Free digital storytelling tools for nonprofits

Flickr/mysza831

A little holiday gift for you! A couple of times a year, I dig into the web to find free tools that can help nonprofits tell their stories in ever more engaging ways. Each time I do that, the range of options kind of astounds me. This year is no exception,

Not every nonprofit has the resources to hire videographers or even buy and use a video cam themselves. These online tools offer FREE ways to get dynamic content onto your website, blog, and social media without HAVING to use video. Many of these create mash-ups of just photos, text, graphics, and music.

I’m amazed more nonprofits aren’t using them because they have so many potential communication applications. They offer interactivity and surprise so they attract and hold people’s attention. Plus they’re fun! And remember, the web and social media are about entertainment as much as education.

In past posts I’ve covered some amazing AV tools like Prezi (which still has a free version but charges $59 a year for more capabilities), Glogster, Yodio, and VoiceThread (which now is available at a very low cost). This time I’d like to cover six other storytelling tools–Animoto for a Cause, VuVox, MixBook, SmileBox, ZooBurst, and Masher.

Animoto for a Cause

Nonprofits can get a pro level Animoto account free (worth $249 per year) by applying through Animoto’s nonprofit portal. Animoto is a very simple to use animated slide show producer (photos, text, music, various design templates, all animated automatically) that you can share  through YouTube, Facebook, etc. Really professional looking and the music is terrific. There are many design templates to choose from and a certain amount of branding can be done. I used Animoto last year to produce a nonprofit annual report and it got great response.

VuVox

VuVox allows you to create attractive photo collages with text overlays that advance horizontally at the speed the viewer chooses. Here’s one example and another. You can also include audio and video, although I was unable to find an example of those in their gallery. If you’ve got great photos that tell the story of how someone’s life was changed, this could be your tool. I think VuVox could also lend itself to policy issue framing.

MixBook

Using MixBook, you can make very creative free digital scrapbooks customized with your colors/wordmark etc. and share them online. Page-turning  is animated. (You can also order printed copies, but that costs.) Here’s a generic version of a scrapbook about camping. You can see how easily an environmental group could use this template. But you can also create your own pages from scratch. You can also create digital cards, invitations, and calendars that you can send and share. (I could see creating an event scrapbook with this tool!)

SmileBox

SmileBox covers a lot of territory from creating one-page “newsletters” to photo collages, invitations, ecards, scrapbooks, etc. The animated slideshow option would be great for capturing events. Here’s a sample of a SmileBox slideshow for a cancer fundraiser. This tool is free, but  like most of these programs, there’s a premium level you can buy that gives you many more options. I wouldn’t buy into any of these until you’d used the free version and seen how it works for you.

ZooBurst

ZooBurst lets you create pop-up books with images, photos, and text. The examples here are from young students, but I can see many nonprofit applications for this tool. For instance, if you run an art program for youth, you could create a book where each page is devoted to one student, showing their art work and a couple of photos of them, with a quote from them at the bottom about how your organization has changed their lives. Or you could create a donor thank you book, with quotes and photos of donors and the people their contributions have helped.

Masher

Masher deserves more exploration than I’ve had time to give it. It lets you create AV mash-ups of  not only your own photos and video, but video clips from a large library that includes the BBC. You gather and organize your images, then add special effects and music. Here’s one example with a “go green” message. Again, you can share these on social media sites or email them.

It takes a little time to experiment with these tools—as well as to hone your messages and gather your images. But they can add real zip to some otherwise very uninspiring communications, especially if you incorporate music. It adds excitement and can build momentum. As you’re thinking about tactics next year, remember these tools. They’re not only fun for your audiences, they’re fun to use!

UPDATE! Here’s another one for you, Projeqt.

If you’ve got a favorite AV tool not mentioned here, please tell us about it in comments!

Creative Commons photo: mysza831

Nonprofit video roars into 2011: Here are the trends

flickr/John Biehler

I just took a terrific, free, Common Knowledge webinar on the five big nonprofit communication trends for 2011. It was beyond great; it was inspirational! So thorough and well-grounded in strategy-first. I’m going to be sharing some of the major take-aways in my next couple of posts.

BTW—Common Knowledge hosts a weekly webinar series, usually free. I highly recommend them.

One of the trends that excited me most was the increasingly central role that video will play in nonprofit (and everyone else’s) communications starting this year. Two things are contributing to that fact: Technology’s making it easier to stream video and video production tools are easily accessible, simple to use, and affordable.

In the last several months, mobile devices like smart phones and pads have made huge leaps in their capacity to stream video, and internet providers continued to provide faster wireless services and increased bandwidth. Meanwhile, the flipcam and other small, simple video cams—and easy movie editing software included on most computers—have brought production capabilities to almost anyone. If you don’t have any one on staff who knows how to shoot and edit video, you can easily find someone to do it for you at a reasonable rate.

The big predictions

What’s going to be happening in the nonprofit world with video this year?

  • Mobile video breaks out

Greater speed and capacity will have everyone viewing video on their phones or pads.

  • Video advertising becomes more popular

Following commercial advertising trends that recognize dynamic is more effective than static, video ads will join SEO and banner ads as ways that nonprofits can cultivate supporters.

  • User-generated video content goes mainstream

Your nonprofit isn’t the only one capable of producing video that can advance your organization. Your supporters can—and do—too. They’ll be looking for ways to help you tell your story through this medium. Invite them.

  • Marketing video blossoms

Our lingering reliance on text and photos will fade further as nonprofit storytelling makes more and more use of video—a medium (thanks to TV) that everyone’s familiar with and one that humans find very engaging.

Your first steps

If you’ve never done a video before, start now! And probably, start small.

Produce a video in 2011. Take a look at all your communications strategies and objectives this year (and your budgets) and seriously consider which could be better met through a video. There must be at least one opportunity in there somewhere! (Read more about video strategy in my past post on it. Figuring out who you’re trying to reach and why is a critical first step.)

Find a videographer who knows how to shoot, edit, help create a story arc, and do effective interviewing. Work with them on your first production to learn the ropes.(BTW: The rule of thumb for budgeting is about $1,000 for each finished minute of video, but you can pay more if you want a really professional result.) Once you’ve been through the production process a few times, and have gained skills, you may be able to buy a small video camera and do production yourself.

Think in advance how you will use/promote the video, and what ROI you’re after. Will you put it on your website, in an email, on YouTube, on your social networking sites? Also think how the video will integrate with and support your other communications tactics. What response to the video will spell success?

Measure results against the ROI you outlined. By tracking these results, you can get better with each video production you do. You don’t have to be great right off the bat, but you do owe it to your supporters to get better and better.

I leave you with one statistic: Within the next three years, it’s estimated that nearly half of all the information on the internet will be streaming video.

Need any more motivation?

CC photo credit: John Biehler


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Social issue documentaries: Building a movement

Here in the Twin Cities, we’ve just experienced an interesting media frenzy about a social issue documentary called Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story that was produced by the University of Minnesota and funded by various foundations and governmental agencies. The one-hour film–which was scheduled to debut on Twin Cities Public Television this month–examines the contribution of modern agricultural techniques to the dangerous degradation of Midwest water and soil, and the burgeoning growth of the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

A few weeks before the film’s scheduled airing, the University’s vice president of external affairs pulled the plug on it. They said they were going to have to review it more closely and that it villified agriculture. I won’t get into the PR debacle this last-minute censorship unleashed for the University (and rightly so in my opinion)–that’s a sad cautionary tale in and of itself. The story broke in a community media blog and spread to every other media outlet in the region. After much public outcry and pressure from funders and advocacy groups, the University allowed the film to be shown to a SRO crowd at the University and finally, to be shown on Twin Cities Public Television—without any pre-promotion.

I watched it last night, and was impressed at how clearly it raises important questions about U.S. farm policy and points toward next practices that could help stem the rapid loss of our best soil and the pollution of our watersheds. With all the publicity surrounding it–I’m hopeful it will have a long shelf life and eventually reach a much larger audience.It deserves that kind of exposure. (I wish I could give you a link to the film, but both the University and Twin Cities Public Television provide only minimum text information on their sites. I hope that changes!)

All this reminded me what a powerful medium film has become for igniting social movements. We all haunt the halls of YouTube, but we sometimes overlook the extraordinary film documentary work that’s being done to help people understand the causes and solutions for what seem like intractable problems. It’s not just Al Gore and Michael Moore—there are hundreds of writers, directors, and producers devoting their talents to this new way of educating citizens and building social movements. Here’s a great blog post from the Center for Social Media at The American University on Social Issue Documentaries: The Evolution of Public Engagement.

The good news is that—like Troubled Waters, which was funded in part by The McKnight Foundation—foundations are starting to grasp the promise of film documentaries. Obviously, this isn’t a realistic communications undertaking for most nonprofits—high quality production and distribution cost money. But for foundations, large nonprofits, and consortia of nonprofits—it can be a very effective way of sparking public and media interest, and getting more people engaged in behaviors that support the common good. And remember, as the line between television and computer blurs, these productions could gain much wider viewership in the next few years.


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3 cool, creative, free communications tools for nonprofits

Flickr/marcmo

It’s been too long since I’ve posted about free online tools, and there are some recent ones that deserve your attention. Depending on your audiences and communications strategies—these might make interesting new communications channels for you.

Your own live, interactive TV show

Want to stream an event live? Consider Ustream, which lets anyone with an Internet connection and a camera engage an audience of unlimited size in an immediate, interactive way. Ustream has been used to broadcast everything from high school sporting events to Hollywood movie premieres to Charity:Water’s well-digging, and people are finding new uses for it every day. You can create a channel for your organization, just like YouTube. You can also record your event for future uses. Here’s a quickie how-to overview and a recent blog post with tips from a nonprofit that’s used it. This is a great, free way to increase the reach of your special events.

Your own radio program

You may already listen to the nonprofit marketing and fund raising advice of Kivi LeRoux Miller or Marc Pitman on Blogtalkradio, but have you considered how this free internet radio platform could contribute to your nonprofit’s communication goals? All you need are a phone and computer and you can create your own online radio show, and share it everywhere–Facebook, itunes, Twitter, and more. What a terrific storytelling medium for sharing your work or interviewing the beneficiaries of it. If you’re not up to live video streaming yet, you may want to use this audio tool at events to increase audience reach. Or use it to broadcast discussions about nonprofit issues. (Here’s an example of that from Rosetta Thurman, talking about social justice and philanthropy.) Your supporters can listen where and when it’s convenient for them.

Your own animated slideshows

Last year I blogged about the promise of Animoto, Glogster, and Yodio as free ways to add more zip to your photos. I’ll add one more–Kizoa. I think Kizoa is more fun-loving than the other two, and may not work as well for more serious topics. You have a lot of choices among transitions, special effects, text, animation, and music–so the challenge here is to remember that “less is more.”  It would be very easy to incorporate so many gizmos that viewers are distracted from your message. But this could be a creative, engaging way to issue event invitations or say thanks to your supporters, among other things. Being light-hearted and humorous can be an advantage sometimes, just make sure you use it appropriately. You can share these slideshows through email or Facebook.

Multichannel communication is the name of the game these days, and don’t forget to effectively cross-promote! Connect your channels, align your communications, and invite participation in the form of comments, tweets, updates, posts, etc.

Any other newish free tools out there you’d like to add to this list? I’d love to hear about them.

Creative Commons photo credit: marcmo


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Free tool of the week: VoiceThread for nonprofits

flickr/ //amy//

flickr/ //amy//

When I first found out about VoiceThread a while back, it struck me as something that foundations and nonprofits could make good use of. It’s a cool way to capture people’s engagement with a topic and image—to weave the threads of their voices into the story being  told.

A VoiceThread is a multimedia slideshow of photos, video, or documents that allows people to easily leave comments and join the conversation. Visually, it’s a slideshow screen surrounded by a mosaic of little avatars of all the people who comment on the image. When you click on the avatar you hear them or see what they’ve written or drawn. People can comment in five simple ways: by telephone, by computer microphone, by web cam, by writing text, or by drawing.

Once you’ve created the central slideshow story—you can invite people to view it and comment on it. Thus the conversation grows.

Wondering how you might use this free tool?

  • How about getting your donors to add their voices to a story about a common cause they all support, telling why they support it?
  • How about showcasing your grantees’ work by asking them to add their comments to a VoiceThread story you create about an issue they’re working on?
  • How about showing how real living human beings are affected by the work you do? Ask them to add comments to a VoiceThread about how one of your programs has helped them.
  • Honoring someone special? Create a VoiceThread testimonial to them including all the voice of people whose lives they’ve touched
  • Trying to build a social movement? Here’s a very visual way to start—tell your VoiceThread story and ask supporters to add their supportive comments. Watch the little avatars multiply!

These ideas should help you get started thinking about ways you might incorporate VoiceThread into your website, social media platforms, emails to help achieve strategic communication goals.  It’s very easy to share—embeddable, emailable, etc.

Now, for a little introduction from the Voicethreads folks. And here’s a great step-by-step how-to slideshow, and an example of how educators are using VoiceThread to carry out conversations with students. It’s a very versatile tool…as you’ll see as you browse through the collection of existing VoiceThreads; everything from podcasting tutorials to art exhibitions to children’s voices about what’s happening in Darfur.

As usual, I played around with this free tool—just enough to create a very simple 1-slide central story about the issue of homeless teens. When you get to the page, just click on the lone avatar for the ABCD Foundation to hear the story. (I pretended I was a foundation interested in highlighting the work of its grantees working on that issue.) You’re going to have to IMAGINE other little avatars surrounding it—each from a grantee talking about the impact of their work with homeless teens. (It would be terrific to have some of those voices be the teens themselves.)

There are a few different pricing levels beyond what you can get for free (3 min. maximums on recordings, max. of 50 comments, etc.). But, even the Pro account, which gives you the most creative freedom is only $60 per year.

I see a lot of potential of this tool for the nonprofit sector–and not just for educators. Nothing is more fascinating to us than other people–what they think, what they say and do, what they support. VoiceThread is a unique way to combine your organization’s voice with the voices of your supporters or beneficiaries. It makes for richer, more inclusive, more credible storytelling. Plus—it’s pretty darn easy to use! Try it.

CC photo credit: //amy//

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Nonprofit storytelling—beware of impact stories that don’t link to public policy

flickr/armadillo444

flickr/armadillo444

You can’t swing a cat these days (I never would) without hitting a storytelling workshop for nonprofits. It’s kind of the new silver bullet for conveying organizational impact.

I’m a big fan of stories, but I’m a little concerned about the approach the nonprofit sector seems to be taking.

What concerns me is the drive to tell episodic stories of individual success without tying them into a larger thematic policy context. Making an emotional connection is essential, but it’s not enough.

Very few of these impact stories reveal underlying causes, or assign responsibility for those causes to policymakers and the citizens who vote for them. This tends to reinforce the dominant American frame of individual rather than societal responsibility for the solution of social problems—a frame that the media has helped create and perpetuate.

By telling stories about their impact on individual lives, nonprofits and foundations may be shooting themselves in the foot with that silver bullet. Such storytelling can garner dollars and support (no small thing, I realize), but it doesn’t necessarily lead to social change. Nonprofits have to get more intentional about using impact stories to achieve both their short-term survival goals and their long-term social change goals.

Often, annual reports, newsletters, web sites, or videos that string together emotionally evocative stories about how a nonprofit has helped a few of its beneficiaries are fashioned for fund-raising. They pluck heartstrings, but don’t connect those people’s situations to the larger context of public decision making. In fact, they can leave readers and viewers with the impression that solutions to social problems are up to individuals and nonprofits, rather than to the public.

For instance, a nonprofit tells a moving impact story about a troubled youth who’s turned her life around. The nonprofit may get a temporary boost from that, but the story does nothing to show the larger context that led to her troubles or to explain how citizens acting together can eliminate the obstacles she faced. It’s all about her success at bettering herself and the organization’s role in those efforts. There’s no societal accountability built in.

Without tying stories of individuals to our collective responsibility for the policies and systems that have shaped their lives—we’re unintentionally reinforcing the notion that their troubles were their own doing. At the same time, we’re preventing audience members from making the connection between themselves and the people in the story. They may feel momentary sympathy and admiration for the story’s protagonist, but they are still just consumers of the story, not participants in it. We need to help citizens understand they play an influential role in any story about social issues.

The news media are notorious for gobbling up episodic stories about individuals. Media relations experts may tell you that’s the way to get headlines, but it’s not the way to change society. Most news stories strip away context to a point where the goal is provoking a superficial emotional response, certainly not empowering citizens to take action against injustice.

Here are a few broad-stroke examples of how news (and advertising) use individual responsibility frames in their storytelling.

  1. Though study after study shows that public policies and systems are a huge influence in the American obesity problem, public discussion about this issue still focuses on dieting and self-restraint as the solution. If someone’s overweight—it’s their own fault and their responsibility to change.
  2. In the environmental realm, much more attention is paid to how we should each change our individual behavior than to how we can collectively make big  policy changes that would have much deeper impact.
  3. In health care, the emphasis is on individuals making sure they get tested for disease rather than targeting the causes of those diseases through public policy change.

The last thing the nonprofit sector should be doing is feeding the media episodic stories—that’s counterproductive to its long-term goals for social change. It’s easy to jump on the impact storytelling bandwagon—especially when you’re hard pressed for funding. But think carefully about the real story you’re trying to tell. Don’t let it just be about one person’s struggle or one family’s success or one neighborhood’s make-over. Ensure citizens understand their role in righting wrongs and exactly what actions they need to take.

One way is to tell the individual’s story first—grabbing the reader’s attention—then concisely explain who’s responsible for creating these conditions, what the potential solutions are, and how the public can drive toward those solutions. Weave in a compelling statistic or two—appeal to both sides of the brain.

Please read this recent interview with Shanto Iyengar, director of the Political Communication Lab at Stanford University and the author of Is Anyone Responsible, on the difference between episodic and thematic stories and how they influence citizen understanding of public issues. Remember his remarks when you’re writing web copy, news releases, video scripts, and anything else where you feature stories.

I’m going to be covering other aspects of issue framing for nonprofits and foundations in future posts.

CC photo credit: armadillo444

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Free tool of the week: Yodio melds narration and images

yodio-capture1In the next few weeks, I’m hoping to give you the low-down on some free online media that combine slides, photos, voice-overs, graphics, and/or music. I think they have interesting potential applications for nonprofits. But first, I want to try them!

This week I tackled Yodio, which allows you to synchronize voice-over (that you phone in) with a series of photos into a narrated slide show. It’s like a podcast with images. They say it’s simple and quick—and once you learn it it is. But it took me about 3 hours to create the Yodio below—from gathering and uploading pictures to writing and recording a script. If I had to do it again, it would probably take half that time.

I wanted to give you an example of what media like this might be able to do for nonprofits. (The Yodio gallery doesn’t have any nonprofit examples.) So, I put together a fake 2-minute lobbying spot for a clean water and land referendum that was passed last fall in Minnesota. Other uses for media like this might include: key takeaways from a research report, announcing a new project, impact interviews with beneficiaries of your organization, brief testimonials from donors, a virtual tour of a new facility, a teaser for an issue campaign, even introducing your staff.

I like Yodio, but I think it’s going to get even better as they introduce new features (which I hope are still free). As with most media like this, there’s a good free level of membership and a better paid level of membership. I used the free membership.

Here are a few things to keep in mind.

1) Right now, you have to record the audio track for each photo separately—kind of laborious, but they have an option once you’re on the phone that lets you can record many of these tracks in one call. Just stay on the line after you’re through with your first track, and they’ll give you an option to record another one right away.

2) There are various options for transitioning from one slide to another—I just chose dissolve, but I think if this were for real, I would have tinkered with that. Some of these dissolves are great—others are clunky and draw attention to themselves.

3) Name each track that you record—this text will scroll as the slide is displayed. It’s another way to reinforce your message.

4) You’ll notice there’s a time lag between when my voice stops and the end of the track—it doesn’t make it easy to transition to another slide in mid-sentence. Yodio tells me that I could have used the phone key prompt (#1) to end  the recording right when I stopped speaking rather than waiting for the audio prompt. I think that would have solved this problem. Live and learn.

5) When you’re recording over the phone, use the very best phone you’ve got. And try to keep it at the same distance throughout the whole recording, while using the same volume whenever you speak. You’ll notice there are a few distracting modulation changes in my piece—that’s because I recorded a couple of the tracks at a different time than I did the rest. Record all at once to avoid this.

All you experienced Yodio users, any other tips for folks?

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(By the way, I mailed Ana from New Mexico the free Cass Wheeler book.)

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