Making Videos for Non-Profits with Volunteers: A Chat with David Phu
In 2011, David and I worked together at South Vancouver Neighbourhood House (SVNH). He was a leader for the Out of School Program and I was in my first of many non-profit jobs leading the Homework Havens Program. At that point, David was planning to write and record music, then go on tour with his band and I was eager to study algae. David did live his musical dreams as I watched his artistic journey via Facebook. I did move to Toronto where I quickly realized that I wanted to work with people, not algae.
A few years ago, David and I connected again through LinkedIn. His posts about nonprofit comms and videomaking always made me think or laugh. I noticed that he is now living in Montreal and offering video consulting services to non-profit clients. We recently caught up through Zoom where we chatted about non-profit work, communications best practices, and volunteer engagement. Now a bit older and a bit wiser, we laughed and laughed about what we’ve learned in the last decade.
Here are a few snippets from that conversation that we’d like to share:
JPP: It’s been over a decade since we last properly chatted. What was your journey from working in Out of School Care for SVNH to starting a non-profit video marketing business?
DP: I started with some freelancing on videos with friends and around the same time, moved to a front desk and communications role at SVNH. Eventually, I went to school for comms- this was sparked by old curiosities, encouraged by SVNH leaders, and aligned with my fascination with media culture.
When I moved to Montreal, I was inspired by my partner and wanted to try comms freelancing. I started doing some graphic design and photography as well as comms planning, assessment, and audits as a freelancer. Out of that experience, video communications became a specialty and I had to unlearn how to do video.
JPP: What do you mean by having to unlearn video? And was this unlearning linked to the non-profit clients you were working with?
DP: I had to unlearn video production traditions. Among non-profits, there is often too much focus on video production quality, and it distracts from the communication goal. I saw missed opportunities and wanted to try to offer nonprofits a barrier-free way of looking at video communication.
This approach aligns with my values of community, clarity, sustainability, and using what you have. When I work with clients, I simplify video projects so there isn’t reliance on a crew, production, and branding. On top of that, my clients learn to work on minimal budgets.
JPP: It sounds a bit like you are promoting that old adage: keep it simple, stupid. At the same time, if I dig a bit deeper, what you are talking about is something that many non-profits are striving to do: demonstrate authenticity.
Do you find it hard to start from a simple and honest place when our culture is so used to videos, even some of the ones on YouTube, looking “slick”?
DP: Take a minute and compare having a video on the organizational website to having a booth at a volunteer fair. You can spend months putting up the booth and trying to make it like a mall or hotel, but that would be misguided.
The goal of the booth is to connect with people and to bring new volunteer prospects to the organization; that’s all we want to happen, nothing more. Similarly, what’s the goal of the video? If it is just to connect for a specific purpose, the overall approach should stay simple.
Most non-profit leaders are unaware of what motivates them to value “slickness”. I like to ask:
“Why do you think this?”
“Where did you get this info?”
“Can you demonstrate any proof that “slickness” is effective?”
I often cite recent research on authentic content- that there is a weak correlation between production quality and effectiveness of communications.
JPP: What is the reaction when you cite that research? And what steps do you take to bring that idea of a “slick” video to something more authentic and effective?
DP: The most common response is resistance or discomfort. I sense they have a deep attachment to “slick”. I can’t know why for sure, but I wonder if it comes from a culture of wanting to imitate what we see: our idols, the shows we watch.
Also, there is the nervousness of being our real selves in public. Many times I’ve asked clients, “Why do you want high-quality videos?” and they’ve said, “I don’t know.”
When that happens, I use deep listening techniques and really dig into what those clients are trying to achieve, the expectations they have, and the timelines they are hoping for. I also ask them to point to examples of videos that they connect with on YouTube, encouraging them to seek examples outside their immediate field and competitors.
JPP: I feel like deep listening never fails as an approach to building relationships or understanding. So, what would you recommend to an organization that wants to engage volunteers to make videos? If they are working with an experienced leader of volunteers, you might be asked: what are the volunteer skills, interests, and experience that we should recruit for?
DP: To be honest, don’t recruit volunteers to make videos unless you can invest the resources into supporting them. Even “easy” videos (e.g. point and shoot a smartphone) can easily get complicated if you have weak communication with volunteers.
Since the pandemic, I have seen three times where organizations wanted to use videos to raise their online presence. They asked volunteers to do it, and even with instructions the projects would fizzle out. I’m not certain yet, but the problems seemed to lie in:
Asking the volunteers to manage too many moving parts (apps, templates, file management, etc.)
And, the volunteer not having previous experience in capturing moments on camera (a tricky skill to teach and learn)
My advice is to target skills-based volunteers who are film students or video professionals in your recruitment plan. Two places you can start are film school programs who have students seeking grad projects, and local marketing and video agencies that ask non-profits to submit applications for pro bono projects.
Another type of volunteer engagement that would work around videos is something much more casual like a “day in the life” project with existing volunteers. These volunteers would need to be proficient with smartphones and TikTok or Instagram. If the volunteers prefer not to use TikTok or Instagram, Canva offers easy video editing tools, too.
JPP: What you are describing around engaging volunteers to do work and not getting the ROI expected, Sue Carter Kahl outlines it in her blog so perfectly: We Get Out of Voluunter Engagement What We Put Into It.
What about cases where volunteers support the videos as the “talent”? For example, speaking about their experiences, introducing a program or benefit of the organization, or demonstrating a scenario. Could we give them some job aids and tips? Maybe even a script?
DP: It’s possible but important to set boundaries with volunteers (e.g. how long to speak for, what the general “vibe” should be, where to look, info on dress and grooming, outline of key messages). At the same time, the boundaries and instructions have to be from someone who is used to giving instructions to volunteers (e.g. the communications staff leading the project may want to collaborate with the leader of volunteers).
Also, volunteers and staff involved in video creation should know upfront that they are not expected to make a Marvel movie: reality is okay, mediocrity is okay.
JPP: As we wrap up, I want to share something that drives me a bit bonkers. There’s advice going around the internet and non-profit circles that encourages using social media to promote all volunteer roles. This is not always appropriate because the target audience may not be on social media, or the role should not be publicized to a mass audience (e.g. it is a role that can only be performed by a person with lived experience). Since video and social media are very linked, when might it be inappropriate to use video marketing for volunteer engagement?
DP: Sometimes posting information publicly is inappropriate but there are other mediums you can use to send messages out. You can use existing organizational platforms like private Facebook and WhatsApp groups, to share videos with specific groups. You can make videos specifically for agency partners that don’t need to be posted publicly.
Some other tips for ethical storytelling include:
Redefining informed consent to answer “does the person we are filming fully understand the possibilities of being in this video and what those possibilities could be?”
Understanding that digital repercussions are hard to trace and consequences of videos shared over the internet cannot always be clearly defined
Not putting the onus on the subject to understand the waiver they are signing; be willing to explain it to them
Discarding anything that resembles saviorisim: inaccurate, inequitable narratives that misrepresent power
Discarding anything that devalues or belittles the subject, casts an unreasonable shadow, or magnifies a negative shadow
JPP: Wow. I need to learn more about ethical storytelling. Thank you for making me aware of this learning journey that I should start on.
What encouraged me to reach out to you in the first place is the daily tips that you share! Which of your tips would you recommend for leaders of volunteers to check out?
DP: In this video, we talk about an awesome recruiting video my friend made using only Zoom, and the benefits it had on the recruitment process. In this post, I talk about the benefit of video to help new people feel comfortable and confident before coming to your organization. In this post, I talk about how videos can save time (e.g. when training digital volunteers).
JPP: Thanks David. It was awesome to catch up and see the work you are doing these days. I hope we can connect again soon.
Where can folks find you online?