Create a Successful Nonprofit Video: Adapt a Genre to Connect with Your Audience

Have you ever created a video promoting one of your programs or campaigns, only to watch it flounder and never catch on with your intended audience? After about a week you start to revisit your video checklist regarding quality (light/sound), promotion (newsletters/social media/web site/etc), and even reposting it on outlets you didn’t consider relevant the first time around.

A week after that you feel confident that you covered your bases, but still confused by the lack of interest and general engagement. What if there were items you overlooked that are even more fundamental than choosing the right microphone or digital recorder. Not focusing on these items may be the reason your video fell flat.

So let’s go to a perfect example of a video that works – this time from the Winnipeg Humane Society. I’ve always liked the video below and while it didn’t receive as many views as many others on YouTube, it clearly demonstrates an incredibly important aspect of any video: embrace your genre.

(As an aside: many people write-off a video like this for the exact reasons you should check it out: small budgets, volunteer talent, and little to no time for production. Nonprofits are frequently strapped for resources and must rely on creativity and be hyper aware of genres that replace money and sparkle.)

Know your genre

Pick a genre that people can quickly identify with, in this case the crazy local salesman pitch. Who hasn’t seen a video like this late at night from your local celebrity car/furniture/mattress salesman? Embrace your chosen genre by accentuating its key components (language, graphics, editing style, etc).

Appropriate talent

Don’t push your CEO into a role that’s not appropriate. Find the right talent for the job, in this case Winnipeg’s own Andy Hill from Kern Hill Furniture Co-op was a perfect fit. A familiar face will bridge that gap and bring authenticity to your video. It will also be easier for a spokesperson to speak about your mission when they are in their element.

Write smart

If your copy doesn’t fit the genre then everything else will go up in smoke. Resist the urge to cut and paste copy from your brochure or website. Instead watch a few videos from the same genre noting key words, phrases, costumes, and actions. Be sure that these are also in your video and take them up a notch so that they are more noticeable.

After viewing countless nonprofit videos over the years I’ve seen my share of polished and respectable clips that went nowhere. They fail when they don’t embrace their genre. It also helps if you have some kittens and a sense of humor.


The Dirtiest Word Among Nonprofits: Overhead

When three of your friends, none of whom know of the other, each recommend a TED talk within a single week, you sorta have to watch it. So that’s how I found myself staring at Dan Pallotta the other day, watching as he said what many nonprofit leaders are thinking – albeit privately, never to be discussed, least of all at a conference.

The video is making waves among charity workers, nonprofit supporters, and at least one of Pallotta’s ex-colleagues who takes over portions of the comments section. Whether you come down on the side of conservative overhead or operating a near for-profit model, this talk is sure to start a discussion in your neck of the woods.

The Graduation Myth: A Closer Look at Animal Cruelty and Human Violence


Emaciated Pit Bull puppies rescued in 2010 / PHOTO by Brian Adams


The Shift
I wanted a career change. Publicizing small hi-tech companies for the past two years at a PR agency in Boston had lost its luster long ago. It was time to take a chance.

I debated future careers for weeks. Should I stay in PR or go back to reporting? Is there an entirely new career out there waiting for me?

I soon found my answer when my wife came home from a career fair and told me about a local animal welfare organization. I grew up surrounded by animals on a small, non-working farm and connected with our pets, understanding their motivations. The position was paid hourly in exchange for helping find owners for homeless pets. I hadn’t worked for hourly wages since my days in retail but I knew this was the job for me from the feeling in my chest.

During the interview process I was told about a recent opening in the Marketing department for a salaried PR Manager. I jumped at the chance and landed the job. I was warned about the hardships I would encounter – neglected and abused animals on a daily basis. I thought I could improve things, care for the unwanted, recuperate the injured, and generally become a young St. Francis with my first press release.

I witnessed the results of countless acts of animal cruelty during my nearly six years at the second oldest animal welfare organization in America. I grew the PR Manager role during this time to become head of Media and Community Relations and as the lead spokesman for the Massachusetts SPCA, I frequently provided comment on horrific cases that required extensive research on my part.

Story Gathering
My daily rounds of the organization could take hours. I usually began by touring one of the largest and most advanced veterinary hospitals in the world. During my time there, the nonprofit employed nearly 100 veterinarians in specialties including surgery, neurology, pain management, ophthalmology, and gene therapy. This team treated more than 50,000 animals annually and I spent most of my time in the Emergency Room looking for “miracle cases” of recovery.

I was an embedded reporter clicking away on my digital camera and scribbling notes. I interviewed colleagues, probing further than a member of the media would be allowed because of our shared mission. These Q&A’s helped me understand as much about the medicine as the people in the white coats. Every day was a study on human behavior.

About one third of the building housed an adoption center. When I came aboard in 2006, the MSPCA operated seven adoption centers, four after the recession hit in 2008. We also lost 2 hospitals when $11M+ of our endowment vanished. The human casualties were the hardest to bear.

Walking by the cages and kennels I viewed the animals in our care, searching for a story as strongly as they sniffed out a new home. I swung by the morgue, a smell I never got used to, as I made my way to the stairs and up to the fourth floor where I caught up with the head of our Advocacy department. After discussing legislation I crossed the hallway to the Law Enforcement offices.

The Officers
The structure of the MSPCA provided direct contact with animals that survived abuse and those unfortunate souls who died through neglect or extreme brutality. The nonprofit employed a handful of specially trained state police officers, charged solely with investigating allegations of animal cruelty. When describing them to the media I frequently mentioned that they were armed officers to ensure that it was understood that these were not dogcatchers.

Each year these officers would investigate nearly 3,000 allegations of animal cruelty and inspect tens of thousands of animals. It’s important to note that that these figures were only for our officers and did not include the many cases that were investigated by local and state law enforcement as well.

Inside I would chat with the dispatcher, one of any number of officers traveling through Boston or visiting the city for a court date, the affable Deputy Director, and eventually the Director. We would make small talk before winding our way to the cases that were under investigation. To gain a better perspective on the crimes being discussed I would view photos, video, and statements. This was necessary given the bombardment of questions that made their way from the newsrooms to my desk.

Perspective and Fatigue
Over the years I went out on some calls, helped rescue a few of the abused, participated in necropsies, viewed countless depictions of violence towards animals, and met the survivors, human and animal. In all I spent more than five years watching over a constant flow of graphic animal cruelty.

I frequently recounted one story to the press involving a dog and a chainsaw. That one wasn’t even that bad but it got the point across. Neglect was the most difficult to convey unless you had pictures. The barbarity of withholding care or nourishment, among other necessities, degraded one’s spirit. The cruelty was in the time it took to turn a healthy dog into skin and bones or to allow a cat’s sores to fester until maggots made homes under the fur.

From the many stories that stay with me I was most horrified by a German Shepherd whose “elbows” had been allowed to deteriorate. The bones pushed through the skin due to lack of muscle and time spent on a hard floor. When we hoisted the poor dog from our refrigeration unit for examination and opened the body bag, the exposed joints were as white and dry as a turkey carcass forgotten after a Thanksgiving meal.

Your perspective changes when you deal with severe cruelty on a regular basis. In our orientation we were told about compassion fatigue. We were told that we would either burn out in two years or become “lifers”. A friend once told me that many of us were emotionally spent after the first few weeks and only toughed it out given our empathy for the animals. You learn that empathy is a double-edged sword fairly quickly.

The Study
Members of the press possessed private notions of animal cruelty, commonly fueled by Hollywood’s depiction of serial killers with a penchant for torturing animals from a young age. The more severe cases that went public invited speculation of having stopped future Dahmers or Bundys. That’s when I started promoting the study.

The study had not been featured in the press for years so I dusted it off and gave it a read. It was extensive to say the least. The MSPCA partnered with Northeastern University to review the records of more than 80,000 animal cruelty complaints between 1975 and 1996. The cases focused mainly on men (97%) and individuals mainly under the age of 30 (56%).

“Beating, shooting, and stabbing were the most common methods of abuse. Adolescents were almost twice as likely as adults to beat their animal victims, and adults were almost twice as likely as adolescents to shoot animals.”

These statistics could catch he odd headline but I was after more. I needed to understand why people did what they did.

Two researchers searched for answers amongst the aftermath of violence. They interviewed inmates at federal penitentiaries and battered women in a shelter but left no closer to their goal. The question remained: What is the relationship between animal abuse and violence towards humans? The study soon focused on individuals convicted for acts of animal cruelty.

“The criminal records of 153 individuals prosecuted by the MSPCA between 1975 and 1986 for intentional physical cruelty to animals were tracked for 20 years – 10 years before the abuse and 10 years after. A control group was established of ‘next door neighbors,’ people of identical gender and age who lived in the same neighborhood at the same time as the abusers. The criminal history of control group members was compiled for the same 20-year time period.”

The results were staggering and changed the way we looked at the relationship between animal cruelty and violence against humans.

“Seventy percent of the people who committed violent crimes against animals also had criminal records for violent, property, drug, or disorder crimes. When compared to their next-door neighbors, people who abused animals were five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people, four times more likely to commit property crimes, and three times more likely to have a record for drug or disorderly conduct offenses.”

The findings also challenged a longstanding belief that animal cruelty was a gateway to committing human violence. The study stated:

“The hypothesis that people first commit acts of cruelty to animals and then ‘graduate’ to crimes against people was not supported by the findings of this study. More than half (59%) of the 106 animal abusers who committed other crimes committed those crimes prior to the animal offense.”

It was now clear that the flow of violence towards animals or other humans starts with either classification of victim. Years later I discovered that this was still news to the press while the animal welfare world also remained skeptical of the findings.

These were hard facts for many to swallow. They showed a disconnect with empathy that allowed humans to treat the lives of animals and people as the same. Therefore we pushed for similar laws. If the abusers would not distinguish in their acts then why should the courts?

Over the years, my colleagues strengthened the animal cruelty laws although they still remain weak in the eyes of many advocates. It is a difficult case to make when you look at the victims, weighing animal life against those of humans. This is a mistake and misses the point of the findings. The commonality lies in the abuser and behavior that allows an individual to harm animals as easily as humans.

As the study concludes:

“…this research should serve as a wake-up call for parents, teachers, social service providers, law enforcement, the judiciary, veterinarians—indeed, for all of us—that cruelty to animals is a warning sign that deserves our attention and demands intervention.”


Emaciated Pit Bull puppies rescued in 2010 / PHOTO by Brian Adams

Read “Cruelty to Animals and Other Crimes” in its entirety. If you wish to make a difference please contact your local animal welfare organization or reach out to your legislative representative.

More information regarding the Pit Bull puppies pictured above can be found here.

Related post: Cheering for Vick

Try Making Better Videos

If you are in communications then you have made at least a few videos in your career. When producing you should not let funds and time constraints limit your vision. Creativity can be your most valuable resource. Check out this video to see how a unique perspective can be completely enthralling.

Working with animals taught me…

Milo may be pooping...

Milo may be pooping…

If you work in any profession long enough you will learn trade secrets. Over the years I picked up a host of these gems including: why reporters should always carry a pencil (ink clots in cold weather), when to question your publisher (always) and his wife (never), how to proofread for spelling errors (backwards works great), and how to write on deadline (you just do it).

Some of the best lessons I ever learned came from my time working with animals at the Massachusetts SPCA. So if you’ve ever wondered how to take a perfect profile shot of your dog, here is your answer and several more lessons learned the hard way:

“Portraits take time…and bowels.”
An untrained dog’s best profile photograph is taken when he is relieving himself…he is both happy and immovable.

“Quiet lasts until it is needed.”
If you go live with CNN in ten seconds the cat in your lap will become completely erratic in five seconds.

“Being shy never got anyone on TV.”
Humping a leg on live television is the best way to show viewers that you still got it.

“Secrets never stay secret.” or “Everything comes out in the end.”
A surgeon once pulled a pair of ladies underwear from a dog only to have the owner’s wife say they weren’t hers.

“Never use your hands when you can get a net.”
Catching feral cats is like snatching popcorn from the air with chopsticks.

“Cute only goes so far.”
The smallest bodies may produce the softest purrs or house those irresistible puppy dog eyes but they also produce the most noxious gases, shed the oddest colored excretions, and generally gnaw on your hands with the sharpest teeth.

“Inedible means that something shouldn’t be eaten, not that it can’t.”
Dogs will swallow anything from gravel by the pound to entire rubber ducks (2). I have the X-rays to prove it.

Is Your Study Too Self Serving?

Show me someone pushing a study and I will show you a salesman. We’ve all done it and will continue to do it since studies help position our organizations as thought leaders. They justify our mission while highlighting the importance of our products and the expertise that we offer. Studies set us apart from competitors however they can also harm our brand if we do not present them carefully.

Take for instance the PR Newswire study making the rounds among publicists this week. The study shows that multimedia press releases are viewed up to 9.7 times more often than text-only versions of the same information. This appears to be a solid study at first blush since PR Newswire has a vast pool of press releases to sample (100,000 in this case). However, how useful is this information to its intended audience?

The importance of content creation in public relations is an established practice. PR professionals should, at the very least, know the basics when it comes to photography, shooting and editing video, and posting downloadable documents. They should also be well versed in the multitude of sites for sharing this content with supporters, the media, investors, and internal staff members.

So why is PR Newswire releasing a study, for the second year in a row, reinforcing a practice that has been accepted for years? The answer lies in the quick link to the company’s sales team, centered on the bottom third of the landing page featuring the study. Its purpose appears to be to snatch up any and all PR types who have yet to realize the importance of sharing multimedia content. This lack of knowledge will cost them and PR Newswire is happy to accommodate the transaction.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no quarrel with PR Newswire using a study as a sales tactic. In the past I have created and publicized dozens of studies from the playful (most popular pet names) to the more thought provoking (impact of returning soldiers on the regional economy) to increase donations and mission support. My opposition to this study is in its execution. For one, the study does not teach its audience something new other than attaching figures to firmly held beliefs. Secondly, as a tool for the sales team it is incredibly transparent.

So how could PR Newswire have done better? I usually suggest studying a trend several steps removed from the sale of their product. I think that in this case they were only one step away. As an example, this could be the thought process:

How do we sell more multimedia press releases?
How popular are multimedia press releases?
Which media sells best to our clients’ audiences?
Within the most popular releases, which subject sells best and why?

By following this thought process, PR Newswire could have scrapped the study of a widely accepted premise and drilled down a bit more. Maybe they could have discovered that among shared videos those showing the CEO behind a desk did far worse than other settings or highlight the specific subjects within photos that are viewed most.

Regardless of what could have been, the hard sell may work in an industry where quick fixes can be more popular than sustained results. After all, they did produce a pretty nifty infographic.

Further reading on reasons why nonprofits may want to consider ditching newswires.

Stop the Depression Cycle: 5 Tips to Help Nonprofits Share Good News

“Hopefully we will put ourselves out of work.”

This is a common phrase in the nonprofit world. The gist of it is that the charity’s programs will be so successful that it accomplishes its mission, making itself irrelevant. Given the broad scope of many nonprofits, it is also a goal that never seems possible. That’s not to say that programs can’t make significant headway.

Take for instance this headline from today’s New York Daily News: No One Reported Shot, Stabbed or Slashed in New York City on Monday, Police Sources Say. Straight and to the point, while not exactly frugal with the word count, this headline screams good news.

So what can we learn from the sharing of this story?

Stay Positive
It can be easy to sound like a broken record; prattling on about the horrible state of things to justify your nonprofit’s existence. Dig up some good news, the more unexpected the better.

You better like looking at reports. Comb the data and see where you are making a difference. Did you improve over last year? How about if you compare the data to a few years ago? Find the numbers that support your impact and stop justifying your nonprofit’s existence solely by highlighting the need.

According to the data, where are you making headway? Which programs are most effective? Talk to your colleagues and find out what they tweaked or instituted that created change.

Shout It
Your nonprofit is succeeding so be sure to tell your media contacts, supporters, and staff. Do you have a newsletter? Intranet? Social media footprint? Internal notice boards? Post it everywhere you have an audience.

Follow Up
Now that you shared the horrible stories of the kitten that was cooked in the microwave, the Pit Bull puppy thrown from a building, or the starved miniature horses (trust me, I’ve been there) tell your supporters how your nonprofit helped each situation (maybe by reattaching a cat’s face or restoring sight so a dog can see it’s owner for the first time in two years). Respond to comments on social media and create a space for supporters to visit for regular updates. No one wants to constantly hear from Debbie Downer.

#GivingTuesday: 5 Tips for Giving to the Right Charity

You will probably receive a request to donate to a charity today. It’s part of a charitable movement called #GivingTuesday, the brainchild of New York’s 92nd Street Y to raise funds that rival the spending levels of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The event is also kicking off the giving season and shining a much-needed spotlight on nonprofits that are having a positive impact on our communities.

Since you are a good person (otherwise why would you even click on this post?) you may be tempted to dash off a check and call it a day. While that may help today it is important that your hard earned dollars will help tomorrow as well.

So how do you choose the right charity for you and the funding you can offer?

It can be tough, much like going on a first date. Hopefully these 5 tips that I drafted while working at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley will help ease the process before that awkward good night kiss.

1. Clear Goals
What is the goal of the charity asking for your support? Is it well intentioned but broad or is it focused with a history of meeting set targets? Many charities are well intended however it is important to find out how specific their goals are and their history of effectiveness.

2. Personal Connection
There are many charities doing great work in your community however you only have so much support you can give. One way to focus your options is to find an organization that interests you and that may appeal to your willingness to volunteer. Shared interest can help you feel more connected to their goal and help you advocate for your new cause.

3. No Blind Dates
Before you part with your hard earned dollars, bags of winter clothes or hours of free time it is important to get to know charities. Nonprofits should welcome your questions and provide you with answers so that you can decide if you want to support them. Many nonprofits even have community relations staff members to answer questions from residents. Only donate if you feel comfortable with an organization after you have satisfied your own curiosity.

4. Spend Time Together
Sometimes the best way to find out about a nonprofit is to volunteer (read United Way’s 5 Questions to Ask Yourself before Volunteering). Sharing your time with a charity in need of your skills can allow you to step behind the scenes before making a decision to provide long-term support.

5. Stay Curious
Never stop asking questions. The more informed you are about an issue the more questions you may have. Stay up to date on programmatic changes, new initiatives, key staff turnover and financial judgment.

How do you choose a charity?

A Personal Debt Bailout

The Occupy movement has a side project and it’s all about invisibility. Not Harry Potter style cloaks of invisibility mind you, but rather working behind the scenes to help debtors rub out their markers.

It’s an interesting concept: raise funds and channel them through the debt collection system to erase the financial obligation of everyday citizens.

The new mini-movement, dubbed Rolling Jubilee, was begun by Occupy offshoot Strike Debt. The group held a recent fundraiser headlined by none other than Janeane Garofalo and featured in this article from YES! Magazine. Organizers have stated that the event raised enough funding to cancel an estimated $5.9 million in bad debt.

According to Strike Debt activists, the movement is targeting the purchase of debt tied to health care, housing, and education yet have only been able to buy medical debt so far. Anonymity within the system ensures that individual debtors cannot be targeted since default accounts are sold off in bundles.

The best part of this plan may be the letters the debtors will receive informing them of their cancelled debt.

What are your thoughts? Is this a project long overdue?

6 Reasons to Check Those Facts

An article published this week by The New York Times highlighted the need for fact checking. The story centered on a small Colorado town that was duped into rallying behind a boy who ultimately died of cancer. Unfortunately for all of the well-wishers, the boy never existed.

While it is no small feat to sucker an entire town it is quite another thing to pull the wool over the eyes of the local media. Yes, I know, put all of your jokes about small town news aside for now. I may get offended since that is where I got my start.

The amazing accomplishment, allegedly masterminded by a 22-year-old high school football fan (read the article), is that the only interviews were given by a “family friend” who relayed information from Alex (the dying boy), whose photo was actually that of a real patient pulled from the website of a cancer foundation.

This got me thinking about the importance of fact checking. In my career I exhaustively fact check everything. Some say I go too far however I never want egg on my face or on the brand I represent.

So whether you’re vetting a new partner, prepping annual numbers for internal and external reports, or pulling together bullet points for your CEOs next speech, be sure that you fact check. Here are a few pointers in case you need some convincing to spend extra time reviewing the numbers:

As the editor of more than a few annual reports, I was charged with collecting data from law enforcement officers, medical records, 990 tax forms, financial assistance programs, staff growth, and so forth. Not only did I need to get these numbers right for the report but I also knew that each department would base their collateral for the upcoming year on my findings. Due to the importance of these “foundation” numbers I questioned each piece of data as I pulled it, compared them against previous years for abnormal growth or shrinkage, reviewed material in detail with senior management and program managers, and spent endless hours speaking with my CFOs.

As a spokesperson you need solid numbers. If a statistic is made public prematurely and the press discovers a discrepancy then it’s your job on the line. You never want to need to explain your inability to figure percentages to millions of nightly news viewers.

If you are a decent PR executive then you are not responding to the news as much as you are creating it. A love of numbers, patterns, and statistics is needed. The results can mean that you drive the trends rather than taking the backseat to your competition. However, you can lose all credibility if you have one percentage point wrong or fail to question the source of each report.

Grants (for nonprofits)
Nonprofits thrive on grant funding. The grant writers are the real breadwinners for many organizations and they rely on accurate information to demonstrate the effectiveness of a mission and to justify future funding. Many times they will reach for that annual report to grab a few quick figures and those numbers had better be right.

Word of mouth is key in this social media driven market. You need to supply your supporters with the most recent and accurate information available. Once it is public it will be shared and believed. If you put out questionable data you run the risk of alienating your base and creating an unwanted crisis for your organization.

This probably should not be last on the list since accuracy is crucial to building a trusted brand. A mistake made in one keystroke can undo years of trust building. Double, triple, and quadruple check all information before making it public. Have a review process to ensure accuracy and don’t be afraid to question any information that comes across your desk…it’s your job.

Has your organization ever had to explain away a fact checking mistake?

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