Whether you are a fundraiser, social media manager, or freelance writer or graphic designer on a communications team, if you're sharing or creating content for a nonprofit organization, you're always looking for the next great story to share. Yet it often seems to be a struggle in many organizations to get great stories (and images!) to share with your supporters.
People forgot to take photos. They ran out of time because they are doing the job of three people. Someone took videos, but they're poor quality. You know there must be lots of wonderful anecdotes, but your coworkers can't remember the details of what happened six months ago. The summer intern collected testimonials from program participants but now it's February and nobody has any idea where the files are.
Any of these situations sound familiar?
Most of these situations boil down to:
1. A lack of capacity
2. Lack of understanding (of each other's roles or work)
3. Lack of clarity (or concern about) the narrative
4. Failure to treat one another as partners working towards a common goal.
Before you get defensive (about yourself, your team, your lack of resources), remember that the problem is often as much perception as it is about the true state of anything:
When you tell stories, does it matter what story you told or what story your audience heard?
Any effective collaboration is a two-way street. With that in mind, here are three strategies to help you capture images and stories so that you can create compelling content to share with your supporters.
1. Be a partner, not a customer.
How many of us ask our colleagues for things that are presumably their jobs to do, or that we think they are best positioned to do, without sharing our goals? And how often do we get a less than pleased response, even if we get what we want?
When we're paying someone for their time, we're often very conscious of how we're using those billable hours. Do our colleagues deserve any different?
No. And that is often a big source of tension between different teams within an organization. Each of us has a bevy of demands for our time and a large chorus of stakeholders with various requests. It's not any different for our colleagues simply because we're not aware of who else has asked them for their help this week.
And while we might think to share our overall vision or project plan with a freelance videography team, we often take it for granted that our colleagues don't need this information. They work here, right? Although, I suppose they're not necessarily part of all of those meetings about our digital fundraising strategy and they're probably thinking in terms of an entirely different type of benchmark and....
You see where I'm going?
It is so much easier to team up and create the content you envision based on the opportunities afforded by regular program operations than to go shopping for it the week before Giving Tuesday. If we are planning out our editorial calendars, the least we can do is share it.
Let them in. Ask what questions or concerns or they have, if any, about the work you do and how it fits into the mission. Share your strategic goals and upcoming projects. Show examples of good, usable photos or testimonials to plant the seeds.
But more importantly, ask your colleagues to let you in.
Ask them to explain how to run the program as if you were a new program team member. Ask if you can join their team meetings or attend a program to observe. Ask what they wish others knew about the people they work with and/or what it takes to do the work they do.
If development and communications are distinct teams at your organization, make sure the other team is included, too.
2. Don't be ready. Be intentional
Professional photographers take hundreds of frames to get a few great action shots. Did they need to prepare by having their equipment ready or practicing their skills? Of course. But preparation alone won't cut it. You have to be in the right place in the right time. And that requires being intentional. We see what we're looking for.
What does this mean if you are not a professional photographer? This can mean creating a shot list. A shot list is a list of images or footage you want to make sure you get--you check it off as you capture it. Maybe you're looking for smiling faces, action shots, or to include the sponsor logos printed on the t-shirts in the event photos. Don't be afraid to ask people to pose if needed!
Maybe you don't need photos of specific things, but you need photos for different channels or formats. Think annual report cover vs. Instagram vs. website banner. Do you need horizontal photos? Vertical photos? Photos that are easy to crop or that have some blank space for you to overlay text? (Here are some quick and simple photography tips for nonprofits.)
Tip: Know the narrative you're telling and frame accordingly.
Storytelling is not simply regurgitating the images and stories you've been told. There is an editorial component in how you tell the story, in choosing which stories are told, and in how you frame the narrative. Although you may be telling a story to compel people towards action, storytelling is also an opportunity to advance your mission.
Tip #2: You'll always want to be aware of any guidelines or policies around sharing images and personally identifiable information.
Your organization may have some policies, or there might be regulations you must comply with (e.g. if you work in healthcare or with foster youth, with military personnel, et al.). Even if not, consider whether you'll need to create guidelines to ensure images and stories of the people you serve are shared responsibly.
Remember that bit about the two-way street? Well, that's not the whole picture.
Think back to when you were a kid and the grown-ups in your life would discuss what was best for you and debate them as if you weren't even there, as if you had no say when it was your life that you had to live. Be the cool adult who remembers the real people whose lives are impacted by the work you do and whose stories you have been entrusted to share. Even if all that's within sight is one photographer's image of them at one point in time. Get input from program staff as well as community members or program participants.
Tip #3: Be ready with a clear picture of what good content looks like.
Maybe your organization has a style guide, or maybe not. While it may seem like a lot of work, having a style guide makes it easier to delegate and stay on brand and on message without requiring one person to review everything. Up your game (and your ability to delegate) by making sure everybody on the team can easily understand how to achieve that outcome, like Family Planning Voices did when they created this great Storytelling Toolkit for their partners.
3. Always be capturing
Know when opportunities are happening. If you can't be there, e-mail coworkers after events for any anecdotes. Or you can have them review pictures with you to give you context while it is still fresh on their minds.
Remember to capture behind the scenes stories, too! Maybe your team has daily check-ins to discuss kids in the program who might need special attention. Maybe your intake counselors are bilingual. These are great ways to show supporters why they should support your organization.
With so much content, it is critical to stay organized. This is especially true if development and communications are distinct teams.
Have a centralized location where everyone saves images or impact stories. Make it a practice to do this regularly (or automate uploading, such as with Dropbox or a similar app) so photos aren't sitting on someone's phone. If the process is to take photos of thank you notes from program participants and save them in a particular folder, then everyone should know this. If you have a high volume of photos or videos, you may wish to look into a digital asset management system, but this could be as simple as a shared drive with file naming conventions so that people can actually find content when they need it.
Speaking of organization, make it less overwhelming and pull aside content for specific purposes (e.g. year-end appeal) as you get it rather than trying to look through a year's worth of content at once. As you publish, add to your content wish list for the next time opportunity arises and/or to share with your colleagues so they can keep an eye out.
Be a partner. Be intentional. And always be capturing.
Regardless of your organization's size or budget, you can invest the time and energy into applying these strategies to capture compelling stories and keep the pipeline of great content flowing!