In The Wired Nonprofit, Students Advocate Through Video Storytelling

“This has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my tenure at Columbia,” said Anthony Pulgram, a student in the Fundraising Management graduate program at the School of Professional Studies. He was talking about creating a digital video for a nonprofit client for his class, The Wired Nonprofit: Digital Media Strategies and Practice, a Marketing elective team-taught by Prof. Marcia Stepanek, Prof. Tom Watson, and Prof. Howard Greenstein, led by Prof. Stepanek.

In this class, each student is matched to a a different nonprofit or social sector organization and is assigned to create a digital media strategy for that organization. Their goal: to help their organizations create measurable improvements in fundraising, branding/awareness, and online and offline engagement with supporters over the 14 weeks of the term. As part of that semester-long effort, each student is required to create a 60-second video for their organization, to help convey its mission and raise urgency and awareness for their cause across digital networks. According to the course description, the class is “designed to help each student learn how to use cross-channel media strategies...to measure and improve their organization's ability to reach and recruit today's highly influential cause-wired donors and supporters, online and off.”

Student Work: Chef Action Network Video by Anthony Pulgram from Columbia Professional Studies on Vimeo.

As part of Pulgram's strategy work, he created a 60-second video to promote Chef Action Network (CAN), a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a healthy, just, fair, sustainable, and delicious food system. He and the other students in the class learned how to develop a story narrative, shot list, script, and storyboard in order to tell the organization’s story, then use simple camera, sound, and editing techniques to make it suitable for distribution across the Web. Students used iPhones and basic audio and editing equipment in order to produce their videos, "to help convey that effective videos don't always need to be professionally produced—just clear, concise and with basic production values, " said Prof. Stepanek, an award-winning journalist and visual media strategist who runs her own media studio and communications lab in Manhattan. "In our digital world, where fundraising and cause advocacy is most active, it's critical for civil society leaders to learn the language of visual media and begin communicating with supporters more visually, so as to be more effective and credible online and off— whether they're working at a nonprofit or for-profit social good organization, or any other type of cause-minded initiative operating today."

Prof. Stepanek said that digital storytelling is only one element of the class’s digital marketing lessons. She said that students “interview the organization's CEOs and executive directors, as well as the people these organizations serve, so as to create in-depth strategies and measurement metrics for how digital media can help an organization achieve its top overall goals. It's not just about raising awareness or creating a Facebook page. It's about high-level strategy, rendered digitally, and it's also about creating storytelling in the service of greater impact that can be measured." Students conduct a social media audit before creating their social media marketing strategies for their organizations and hear from a variety of digital media pioneers and innovators in the field, along with occasional field trips to organizations. This term, for example, students visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and charity:water.org and heard guest lectures from their digital strategy leaders, to learn more about how organizations apply the lessons in class to leading efforts to use digital communication strategies to benefit society. Student Margretta Willemin, who developed a digital media strategy for the Riverside Park Conservancy this term, said, “We are not only learning the most efficient and effective ways of building supporter engagement online and on mobile, but we are also learning how to measure the successes and failures of a nonprofit's social media use.” Stepanek said, “Ultimately, the goal is to grow engagement, improve fundraising, and grow the brand.”

Student Work: Riverside Park Conservancy Video by Margretta Willemin from Columbia Professional Studies on Vimeo.

Carlos Aubert, whose project video focused on the community space, sustainability and anti-poverty hub SureWeCan.org, spoke about the value of the course. “The tools obtained in this class will allow me to optimize resources for an organization and enhance their ability to communicate. It’s important to emphasize that this course provides extensive knowledge about social media, crowdfunding, measurement platforms, and especially storytelling and creation of multimedia content, a very powerful tool to generate engagement.”

Pulgram noted the personal benefits of the course. “Making the video gave me a highly personal connection to one of CAN's key constituents, Chef Evan Hanczor, a healthy food advocate. My time with him in the field and at his restaurant brought me into his world, and gave me a personal understanding of his perspective and commitment. It’s personal stories like his that will resonate most clearly with an audience.”

Student Work: Sure We Can Video by Carlos Aubert from Columbia Professional Studies on Vimeo.

“I've never made a video of any kind,” said Pulgram, “but I was intrigued and excited to learn how to create a video that would communicate what a nonprofit does, why, and what impact it has on the world.”