Challenges of working with nonprofits and NGOs

In 2008, photojournalist Christopher Tyree left his full-time job at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, to launch a media and design company that worked with nonprofits. The idea stemmed from his frustration with journalism, which Tyree felt was becoming more about giving consumers information they craved, rather than stories that served the public.

Tyree created re:ActMedia, a business created to fill this void and connect high production and storytelling with nonprofits. But his company fizzled after two years.

But there is a lessoned to be learned. There are hundreds of nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that act as first responders, and are in the field doing remarkable work in underserved regions throughout the world. Most nonprofits and NGOs do not have the manpower or experience to stock their websites with compelling visuals. That’s where journalists like you step in.

Tyree, who now works for Journey Group inc.  producing video for nonprofits and corporate clients, says there are some unique challenges working with nonprofits and NGOs. “In the editing process, we were at the mercy of our clients, who we knew from the start had a difficult time figuring out how best to tell their own stories,” he said.

Small and some mid-size nonprofits have little experience marking. Tyree discovered that in many cases he had to spend a lot of time learning about the organization and translating that into power stories.

CV: Can you talk about some of your former clients and what you’ve learned about working with nonprofits?

CT: The reality is that the majority of nonprofits, even the large ones, have a really hard time telling their story. Also, news organizations don’t have the capacity to take on big, deep projects like they used to, especially social issue stories.

 I learned that the way that you’re going to make a career –to actually get paid to do that kind of work–is to focus on mid-size nonprofits. The very large nonprofits have staff, have communications desks. And for us, it was the middle tier organizations, 200,000 to 4 million operating budgets organizations. The problem was and is funding.

 CV: What kind of work are you clients asking for?

 CT: It ranges, but the majority of clients are paying for video, photo not so much. The communication departments are growing and it’s moving toward moving pictures.

 We get three times more calls for video. Most nonprofits see photography as a volunteer thing.

 CV: What are the some of the differences between working with a client and an editor?

CT: Client relationship is very different. I think one of the challenges is that newspapers have trained editors. The editors are very savvy, they know what makes a good image, they know what makes a good story – everyone is on the same level–they know what quality is. With nonprofit organizations you are usually working with their executive director or their marketing team. And so they are probably not savvy in a way that images can be use to tell stories that could really help them. I spend a lot of time educating them in how you can use moment driven motion, story driven images to make a difference and  tell their stories. Some people get it, some people didn’t.

Today, I get the clients who have already come in through the door. But what we do is we go through a fairly intensive “get to know you period”, which we call discovery. We look at their messaging and how they are communicating with other parts of their community. See where they are weakest and find ways to help them tell their stories better. I’ve done background research, you look at who they are and who they are trying to target in their message and why.

CV: What are some challenges working with clients?

CT: A lot of the communications people didn’t come out from J-school, they may be in business, finance, and development. I don’t think they understand how much work goes into video.

The other thing is when you work with a nonprofit you don’t just have one boss. You may have a communications director that you’re working with, but their boss is the CEO, well that president has a board of directors, which will have a variety of opinions.

The way I personally work is, upfront, before I shoot anything, I’ve already talked to them, done all the research I needed to do and then I write a visual narrative, or outline of what I think the story is going to look like, how I’m visually going to shoot it, the types of people that are going to be interviewed, the type of questions that they would be answering, where we’d do the interviews. And then I have them sign off on that.

 The second rough cut is the narrative edited with the b-roll attached so that they can get a good sense. We usually make very little edits after the second draft. Occasionally, we have a third.

If you don’t hold them accountable in the beginning you’re going to put in so many hours that it’s not going to be worth you doing it in the first place. It already is not going to be a lot of money with an NGO or nonprofit; you have to find ways to cut your cost but deliver a good product.

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