Nonprofit Storytelling Means Fighting Compassion Fatigue

November 20, 2016
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"We are always asking, ‘What’s at stake here? What are we trying to get at that’s most important?"

70 percent of Wes Browning’s video work comes from the nonprofit sector. He’s been working in the industry for 16 years and his company, SEMA Films, has been around for the latter half of it. His work is diverse, and includes trips around the world and interviews with prominent world and business leaders. His interest in documentary storytelling made him a natural fit for nonprofit promotion. What separates nonprofit work from more traditional commercial work? For Wes, it’s about the approach to storytelling. These are the steps Wes goes through to tell a compelling nonprofit story.


Nonprofits Are Personal

The story of a nonprofit isn’t found in a single catch phrase, logo, or image. You have to find it, often from people who aren’t reading from a set script to give it to you. To find your story, you have to find the people who know the stakes.

“What differentiates the nonprofit versus the commercial for us is often the parameters are tighter for the commercial. We did a shoot with the UPS CEO a couple of years ago and we had to bring in more cameras and more people because he had very limited time. Our gear requirements were higher so we could pull it off just right. I would say that, for commercial work, deadlines do seem tighter, the stakes seem higher, there’s less opportunity to do repeat takes, it’s less casual. I’d say that’s the difference.”


Let the People Lead You

“I try to find what is interesting about the organization… I have a discussion with them or do research on them ahead of time before to find out what I find interesting about them or what I find their story to be. We have a dialogue and try to see how that all unfolds so we can arrive at the same place… Across the board we try to make sure that clients are happy and that we treat them all with the same level of respect and try to treat every project with the utmost importance. We are always asking, ‘What’s at stake here? What are we trying to get at that’s most important?’”


Understand Your Audience's "Compassion Fatigue"

Once you understand the stakes, you need to understand your audience. What is their perspective? What do they want to know? Most importantly, you need to understand the greatest hurdle of nonprofit storytelling, compassion fatigue.

“There’s this language in the nonprofit world called ‘compassion fatigue’ so people become really overwhelmed because there’s so many things to give to, or so many problems to solve, or whatever that they just don’t know where to start. I’ve taken that knowledge and that information and worked it into my business strategy. A lot of our conversations with clients end up being about, ‘How can we narrow things, how can we focus this for the average donor so they don’t feel overwhelmed?”’

For Wes Browning, the key to beating compassion fatigue is to narrow the scope of the story. The audience might feel overwhelmed by the plight of millions, but they can relate to the plight of an individual.  


Focus On Individuals

By focusing on one person, donors have someone to relate to and the big, complicated, problems the nonprofit aspires to help all of the sudden have a real-world example. Sometimes that individual is the person solving the problem, other times its an individual victim of it.

“We feel like stories showing one individual keeps people from feeling overwhelmed… A lot of times, when people are trying to solve a problem, whether it’s digging a well or feeding a village, or whatever it might be, individuals who are at home with money might become really overwhelmed because they don’t know how to focus their energy. Helping to narrow that focus for a potential donor really helps them connect with that particular nonprofit.”

Focusing in on individuals usually means shooting interviews of some kind, and Browning has a few techniques that help him get the most out of them. 

“Most of my pieces are centered around letting the individuals in the video tell their story and sort of draw out that narrative themselves instead of having a lot of voiceover-heavy pieces. We do everything we can to make them comfortable. That might mean dimming the lights for a former President so he’s not too distracted or bringing in extra lights in a home so it makes a family’s living space more attractive.” 

SEMA Films' Interview with Jimmy Carter

In this case, the former President in question was Jimmy Carter, whose team requested the lights be dimmed so President Carter could focus better. President Carter’s focus helped make the story better, even at the cost of lighting freedom. That story-over-gear anecdote says a lot about the role gear plays in Wes’ process. 

“I would say that my focus has shifted over the last couple of years to making sure that the story is central. I do try to keep up with any piece of gear that makes my job easier or make the story more interesting visually. If I run across an amazing microphone or something like that, then I will upgrade to that if it makes my job easier. I would say my upgrade cycle is a little less frequent now than it used to be.”

Put the story first. In this case, Wes focused on a single person, gave that person the room to tell their story, and found his concise story within it. Compassion fatigue was fought.

To check out Wes' gear, here's his ShareGrid Page. For more information on SEMA Films, check out their website here

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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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