translate into support that will help them fuel their movements and change the world. It is critical that organizations integrate a fundraising perspective into the very foundation of filmmaking, thinking about stories, timing, and campaigns before the first storyboards or narrative arcs have been conceived.
Distribution is just as important as a beautiful film
Once a film is produced, organizations need to deliver it to their audiences through a sound and inspired distribution plan. Going viral and generating a fundraising breakthrough can feel like catching lightning in a bottle. Who could have predicted the sensation of “The Ice Bucket Challenge,” for instance? Or who would have guessed that “The Marathon Walker” would resonate around the world the way it did? Is it all luck?
Sure, a little luck may have been involved, but it’s far more about distribution and relentless outreach than it is about the whims of online culture or the vagaries of the media spotlight. One of my favorite examples is READ Global and its “Meet Chuna” short film, which features the story of a Nepalese woman who, at age 47, taught herself how to read, educated her daughters, and started a women’s study group to ensure other women have a safe space to learn and dream.
The film got picked up by The Huffington Post, Upworthy, Le Globaliste, The Chronicle of Philanthropy and The Optimist Magazine, in addition to a host of of talk radio shows and social media and blog sites. “Meet Chuna” racked up nearly 50,000 views in three weeks as a result, increasing the total number of donors by 54% to READ Global’s year-end fundraising campaign, compared to the previous year.
One woman, One family, One village
For its end-of-year fundraising campaign, READ Global decided to build a branded marketing campaign around the idea of an “Empower campaign.” Everyone who donated would be empowering one woman, one family, or one village, depending on the size of his or her donations. READ produced three stories—two written and one film. Each of the three stories aligned with each donation level and illuminated the type of people and villages people would be helping; “Meet Chuna” was the film story for one woman.
READ posted the microdocumentary (“microdoc”) to its website in a light box on the homepage that prominently featured both the film and the larger campaign. They sent out a series of emails to the contacts in their database about the film and the larger campaign in late November, and they created print marketing collateral in the form of a tri-fold brochure that showcased all three stories.
Throughout the month of December, READ conducted a targeted PR outreach to bloggers and journalists to get the video in front of people with large audiences of their own. They targeted five different types of publications—women’s empowerment, mommy blogs, social entrepreneurship, South Asian philanthropy, and adventure travel—and created customized pitches for hundreds of contacts within each domain.
“This experience taught us the value of customized outreach and being really strategic about how we approach media outlets,” Tina Sciabica, READ Global’s executive director, told us. “We’ve done media outreach in the past but never with a compelling video like this. It makes a big difference.”
“For us, this really showed that PR is hugely important for videos,” echoed Sara Litke, READ Global’s former manager of communications and sustainability (she since has moved on to pursue a Masters in Public Policy at UC Berkeley). “We released another video on our website before Meet Chuna and only reached out to our internal email database of about 3,000 people. That video has gotten 400 views in total, and it’s been on our homepage for months now. ‘Meet Chuna’ surpassed that in half a day.”
I asked Tina and Sara if they had any good tips looking back on the “Meet Chuna” success.
Tina said READ Global will always be sure to editorialize its calendar moving forward, allowing powerful content to work in tandem with important events and dates throughout the year.
Sara said that she ended up being far more brazen with reaching out to media outlets than she had ever felt comfortable being in the past.
“You shouldn’t be afraid to keep following up on many, many occasions,” she said. “We continued to get people who were interested in posting a month or two later. I followed up with some of these folks at their request six times. Obviously you have to be selective, but if anyone gave me a shred of interest regarding the initial email, then I would follow up with a personal note until something had come of it.”
She also said that one of the biggest keys to “Meet Chuna’s” success was Upworthy, for which she employed a very different pitching technique. Rather than send a generic email and follow up with a personal note, she identified two people who posted stories to Upworthy in a similar vein to the “Meet Chuna” piece, then sent them two Facebook messages and one tweet tagging them.
“Media outlets that are really high viral content producers, especially those focused on social media, have a different process for vetting content,” she said. “It was simple, but you had to do it the right way.”