How to Make a Video for Your Nonprofit for Under $50

This post orginally appeared in Philanthropy Front and Center San Francisco.

You run an amazing nonprofit. You have a great team, and you do great things for a great cause.

But how do you get the word out?

Benjamin Packard, founder of Retainer Media, a boutique video production company that works with nonprofits and social enterprises, would argue that videos are just as necessary for a nonprofit as a website. As a “megaphone for your message,” a promotional video may be exactly what your organization needs to connect with potential donors or participants. People are 17 times more likely to email a friend a link to a video than a link to an article! However, working with a nonprofit budget may mean seeking creative alternatives rather than hiring a professional company to do the work for you.

Representatives from a wide variety of organizations and experience levels enjoyed Benjamin’s lively and interactive presentation at Foundation Center San Francisco earlier this month. Here’s a little recap of the quick tips we learned to get you inspired:

Rule #1: You have to do something awesome.  Your video is your megaphone for your message, but that’s all. Make sure you have a well-organized operation including a clear cause, and solid existing infrastructure. Video will bring people to your website, but it won’t keep them there forever or get them to donate to a cause that they don’t understand or don't find appealing. That’s up to you.

It’s not about the toys.  Best camera in the opinion of the expert? The iPhone. A fancy camera won’t make a fancy video. It’s the skill of the person filming and the way they present the work of the organization that really matters.

If you really want a step up from the basic, Benjamin recommends the Canon t3i (about $600), but even then, there’s a catch: What really sets a camera apart from an iPhone is the lens. Research the right lens for the look you want, then get out there and practice. Here's an example of how good an iPhone video can be.

Use. A. Tripod.  You think you’re not shaky...but you are. Any dad is a good source for advice on a low-cost tripod. In a pinch, try Target or Best Buy.

Rule of thirds

How do I make it look pretty?  Start out by using automatic settings until you’re comfortable. Even the professionals use them sometimes.

If you’ve ever taken an art course, you’re probably familiar with the “rule of thirds” commonly used to compose an appealing image. If not, it looks something like the image to the right. If you're even more confused now just try Googling "rule of thirds"!

Lighting.  When you’re outside, shoot in the shade. Cameras don’t like harsh lighting. Dawn and dusk are the best times.

Interviews.  If you’re shooting an interview, crop from the top of the head to the collarbone, and avoid a distracting background.

Audio.  This is often neglected, but it is one of the most important aspects of a good video. The microphone on your camera is likely not a good source of audio. Get an inexpensive external lapel microphone to keep your subjects’ voices crisp, even when the camera is further away. Have your interviewee speak in complete sentences for ease of editing later, and avoid having the interviewer’s voice in the final film. Pick timeless music to match the mood without dating yourself.

Content.  This is the “secret sauce” that, unfortunately, adheres to no rules. For good guidelines on how to create an appealing message, Benjamin highly recommends reading Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.

Keep it short and sweet.  90-120 seconds is all you need. Skeptical? Check out this example of a well-told story in 30 seconds.

Spread the word.  Don’t forget to distribute it everywhere. Put it on your website, YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, etc.

Hurt my feelings!  Accept this fact: Your first draft is going to be terrible. Get Honest Feedback. Ask anyone for their honest opinions, and use them to improve your appeal to your audience. One exception: A mother’s love is blind, so don’t ask her. Test your own knowledge and try to point out what's gone wrong in this example of a video that needs work.

For further proof that an eye-catching video doesn't have to be a huge production, here is Benjamin's own Balloon Hat Video: an example of a video made entirely of photos, which was featured on Oprah's blog. 

Do you want Benjamin's full advice on these topics? Watch the full recording of his session below. (See this page for timepoints so you can fast forward to specific topics.)

Have you made memorable videos on a shoestring? Brag about it! Share your tips and examples in our Comments area.

Aida Buderi

-- Aida Buderi
Program Assistant
Foundation Center San Francisco

AIDA BUDERI is Program Assistant for the Capacity and Leadership Development team in the San Francisco office. She holds a BA in Global Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and prior to joining the Foundation Center team worked as Finance and Administrative Assistant for the International Rescue Committee in Oakland. In her free time she enjoys hiking and exploring the beautiful Bay Area.