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Nonprofit Times: Office Technology: Creating a video message on the cheap, by Ted Needleman
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© Benton Foundation 2001

Creating a video message on the cheap

By Ted Needleman
This article initially appeared in The Nonprofit Times , August 1, 2001, and is reproduced here with permission.

Many nonprofits are discovering that promotional videos are a good way to raise both awareness of the nonprofit’s mission, and funds. Large nonprofits have been creating these promotional videos for years.

While many smaller nonprofits would also profit from this approach, a commercially-produced, several minute-long video can cost thousands of dollars to shoot and edit. Reproducing the finished videotape is also expensive, and can cost upwards of several dollars per unit, depending upon volume before packing and postage.

Making and mailing 100 or 200 copies of a video can cost as much as $4,000 or $5,000 when all of the costs are added up. If it brings in the donations and support that you need, it’s money well spent. It is, however, still a lot of money up front, especially for smaller, less well-heeled nonprofits.

In the next several columns, we’ll show you how to use a camcorder, your PC, and some affordable hardware and software to make your own promotional video. It won’t be as polished as those shot by a commercial video production company, but that’s okay. It will reflect the commitment and passion that you have to your organization’s cause, as well as being a lot more affordable.

Once your video is shot and assembled, you can record the finished product onto video tape, which will cost you about $1.50 (and 15 minutes of time) per copy, or record the video onto a CD-R disc which can be played by almost anyone with a computer. This second approach requires a bit more work and preparation, but with CD-Rs costing as little as 10 or 15 cents in quantities of 100, it’s a very affordable way to get your message out to a lot of people, without a great up-front expense.

Do be forewarned, however, that there’s a fair amount of “sweat equity” involved in the undertaking.


While you can just grab a camcorder and shoot hours worth of video, hoping you get enough footage to edit into a coherent message, you’ll actually save time in the long run by following a methodology. An organized approach to creating a video doesn’t have to be overly elaborate, after all, you’re not trying for an Oscar. It does, however, need to address a number of points.

It’s sounds funny, but many would-be videographers start out without a clear goal in mind. If you don’t know what you want to say in your video, don’t waste your time. For purposes of this series, we’ll make a short video about the efforts of our fictional organization, “Save Those Puppies!” makes to place orphaned canines into good and caring homes.

The first step is to create a short list of what we want our video to “say.” Starting with the last item on the list—we need your help financially, and with volunteering time.

Other things we want to impart in our video is just how our organization goes about finding, rescuing, healing, and placing our canine charges. What is involved in each step? What happens to those animals that we don’t help? Use these notes to make a short outline, which might look something like this: There are lots of abandoned dogs. These animals are hurt, hungry, sick. Many of these animals would thrive in a loving household. There are lots of kids who would be able to love a puppy or older dog. Older seniors would also benefit from a trusty canine companion. Bringing them together isn’t easy. Need to find animals, rescue them, make sure that they are healthy, and heal them if they are not. Until an adoption can be arranged, the puppies need to be housed, fed, walked, and loved. How do we find the right match for each puppy? Follow up care and help. What we need:

a. Recognition of “Save Those Puppies” as a place that will take in and care for unwanted and abandoned dogs.

b. Funds for ongoing operations.

c. Volunteers to help care for the puppies until we can arrange adoption. And the award goes to…

Once you have a better idea of what you want your video to accomplish, you can start to plan out how to “say” what you mean on tape. Professionals develop a shooting script, with each scene completely blocked out. If you have the time, this is the best way to go, but it is time-consuming.

Most public libraries have books on how to write a screen play, and many of the techniques are very applicable to creating a shooting script for a documentary, which is really what your promotional video is should convey.

A somewhat less structured, but much faster approach is to storyboard your video. Storyboarding is a technique used by all video producers, from those shooting a three-hour epic, to those making a 15-second TV commercial.

It requires that you visually block out each scene in your video.

You can stage a photo, shooting it with a digital still camera. The idea is that you want to plot out the sequence of the video in terms of what you need to shoot, what each scene will “say,” and what the order in which scenes will be ultimately arranged.

A storyboard is not the same thing as a shooting script. There is a lot less detail on most storyboards, and the scenes will most likely not be shot in order. Most current video editing software are non-linear editors, they let you assemble video segments in any order that you wish.

The initial storyboard panels might look something like this:

Scene One: A shot of a small puppy in the rain. It is wet, shivering, and totally unhappy. Cut to a shot of a child staring out of the window. Then to older woman, sitting in chair, watching TV. The child and woman are also visibly unhappy.

A voice-over explains that there is a lot of unhappiness in the world. But, sometimes happiness is just a matter of putting the right people together with the right puppies.

Scene Two: Show the same little girl hugging the now dry puppy. She is happy, and the puppy’s tail is going a thousand miles an hour. The older woman is shown on the couch, with a dog resting its head on her lap. She’s still watching TV, but also petting the dog.

The voice-over continues: “Making this match doesn’t just happen. At “Save Those Puppies!” we work hard to find puppies who need people, and people who need puppies. Then we get them together!”

Switch to a shot of the “meeting room” where prospective adopters get to interact with the puppies.

Other storyboard panels will map out shots of emergency vehicles rushing to the scene to rescue an abandoned puppy, and a Vet working to bandage an injured paw. Shots will feature operators answering calls from prospective adopters, advertisements that “Save Those Puppies!” places in newspapers, and perhaps kids stapling billboards on telephone poles.

The video will switch back to a scene showing people looking through cages of puppies, picking a prospective new member of the family, and playing with the puppy.

The video will end with scenes of happy families and their new puppies, kids running with the puppy, and so on. A voice-over will explain “We need your help. Time, money, and awareness of our mission are all important. Contact us and we’ll tell you how you can help us Save Those Puppies!”

Making a list, checking it twice

Sure, the above example is a bit hokey, but it does serve to illustrate the process. You’ll also need to think about a script for the voice-overs, and if you want music.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to respect the copyright of any music you might want to add, that means going to stock music suppliers (you can find them on the Web), or using music that has passed into the public domain. You can also call the music licensing organizations, such as ASCAP, to see if the tune you want to use is affordable. ASCAP rates are based on the number of CDs or videotapes that you will distribute, and the exact type of nonprofit organization you are, as well as the tune itself and performer.

Using commercial and recognizable music can give your video a lot of impact, so don’t immediately dismiss using licensed music out of hand as being unaffordable.

Next column, we’ll get started with some of the equipment that you’ll need to create your opus.

former associate publisher and editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology magazine. He is now a technology consultant and writer based in Stony Point, NY.

Last updated: 22 October 2001 mff