Description image

How to Make a Video for Non-Profits: 34 Tips and Examples to Help You Create Better Films

02.21.13 @ 7:37PM Tags : , ,

Many of you reading this site might want to work in feature films at some point, and even if you have, that doesn’t mean it’s the only creative game in town. There is plenty of work out there in the form of non-profit videos, many of which can be rewarding personally (of course, you may also only be interested working in the realm of non-fiction). While it might look like making a documentary on the surface, there are plenty of key differences between the two forms. Sebastian Lindstrom, from What Took You So Long?, sent over this video that takes you inside the non-profit video, and gives some pointers and examples to help you make the best film possible.

I think one of the best lessons is not using too much voiceover. Just as in dramatic filmmaking, too much voiceover can overshadow the story you’re trying to tell. Letting the interviews do the work of voiceover can be much, much more powerful. Having a sort of omniscient voice constantly hovering over almost every frame of video can get tedious, but letting the real emotions of the story shine through can be much more effective.

If you do choose not to use voiceover much (or not at all), one of the things I have found is that you need to have a pretty specific idea of what it will look like and sound like before you go in. While you certainly will be improvising questions based on answers, you’re not going to be able to tell the best story if all of the elements aren’t there, so there are specific answers that you’ll want to be looking for to construct the best narrative.

I know in my own work I have found some things that work better than others, but I usually find that some of the more candid moments and most realistic reactions tend to happen when the interviewee is talking about something totally unrelated to the topic. You’re bound to come across those who are nervous on camera, so getting these “real” or candid moments can help provide just a little more humanity and help the audience connect with that person more even if they were nervous while answering your questions.

You can check out some of the videos from What Took You So Long? below:

For those of you who work in non-profit videos, what would you add to the advice above?



We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 39 COMMENTS

  • Joe,

    This is great on how to shoot the videos but HOW does someone like myself get involved with videos like this? I want to push myself as a filmmaker so any little tips will do. Do you just find non-profit and see what they are about? (I’m speaking in general as there might be some one afraid to ask these questions).

    • Many of these kinds of opportunities come from referrals. But there are still others that post these online, like on Craigslist and other job websites. It’s a bit of a catch 22, but networking is the best way to find these gigs.

    • Hey Ty
      Good question, I was asking the same about 6 months ago, because I wanted to be involved in a project. What I did was just look at the different organisations. I found one in Cambodia and asked what projects they were involved in and found out that they could use a promotional video for their website. I then decided to go and have just arrived 2 days ago from being in Cambodia for 2 months filming. I now have a network of other volunteer organisations and I have gained so much. It is a great feeling to help others and at the same time gain so much from it personally. I am no professional film maker, but it did help me understand a lot of the different aspects of filming and pushing yourself and your gear to the limit. I used a canon 550d, so very basic.

      So in my opinion, just google different countries and organisations. Find one that speaks to you and just write to the organisation. The way I found my organisation was looking at old CNN Hero awards, because in that way you know these organisations are legit and really do a difference.

      The film that I made is on vimeo and video was shown to a galla in Florida for 600 people, which helped raise 450.000 dollars. Not saying the video raised that money, but I hope it did make a impact.

      Sorry for the long post, but hopefully you can use some of the information, other than that you are more than welcome to contact me.

    • Perhaps look for small charities or non-profit companies in your area? There really are lots of small organisations (perhaps just involving a few volunteers) who would love publicity films. Everything is happening with such minimal resources, there won’t be a budget. But this can work in your favour if you need to avoid the pressure/expectation of a professional job while you learn skills.

    • Hey Ty,

      its actually not so much a catch 22. I specialize in non profits for 95% of my work. The main thing to start is to find a super niche. Don’t think right now working with Greenpeace or World Hunger Foundation. Keep your eyes open around you. Are you in a church? Ask the pastor if you could do their fundraising video. Make it so excellent that everybody is talking about it and refers you to other clients. Start super small and work yourself up. I found an amazing niche and from working for five years I started to get to make a paid 30 min. film. I also got some cool commercial work lately. Find me on google and connect with me. I will be soon releasing a product that walks through it step by step.

      Good luck.

    • I cook for an outreach program at a church hall. I do no belong to this church, but cook because the need is there. My point is that most small or needy programs are in the church circle.

      You don’t have to belong, you just have to ”ask” if they need help to promote their cause.

      Most people shy away from this because many charities produce ”poverty porn” and people are tired of looking at it. Find something in which you’re interested and find a way/idea/story to ask if audience want to help.

      No guilt, no pressure, but understand the problem exists. If you want or expect the government to solve the problem, just look in the mirror and see the government.

      If not me, then who?
      If not now, then when?

      Good luck with your search…….it,s just around the corner.



    • What are some topics/issues you care about? See if there is an organization in your area that deals with those issues and approach them to offer your services. A couple of things to keep in mind. They will most likely not be able to pay you much, if at all. There might not even be a budget for stock footage or music. Perhaps people in the org will have talents they can contribute. Second, they may have not even thought about doing a video for their non-profit so they won’t even know what they want/need. So you will have to coax it out by asking a lot of questions. You see if orgs here could use your talents.

  • How do you keep from getting burned? In my experience, many of the people who do this non-profit stuff, have no appreciation for the fact that you need to be paid in some fashion for your work, when they eventually get a grant from your efforts.

    • I have done some work for non-profits in the past and this (sadly) was exactly my experience, not only did my efforts seem to be largely ignored, it took them almost a year to even put the result up on their website and there were no attempts made on efficiently sharing it or at least using it in some way. I truly did it out of charity and did not expect any rewards, but I guess I did expect some exposure at the very least but had to learn that very often people need to pay for something in order to appreciate it. Living in Africa has also taught me to be very careful about some non profits too… I know this sounds bad but sometimes even honest help does not really help. Nevertheless my experience should not discourage others and could be an isolated case…

      • Well, doing work for free is different than making a video for a non-profit. Non-profits aren’t necessarily charities, but even if they are, that doesn’t mean they aren’t ever expected to pay for services. Even plenty of charities have budgets for promotional work.

        I’ve never done free work for a non-profit, only paid work when they had a budget for the video. There may be certain cases where you might want to do some free work for a non-profit (possibly a favor or for someone you know), but non-profits pay their administrative staff, so why shouldn’t you, who are providing a valuable service, also get paid?

        • True, and yes maybe I slightly missed the point here. I guess I personally learned never to do anything for free, regardless for who, what in the end has nothing in common with working for non-profits.
          That said I’d like to take this chance and thank you for all the great content and your work on this site!

      • Thanks for sharing.

        This is similar to my experience as well. I was working for free for a smaller non-proit that was in a partnership with another very well known non-profit. Unfortunately, I realized too late that the participants act like they are in separate worlds despite the fact that they are working on the same project. You live and learn I guess.

      • I work for the catholic church as a cameraman and editor and my experience is that most people just don’t see how much skill and effort it takes to make a good film.
        The chief editor and I produce perfectly a-grade tv documentaries but we always struggle with some people in the organisation who think anybody could do the same job, and they don’t understand why we need certain expensive equipment and a lot of time (well, not a lot of time in our terms, in their terms…)

        I think people are spoilt by television and movies: they show perfectly good movies and documentaries all the time, and it all seems so effortless and everybody is so used to the highest quality of filmmaking, that they just can’t see how much skill and time and money is needed to make something like it.

  • I filmed “re-cap” video for a non-profit social event last week. It wasn’t really as gratifying as I thought it would be. I’m more interested in doing a 5-7 minute piece. The organization doesn’t have a budget, but I feel it would be good for my resume. I want to do 4 per year, (1 each quarter) you know, kinda like giving back. Thanks for this post Joe because the “formula” really helps manage the shooting & editing time.

  • Ive done heaps of films for social justice and environmental groups over the years. Basically every time I never get paid or even get support for equipment costs.

    As I believe in the issues, which is why I do it. I want to make films about important issues, so I will do them for free, since I enjoy making films about issues that engage me. Doing it for free does grant more creative freedom and a chance to try different things out than if I was doing a film for a client.

    Though of course I do need money to live off, which is why I am working full time for a media company/local tv station. Though if I was getting paid to make social justice films full time I would be able to produce higher quality work, as opposed to rushing something out amongst doing paid work.

    I do think many non-profits and the like take good media work for granted, if you weren’t there to do it, they would probably just put some photos on their website taken off a phone at one of their events.

    Also good post :) this is the kind of thing I find useful and engaging.

    Now I just need to find a camel for the next film I make….

  • on 02.22.13 @ 10:11AM

    As an adjunct to this, you might consider taking a look at what Megan Sweeney is doing with video and tech startups. Yes, granted, the videos aren’t for non-profits, but it’s a refreshing approach.

  • I have done a good amount of work for non-profits. I have kept from getting burned by doing a few things. 1. I know the organizations and believe in what they do. By working with people I know, or friends of friends, I can feel safe knowing my work and time will be appreciated. 2. I work on the budget with the client. I respect my work and my time but I also like to help. I rarely do free work but I do give deep discounts to non-profs. I try to find middle ground with them. 3. If there isn’t a budget, treat it like a short or doc and get funding. Right now I am working on a project for a group that does’t have the founds to pay, so we met with the organizations biggest supporters and pitched the documentary to them like we would any other founding source. They then donate to the group and the founds are used to produce a video.

    • ^ THIS

      Working for NGOs can be incredibly fulfilling, but in you either need to trust how they’re going to use the video or they need to have some skin in the game ($). Their staff are usually overworked and underpaid too, so a video that didn’t cost them anything won’t typically get as much attention/effort/promotion as a video which they paid something for.

    • Thanks for this. I will keep it in mind for the future.

  • Yeah, non-profit doesn’t mean no money. The NFL itself is actually a non-profit.

    • I think the catholic church is a non-profit organisation (they should be, right?) and I have a full-time job as a cameraman and editor there. So for me it is pretty much the opposite of “no money” ;)

  • I’d reiterate what JR said. If you want to get into the NGO world just do not expect anything you are used to from the commercial side and don’t if you don’t have a heart for people or the cause. It is not the place to be to make money.

    That having been said, you can have some of the most incredible life experiences and contribue to things and causes far greater than just a personal career. Just be sure to have that mindset.

  • Sorry I had to bring up the race issue. You say don’t sell poverty, but you struggle to show any positive thing in any part of Africa or the black countries. I mean, part of this video are in Kenya, but no wide shot of Nairobi or Mombasa, instead we get a generous dose of Liberia (which u sarcastically call beautiful), Haiti and Somalia, some of the worst cases in the world. Poverty sells for film makers, and I’m sorry but it’s not any different for this film maker either. I guess perhaps this is all the west is willing to see or pay for from Africa, so maybe it’s not your fault..

    • Sorry, I am trying to wrap my head around your comment but can’t really make sense of it, first of all the race thing; people in Liberia and Somalia and most people in Haiti are Africans just like in Kenya, or are you trying to say it is racist to show the poverty in Africa in general? What impact would you achieve by showing wide shots on Nairobi and Mombasa? The architecture is for sure not going to be the highlight and the chaos on the streets will look like most other third world countries to any westerner watching, plus the non existence of these type of shots may have something to do with the fact that as soon as a muzungu pulls out a camera, any Kenyan randomly walking into the frame is expecting to get paid for having his or her picture taken… But maybe you are right, maybe the view rich Kenyans should be portrayed driving their porsche cayenne through Nairobi, this would help explain why the country is on 143 of 185 of the human development index. Don’t get me wrong, I am deeply against constantly selling the negative aspects in Africa, especially because they stop the economic development with the negative image attached to the entire continent (its as if someone gets killed in Tijuana, tourism drops in Florida because it is in ‘America’), but as far as those videos go, they would look a lot (and I mean really a lot!) worse if they were focused on selling poverty, and I can’t really think of a better way for a NGO to convey their message

      • I didn’t say you should show only posh buildings in Nairobi, I detest how most foreign filmmakers land in Africa and straight head to the sorriest views that they can get, however far out of the way those stories are. You clearly could balance by showing promising and positive stories too (which does not necessarily mean Porsche Cayennes as your sarcasm continues to ooze ). There are culturally rich contexts that could be covered. There are growing economies there too (while most of the world is stagnating), many ‘phoenix rising out of the ash’ stories, stock exchanges that are starting to tick, industries that are up and running, tech parks being set up in Africa (Yes, even a city set to be an IT hub with Google, Oracle and MS already showing interest). Of course you will come back with more sarcasm to shut those down because I guess, the people on the streets made you pay to shoot them so this is the payback you give them, I’m sorry, that is pathetic. I have a niece learning documentary film making in high school on basic film making equipment (yes I know you’re shocked they teach that in Africa) , maybe they are our only hope, till then we have to contend with your ilk representing your skewed story to the world.

        • I respect your opinion, the reason I posted my comment above was because I couldn’t understand why you were pulling the race card, now I can see you are in fact considering it racist to show poverty in Africa.
          I guess since this article is about videos for NGO’s all we need to make this happen is an NGO that will highlight only the success stories and we will have the perfect scenario (no sarcasm intended).
          And to sum it up, the people on the streets have never made me pay but I have seen it happen to others… and I do not even remotely intend to make videos on poverty, since I am not posting anonymously you can see that what we mostly do is to promote high end real estate and Kenya as a luxury travel destination, slum stories are only harming my business, therefore next time you see one of these detestable white people filming poverty in the streets you can be sure it isn’t me, I wish you all the best.

          • Wish u the best too, didn’t say you’re white, didn’t even know ur white. From your name u could be even Latino or Filipino to the best of my knowledge. I have not said do not show poverty, I have said ‘BALANCE’, read my post above. Only you are talking of whites and ‘wazungus’, not me, I talked of foreign filmmakers, not white. Balance is the key in objective media to the best of my knowledge, but I see u r determined to to portray me as an extremist b’coz I pulled u up, which is fine. I wouldn’t even have commented if you did not talk of avoiding poverty even as you thrived on it. Anyway, let’s bury it, doesn’t seem like either of us will take anything from this conversation.

  • Joe,

    Thanks for this post. They make some great points and I’ve learned how powerful a short film can in changing people’s mind about a country. I am a photographer that began shooting video 2 years ago. I worked for a NGO in Afghanistan last year and produced a short documentary film for them – we’re actually in the middle of crafting a social media campaign to premiere it in a few weeks, but many of the pointers in the short movie here are good reminders.

    I’ve seen some people ask about how to get work like this and in my experience (and this goes for filming for commercial companies too), is that you need to make it happen. Especially with video, I find that I have to educate my clients about the power of film, many times you need to read between the lines and jump on an opportunity that presents itself inside a discussion of a totally unrelated project.

    In the case of “On Wings of Hope”, the documentary telling the story of an NGO that provides air transportation for all the other NGOs there, I solicited the video through a personal relationship and drove the whole production, filming, editing and am now busy with running the release via social media and live events.

    It’s been a lot of fun and I assume that having my first documentary out there, will enable me to get the next one a little easier – since I’ll have something to show my next client.


    • Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, Pascal. I agree it’s a case of getting yourself out there. The work might not be as visible as film production work, but it’s definitely there.

  • Aristeo Valdez on 03.1.13 @ 2:23AM

    I have been working for five years doing this. In my experience, one should not expect to be paid very high doing this work. NGO’s tend to focus more on how to save their budgets, they have to help a lot of people thus saving money is something of a paramount for them. Doing these sorts of videos, you meet incredible people with incredible stories to tell. People who deals with things most of us would instinctively ignore. People who has life experiences that you wouldn’t want for yourself.

    Making these sort of films gives you a feeling of accomplishment. you get a chance to help people and doing it with fulfilling your artistic inclinations.

    If anyone would want to enter, i guess its best to understand first the advocacy of these non-profit organization. And let them be part of the production as much as possible. from planning, writing, editing. By getting them more involved, you can save a lot of money for producing the video. And never expect that they would understand the things you do and why the costs would be unimaginable for them, just take time and explain it to them.

  • Most useful comment here was definitely the ‘feature camels’ one. I’m literally going to insert a camel into every film I do now.

  • Great video and some key messages in there for film making in general. The great thing about making videos with NGOs is that the films have a longer life and broadcast the good .

  • Grant Hillebrand on 03.2.13 @ 8:22AM

    There is a lot of useful info broadly around this topic to be found from the Witness Video Advocacy site:
    It’s aimed at activists looking to get into movie making, not the other way round, and so may be a little more ‘hardcore’ than a general NGO shoot, but has some very interesting ideas to consider in this space.
    The idea of making videos that will make a difference strikes me as worthwhile!

  • When I talk to non-profit organization, who I’m making a promo video for (4-5 minutes), two of the top things that I ask are:
    1- When people see this video, what do you want them to take away with them? What do you want them to understand about what you (non-profit) do? I call it the “Take Away Message.”
    2- Tell me in a nut shell about what you do.

    Based off of these two statements I have interviews of people’s lives that they have helped give short testimonies.

    I have also had someone, from the non-profit, sit down with me (when traveled overseas) while doing some editing on my laptop. Than come home and do the final touches. This has given someone from the non-profit a small understanding of how long it takes. It also helps in giving them a small taste of the final product.

    I understand that this may not work on long documentary style projects.