Educational Fundraising Video
Why People Give to Schools
On the face of things, it may seem odd that people would give so much money to colleges. Looking at the institutions in America, private colleges are among the most well-endowed enterprises in our society; and private philanthropy is the main source of this funding.
Most of that, of course, comes from alumni. Why do alumni support their schools so handsomely?*
- In the more than two decades I have been helping schools communicate with their alumni, I find that most schools can bank on the fact that alumni feel loyal. They came of age there. They were challenged, corrected, coaxed, and stretched, and their school placed them into a rite of passage that benchmarks their lives. Institutions gain from the personal investment their faculty makes in the lives of each student. In many ways, and for many people, the institutional bond is as important and strong as the parental bond in terms of impact on the shaping of adult lives and practical character lessons.
- I find another significant reason for alumni loyalty, as I interview the graduates of many different institutions. The friendships between students that are forged in college are often more profound than sibling relationships. Going forward through life, a sibling is usually a few years different in age, peer group, and formation experiences (and kids who've never had a sibling have grown from less than 10% to almost one quarter of the student pool). College buddies live, eat, and share together in ways that rival even the closest of family ties. That closeness; forged in the dorms and deepened in a classroom and athletic events, generates a tribal bond that is unmatched in the culture at large. Nothing trumps college in its hold on a group of people; not family, not church, not geography, and certainly not ideology.
- And there is a third major reason why colleges have an enviable ability to pull at the heart-strings of alumni: anyone can see that education is essential for the prosperity of future generations. The cold, hard facts demonstrate that people with degrees do better; and people with a certain college's program under their belt gain from that school's niche strengths; it might be a spiritual bond, a human bond, a habit of engagement with ideas and diversity; whatever the distinctive of the college, each can genuinely lay claim to an impact that shaped the intellect, memories, values, and practical lives of almost every student who attended.
Video guys have always tried to exploit these institutional, tribal, and psychic bonds as they produce putative fundraising videos. The problem is that often, the attempts to strum the heartstrings are often mawkishly manipulative. (I learned that phrase from my first college client, who called me up short when I crossed the line of authenticity). You know the drill. Videos that recite the safe phrases, play the alma mater, and pretend to honor the memory of past students and profs when in reality they are packaging a commodity. The only thing that really changes is the colors and the song.
My proven "recipe" for creating college fundraising vehicles that actually work is to use no recipe. None. I start from scratch every time, and get to know the real mood on the campus and among the alumni. I find out what worries alumni, what the controversies might be, who's hot and who's not as a spokesman, how 60s grads of that unique institution think differently than their 70s, 80s, 90s, and Millennial fellow-alums. If there's sensitivity to the closure of some fraternities, or the reputation of a coach who went astray, I'll find that out.
And then I focus on the stories. The treasured profs, the victories over hardship, the wise policies, the local and international impact in science or medicine or the arts, the amazing and transformative gifts. Often, these stories and the individuals who live them are just below the surface, and a little geological work is needed to unearth them. That's my specialty, my "art" -- finding your unique stories, and then telling them to your audience with clarity and emotion.
*Here's an article by a Stanford prof on the role of identity -- both self-image and involvement in social groups -- as an impact on giving above and beyond guilt, sympathy, or "happiness".
Denison Higher Ground Campaign
It's hard to believe 5 years have passed since I produced this Telly Award-winning fundraising piece. In the years since, I've worked with Denison to produce additional modules for specific campaign goals: featuring the buildings that were made possible by the campaign; thanking major givers for their impact, rallying the constituent base for the final assault at the end.
This particular module was dubbed the "Flagship" -- it contains the most complete case statement for why the campaign was undertaken and what it hoped to accomplish. It also was intended to have as strong an emotional hook as possible.
In a campaign video, there is always a lot of pressure to include certain people who are involved in the campaign because of their giving power or their influence with the alumni; in this case, however, Denison made it clear to the pool of potential interviewees that the director would decide who was interviewed, and how much screen time they were given, on the basis of their comments. Happily, the campaign co-chairs and the board chair are all extremely articulate, and I would never have considered cutting them. But thankfully, I was able to cherry pick a number of other alumni who were equally powerful in making the case for Denison. Mary Jane Armacost and Thomas Hoaglin were co-chairs, whose personal memories triggered emotions for 1960s alumni. Chris Curtin, a VP at Disney (now HP) and George Bodenheimer, the President of ESPN and ABC Sports, resonated with alumni from the 80s and 90s.
Denison Annual Fund
Denison University deserves an award for being a great video client! Over the course of their 5 year Higher Ground Campaign, they contracted with me to produce 7 fundraising videos, and after that was over, they again hired me to re-edit material we had recently shot for this short Annual Fund email effort.
The interviews for this piece were done as the campaign was in its final 6 months. The perspective of the students and faculty we interviewed was, "Wow, we are really seeing tangible benefits from the invesment our alumni have made in this campus!" The subtext and soft-sell message of that last campaign piece was, "Please don't stop... if you haven't given to your limit, please keep the momentum going to the end!"
For the Annual Fund piece, we had to recut those interviews to set a different tone. Now the goal was to say, "The Campaign was great -- and we did it. But now let's not forget that there are ongoing needs to keep this college running." That's the message of the 2 minutes you see here.
This was shot with a JVC HD100U. When we knew there would be a winter campaign piece, I ran over there on about the last decent fall foliage day before November grayness set in, to get the slomo shots you see. The slomos were created in Final Cut with the Re:Vision Twixtor plug-in, which I think is the best way that I have seen to get silky smooth slomos.
The interviews were set up for a day early in January, which happened to be very cold and snowy. We shot from high windows overlooking the campus to give a birdseye perspective of "higher ground". At times we really had to punch the light from my three Joker 400 HMIs and two 200s through the silk, in order to compete with those sunlit snow scenes! As the day wore on, we had completely different challenges to get clean looks of lit buildings after dark, without seeing our lights in the windows. Thanks to cameraman, assistant DP, and audio tech Jeff Eargle from Cincinnati to get all that work done. He did such a great job doing both audio and camera at the same time!
I wish I could say this particular piece was as effective at fundraising as the other pieces I did for Denison. I think it only brought in a little more than the cost of editing and the email blast, and I think there may be three reasons:
First, the email company didn't have robust enough servers to handle it, and the size of the download file was too great. So lots of people got frustrated trying to get it to play. Smaller sizes, and the new HTML approaches which do not require downloads (such as VIMEO now offers) would have solved this.
Second, I think we tried to do too much and made it too long for an email pitch. About a minute shorter would have been better.
Third, I think this kind of emotional depth is best reserved for a controlled environment such as home entertainment area, high-quality conference room or presentation situation. And it takes more time to settle and let the presentation take us to a different emotional level across a span of time. Email blasts should confine themselves to the humorous or rational part of the brain, not the attempt to probe the deeper emotions, in my view.
Welsh Hills School
Welsh Hills School hired us to create a multi-use motivational video. Its primary purpose was fundraising, because of pressing needs to shore up their annual fund and start a high-school building campaign. But they also wanted to have a piece that could double as an admissions video, to help with the onerous challenge of filling a recruiting class every year. Private schools are constantly battling the economic realities of a competing public education option. Is there that much difference between schools? Will their children really feel a tangible impact if the family makes the sacrifice to keep them in a private school?
For both parents and potential donors, then, the task was clear: demonstrate a tangible difference, not in educational theories or program niceties ... but in the environment and actual learning experience that children would find at Welsh Hills. To do this, I selected two parents to talk about their personal observations along with the headmaster; and shadowed the school without an intrusive production agenda to find moments that would reinforce the parental claims. I found that writing assignments across age groups provided unifying bookends for the story; and I chose to shoot the children reading their own compositions in the school library, with a progression of camera angles from high to very low, allowing the children to grow in poise visibly as they grew in stature physically.
As the director what I like about this production the best is its authenticity; it just feels real, and that's not only because it certainly is, but also because the atmosphere, the relationships established behind the scenes during each shooting session, allowed reality to dictate what the camera saw and heard.
If the kids said "Wow", it was because we were ready and rolling when it happened spontaneously. If the kids read their stories with power, it was because they wrote with power, and were made to feel comfortable reading their own words with internal passion, not external showmanship.
Thanks to Headmaster Evelyn Frolking for her vision in this project; and to parents Paula Danyi and Owen Lee who were not only sincere and authentic interviewees, but became friends during the production process, and remain so to the present day.
This is one of my favorite college fundraising pieces because the students have such a strong part in it... and they speak so earnestly. One thing I like to do is reveal the different kinds of reasons that people have for doing things... it adds a sense of humor and honesty, as well as broadening the appeal of the piece. One example of that in this piece occurs when one young man says he chose the school because he felt sure it was God's will; the next girl, Bethany, says she came because she wanted to get out of the house! She is visibly embarrassed by her admission, but I love the candor and authenticity it provides.
When I began the interviews I was collecting material for three productions: a fundraiser focused on the new Biblical Studies building (bricks & mortar); a fundraiser based on endowing the school, focusing on the Bible minor that all students at Cedarville take; and this fundraiser that would focus on student need-based financial assistance.
It helped that I came up with titles and creative directions for all three of these before I began the interviews. That way I could toss out a phrase and let the interviewees react to it, and incorporate the phrase into their thought framework. In this case, the title, "Ripples in Time" related to the metaphor of tossing a stone into a pond, and having it make a long-lasting effect that reaches the entire pond.
We shot two days of interviews to get all of this material, and then shot B-roll of some of the students in class or involved in daily activities, in order to illustrate their personality a little bit. We also had the benefit of working with a lot of existing footage from the recent and current admissions videos.
I am indebted to Dave Ormsbee, VP of Special Projects at Cedarville, who has a strong marketing and fundraising vision for the school, and acted as executive director for the project. Todd Miller served as cameraman for the interviews, and Eric Vucelich the audio technician. My wife, Beth also helped by capturing on-the-fly transcripts of the interviews.