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Choosing A Nonprofit Video Subject: 6 Important Criteria

Choosing a Nonprofit Video Subject: 6 Important Criteria


By Doug Gritzmacher

Denver Video Production

By now you know that videos are a highly effective method for promoting your nonprofit organization or international development agency’s message. But not any old video will do that. We have seen that audiences engage only when the quality of the video is high. The foundation of a quality nonprofit video is built upon the people the video focuses on, especially your primary subject. Choose wisely and you’ve got a big asset for your fundraising efforts. Choose poorly and you’ve got a video that is dead on arrival. When it comes to the latter, no matter how stellar the other elements of the video might be — graphics, cinematography, music — nothing is going to help overcome a weak subject.

Our Denver video production company completed a international development video production for USAID, a government international development agency. The focus of this video production is one of the most effective primary subjects we have had the pleasure of working with. And it got us thinking about this very important aspect of the video production process.

The goal of the USAID video was to show how its efforts to connect shea butter processors in Ghana to the global marketplace has benefited and improved the quality of life of the processors, who are all women living in a patriarchal society. Since the video needed to be under three minutes, we suggested to USAID that a focus on one person would be the most effective storytelling method for the video. They agreed and tapped their staff in Africa to do an advance scout and come back with options for a subject.

During a conference call a few weeks later we got the report. They had found four different woman who they thought might be a good fit. The third option was a woman named Rita. She was a leader among the women, spoke English, was engaging, and had seen major transformations her life thanks to the shea butter processing networks she helped set up. In short, she had everything we were looking for. She agreed to work with us and we moved forward with the project.

Rita Damsworth directs women at her shea butter processing center in Africa

On the ground in Ghana we had the chance to meet her in person and she proved to be everything described and more. She was especially patient in working with our video production crew. For anyone who has ever done it, this is not easy. Film crews are not cheap, so we try to pack as much into a shooting day as we can to keep costs within budget. This means subjects must be willing to bend or set aside their own schedules to meet the demands of the video production crew. They must be willing to be vulnerable, talk about their dreams and fears, and open up their houses to strangers. And in some cases they must be willing to both change outfits mid-day or wear the same set of clothes for multiple days to meet the continuity requirements of the story.

Like I said, it is asking a lot and Rita was game for it all.

Using Rita a prime example, we can compile a checklist of qualities to look for when selecting a focus for your video production.


1) Language

Audiences engage best with videos in their own language. Subtitles are sometimes necessary, but they turn off many viewers and are best avoided. Look for subjects that speak the language of your intended audience.

2) Place in the hierarchy

Like Rita, leaders are often effective subjects for video productions because they are both inspirational and aspirational. They can help fill out your story with both the big picture and the small details. And they have had a significant impact on others. This shows the ripple effect of your nonprofit organization’s efforts. Every woman Rita hires to work at her processing centers benefits from USAID’s support.

3) Life transformation

The mission of many nonprofits is helping to transform lives. It’s crucial that the subject of your video production has seen their life transform directly from your organization’s efforts. For Rita, she went from cooking on her porch and using a public toilet to owning a house of her own with a full kitchen and bath. She would not have been able to do this without the help of USAID.

4) Patience

Are they comfortable adjusting their schedule to work with a video production crew? They can have all of the qualities above but if they are reluctant to bend their schedules nothing else will matter. Rita set her schedule aside for three days and was game for working with wherever and whenever we needed.

5) Open

Filmmaking for us entails more than just working with cameras and lights. It includes the important ability to establish trust with our subjects. Most people are not willing to open up their lives in front of a video production crew.  Establishing a personal connection with them on the outset will allow many subjects to feel better opening up and often times forget the camera is in the room. But that is not true of all so it is important to first get a feel for how comfortable the potential subject would be talking about themselves and their lives on camera.

6) Personality

Meaning, they have to have one. You know it when you see it. Often, it may be hidden (see #5 above). But this is where your skills as a director can help. Sometimes it takes just asking the right questions in the right away for your subject to come alive. This happened often with Rita. Although she was fairly open with us, her personality really shined with certain questions.

It takes a lot to be an effective subject focus for a video. But since the success of your video is will only be as good as your subject, it makes sense that your focus should be a special person. It is important to keep in mind that it is extraordinary, not ordinary, people who inspire viewers.

See how we have applied these important lessons to our nonprofit video productions.

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