Illustration by Brian Stauffer/theispot.com
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updated 10/17/2008 12:15:06 PM ET 2008-10-17T16:15:06

When NFL star Michael Vick was accused last year of gambling on and sponsoring dog fights, the Humane Society’s Web site and social networking sites across the Net erupted into a buzz of outrage and accusations of animal abuse. “People kept sending us letters, photos, and comments,” recalls Carie Lewis, the nonprofit’s Internet marketing manager. “We knew people wanted a way to express how they felt.”

Lewis and colleagues wasted no time seizing the opportunity. They decided to harness the outrage and transform it into new levels of support for the nonprofit and its work by issuing an open call over the Web for short, citizen-made public service videos about the incident — and the importance of fighting animal abuse.

By crowdsourcing the videos this way, the Humane Society not only engaged the creative talents of its supporters and would-be backers, it engaged them in the contest itself, by asking people not only to send in videos but to judge them, as well. The result? Twenty-two people sent in their videos for judging, 18,000 people voted on the submissions, and — by the time the contest had ended — the Humane Society increased its membership by 2,000. And that’s not all. It didn’t cost the nonprofit a cent, Lewis says.

Call it the engagement imperative. As the U.S. economy spirals into economic malaise this giving season, more and more charities are turning to mass collaboration with supporters, both online and off, to boost interest in the cause and shore up membership rosters — without breaking the bank. Short videos can pack the least expensive and most emotionally resonant engagement, say nonprofit Internet experts — and it’s no wonder. It’s one thing to talk about a problem, they say; it’s another to show each other examples of it, triggering new talk over solutions. Says Lewis: “We’ve seen that when we attach a video to our fundraising appeals, it increases [public] interest and donations tremendously. People really relate to us when they actually see what we’re doing.”

Videos for a cause
The Humane Society’s experimentation with social media, chiefly video, is just one example of the movement toward the use of cause videos by the giving sector. NYU media professor Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody, a new book about the influence of social media on the way people organize groups, says an organization’s ability to engage people and pull them into its work has never been easier. “A lot of the power of the Web isn't actually in the technology,” Shirky told Contribute in an interview, “it’s in the ability that the Web is unleashing for people to come together, to share things together, to collaborate, to take collective action.”

Engaging others to film and share their stories about a particular cause can help nonprofits hugely: Cause videos provide nonprofits with a quick way to reach donors where they spend much of their time already — on video-sharing Web sites like YouTube and Facebook. According to the most recent data by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 75 percent of Net users watch or download videos online; 57 percent send video links to others, and 13 percent upload videos into an email so they can share them online with others.

With the explosion of low-cost social media — from Twitter to digital videos to social networking sites — it’s never been easier for nonprofits to cultivate communities that are sympathetic to their causes. Add to that the proliferation of inexpensive video equipment, and nonprofits now have a new way to work with supporters to expand their visibility, online and off. “Nonprofits traditionally do not have big budgets, so that when they hear ‘video,’ many think it’s expensive,” says Steve Grove, Head of News, Politics, and Nonprofits for YouTube. “The reality is that all you need is a hundred-dollar camcorder and a free YouTube account.”

Grove says YouTube recently beefed up the number of ways nonprofits can brand themselves using online videos. One new feature, for example, lets users attach additional video clip links to their digital videos, allowing several attachments to travel with a video simultaneously, as it rockets across the Web. YouTube also now gives nonprofits free access to a set of statistics about the videos that people upload, including a way to track which videos are the most popular and the geographical location of the people who watch them.

For nonprofits like the Humane Society, the goal is to show potential members and donors exactly what they’re doing for the cause, and all at a minimal cost to the organization. “We use YouTube because it’s free,” says Lewis.

But cause videos are only as good as the dialogue they ignite, say nonprofit experts. Citizen-made videos can help generate online discussions but simply posting one won’t necessarily lead to sustainable, bottom-line results for the cause. Video-sharing, to work best, needs to be part of a larger engagement strategy, says the New York-based nonprofit, Creative Counsel. This past July, the group launched 1000 Voices, a Web-based platform that showcases video stories around social issues affecting communities across the country. “There were not many places online where videos were married to advocacy programs that could lead to tangible change,” says executive director Phoebe Eng. Getting video to move quickly online — to “go viral” — is the quicker, but not always more effective, way to seed sustainable change, she says.

The organizers of 1000 Voices say that by December 2009, they hope to have 1,000 videos made by community nonprofits working with professional filmmakers featured on its site. The short, 3- to 7-minute personal story videos will cover subjects ranging from health care to women’s rights and immigration. Eng doesn’t rule out soliciting citizen-made videos in the future. But she says 1000 Voices’ strategy is to bring creative professionals to the fore, to help causes promote their work. “We’re looking for projects that can [combine] the best of the creative spirit with effective advocacy goals,” Eng says. Those goals will be met, she says, if nonprofits can reuse the videos to train staff, drum up community interest at public gatherings, or make more effective presentations to funders.

But perhaps most significantly, digital cause videos are giving many groups the ability, for the first time, to tell their own stories directly to the public. In the past, that usually meant expensive, long-form documentaries, but the Net has changed all that, says Pat Aufderheide, a professor and the director of new media at American University in Washington, D.C. Rather than reach out to big media for coverage, she says, nonprofits are increasingly opting to use the Net to broadcast their stories globally, hopefully to millions.

Starting a dialogue
Consider The Hub, the online video-sharing arm of Witness.org, the human rights advocacy group. Since its November 2007 launch, the site has urged people to “See it. Film it. Change it.” The group solicits video from individuals, advocates and organizations to document—with user-made videos or videos made by Hub staffers — incidents of abuse and human rights violations, as told by those on the ground and those being victimized. Videos posted so far on the site tell stories that have included reports of peacekeepers accused of rape in Haiti to a citizen video of a rally outside a Cambodian prison in support of wrongly accused inmates.

Hub manager Sameer Padania says the Hub grew out of Witness’s desire to see footage from cell phones and personal cameras shared alongside Witness’s existing footage. “If you think about the fact that by year’s end there will probably be around a billion PCs in operation around the world, and something like 3.5 billion cell phones, that’s another frontier,” he says.

But not all nonprofits using video are looking to expose wrongs as much as they're trying to reach out to new supporters and would-be backers and engage them in dialogue. Last month, for example, the Canadian-based international nonprofit TakingITGlobal began spearheading a youth video contest that it and 10 other nonprofits and academic institutions, including the U.S. State Department, are backing. Called the Democracy Video Challenge (DVC), TakingITGlobal is promoting the contest through its Youth Media Exchange, an online video-sharing Web site. DVC is soliciting 3-minute videos from youth around the world. The project asks participants to complete the sentence, "Democracy is..." Says TakingITGlobal's project
coordinator Natalie Rodic: "What's important for us is the discussion that takes place around the videos." The online platform, she says, allows for ongoing global dialogue among peers in one forum —and, perhaps, more likely to appeal to younger generations.

Other nonprofits, meanwhile, are outsourcing their cause videos to more experienced production companies. See3 Communications, a Chicago-based consulting company, is working with causes to produce online video campaigns and teach them how to continue projects on their own. “Even with the current economic challenges,” says See3 President Michael Hoffman, “we’re seeing a tremendous growth in people budgeting for this work because they understand that those who effectively tell their stories will gain the mindshare they need to be successful at fundraising.”

Hoffman knows from experience. In 2006, he persuaded Amnesty International USA to launch a video campaign around torture that involved, of all things, humor. Making a reference to the U.S. policy of extraordinary rendition — a term used to describe the transfer of alleged terrorists to countries known for brutal interrogation techniques — the video asks passersby if it’s okay to torture people — as long as you, personally, are not doing it yourself. “It got people thinking about the issue,” Hoffman said. “By turning (that issue) on its head, it was extremely effective” in raising awareness.

Since working with See3, Amnesty has launched its own set of video campaigns. “It’s a constant challenge to do something more cutting-edge than anybody else,” says Steve Daigneault, Amnesty’s managing director of Internet communications. The nonprofit is working on a series of 2-3 minute videos for release next year that will highlight the personal stories of people who have been victimized by violations of human rights, freedom of speech, women's rights, and labor rights, among others. “We hope these videos will be more participatory and will give our advocates another way to engage in our issues,” says Jennifer Gmerek, Amnesty’s online campaign coordinator.

But not all cause videos are made on purpose. Sometimes, they just come in over the transom. For the Boston-based nonprofit Charley’s Fund, which is seeking a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMS), a video came to it from people sympathetic to the cause. Co-founder Tracie Seckler was approached by Logan Smalley, an aspiring young filmmaker who wanted to know if she would be interested in helping him and 10 teen-aged boys complete a documentary of a road trip they all took across the country with their close friend Darius Weems, a teenager with DMS. The idea for the film, Darius Goes West, came from the boys’ quest to get Weems’ wheelchair customized on MTV’s Pimp My Ride reality series — a show that features celebrity mechanics glamming up old sets of wheels. Smalley’s group of teens chronicled the trip they took in a rented RV from Athens, Ga., to MTV’s LA studios. Seckler, who has a son suffering from the same disease, didn’t hesitate to use her fundraising acumen to raise the $15,000 needed by the boys to complete their film. “We had never experimented with video at all,” she said. “We had just been doing the traditional things — mailing letters asking for money, power point presentations at fundraisers, that kind of thing."

But the experiment paid off nicely — to the tune of $1.3 million for DMS research from the sale of DVD versions of the journey and from donations by people who saw the finished film when the boys posted it on dozens of sites, including YouTube and Facebook. “Video doesn’t move by itself,” says Smalley, the film’s director. “If you can tell a good story…then inevitably [in today’s Net environment], you’re going to reach thousands, if not millions, of people.”

Seckler couldn’t agree more. “I can’t tell you,” she says, “how many donors have called after seeing this film and basically said ‘we’re sold’.”

Marcia Stepanek and Richard Balestrino contributed to this report.

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