The Power of Video

Thanks to Judith Weinstein and everyone at Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center for this blog.

The scenario

Organizations have long recognized the power of media to engage individuals in their mission, and a short, compelling video is arguably one of the best fundraising tools there is. Telling the story of torture survivors poses certain ethical challenges, but there are narrative challenges as well. The experience of torture is so remote for most of the target audience that it can be hard to relate to. Tell too graphic a story and the audience will distance itself; too vague, and we risk not reaching others emotionally. Two weeks before our 30th anniversary benefit, held in the spring of 2017, Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center’s challenge was to produce a powerful video that would be honest but not sensationalist, tell our story, and encourage giving.

This was not Kovler Center’s first experience in making a video. A number of years ago, we worked with Heartland Alliance to produce a short video about a survivor. In 2012, looking to create a video that would tell more about our mission, we sought the help of Michael Leck, a local filmmaker and recent graduate of Columbia College in Chicago. Kovler Center’s associate director of development had come across Michael’s videos on the internet, and especially liked the tone and look of other films he had created. When we reached out to Michael, he was fascinated by our work and humbled by the task, and offered to produce the video pro bono, as he was in the early stages of his professional career. Michael has since gone on to produce many more films, including one for the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles, where he now resides and has a rich body of work.

In the early months of 2017, Kovler Center’s plans for its 30th anniversary benefit, to be held April 27, 2017, went into high gear. For several months, Kovler Center had been working with Just Cause, a non-profit consultancy comprised of  Nancy Kohn and Lisa Acker. Our small but nimble benefit committee was inspired and energized by their wisdom and expertise and each time we followed their advice, it paid off. So, when they suggested making a video, we made a video.

How to produce a compelling fundraising tool in 15 days

While the previous video still seemed to have a lasting shelf life, we knew that it could not be shown at the April 2017 fundraiser. It had already resided five years on our website, and our guests – even the new donors – had already been initiated into Kovler Center’s work through tours and benefit outreach and thus did not need a primer on torture or our services. We needed to reach our donors—old and new—in an emotional and moving way the “night-of.”

But it was almost mid-April. The benefit was April 27. Did we really need a new video for the benefit? And at a time when we were already swamped with benefit tasks?

Lisa and Nancy showed us a video they had helped create for a cancer treatment program on the north shore of Chicago. Most of the benefit committee had been looking to other torture treatment programs or human rights organizations for inspiration on how to promote our work and would not have thought to consider a program like this, but it was revelatory. The cancer treatment center video showed individuals telling the story of their cancer diagnoses and treatment. Eventually, the viewer learns that they are not cancer survivors themselves, but are relatives of survivors or board members of the organization, telling the stories of others. At the end of the video, we were overwhelmed with emotion. And it hit us: to tell the story of a survivor is an honor, a profound act of humanity.

Yes, we needed a new video. And we needed it in two weeks. Someone shared the story of friends who planned a wedding in a month. We could produce a video in 15 days. And we were off!

The rest of the story can be told through the production timeline one of our team members put together to keep us on track. Distilling the seemingly impossible task of “produce a video in two weeks,” suddenly looked possible as the sum of a series of essential, indivisible tasks, each with a deadline and a responsible team member. This management tool, plus the collegial, enthusiastic and driven nature of the benefit team, made it happen. The following is a summary of the major tasks.

Selecting the Filmmaker

The consultants gave us names of a few filmmakers and videographers to add to the list the benefit team had generated. In the end, it came down to two filmmakers who were available for such a rushed production schedule. Luckily, they were our top two picks. Both submitted proposals to us, and the one whose work resonated the most with us turned out to be significantly less expensive than the other.

We provided the filmmaker with information about what Kovler Center is all about, including photos and details from distinctive Kovler Center activities, such as our cooking groups, that would inform his work.

Drafting Survivor Stories

Two members of the benefit team drafted three survivor stories – composites of several survivors’ experiences – and submitted them to two other members for editing. All components of the stories were factual. We wanted these stories to reflect different regions and male and female survivors. We changed the country, sex, age, and other elements of the stories so they would not be identifiable.

Selecting Narrators

We chose three staff members to relate these stories on film. That these narrators were ethnically and racially diverse was important, but also happenstance, given the diversity of Kovler Center’s staff. In advance of filming we provided the readers typed copies of the stories for them to review.

Establishing a Filming/Editing Schedule

The videographer had one day to film at Kovler Center. There would be a tight turnaround for editing of the versions that the filmmaker sent us, also according to established deadlines. The video was finalized two days before the benefit.

The Unexpected

The day of filming, the videographer asked if someone from the administrative staff could speak on film in general terms. We had not planned for this and therefore had not designated anyone in advance. It was obvious to all that this speaker should be senior director, Mary Lynn Everson. Not having planned to be in the video, Mary Lynn went before the filmmaker’s camera. The filmmaker’s second shooter asked her a few questions, questions that were typical of someone unfamiliar with our work. Perhaps it was the innocence of these questions, likely to be the same many in our target audience would have, that prompted a response that we believe to be as impactful as the survivor stories read on camera. We believe Mary Lynn’s unscripted response, the final words of the video, stated simply and powerfully, will resonate for years to come:

“There is nothing in what you see that will identify someone as a survivor of torture. But they’re here, and they deserve our attention. They deserve our help. And they deserve to have a good life in our country.”

We wish to thank Matt Wechsler of Hourglass Films, our benefit team colleagues, Peter Kovler, and all of the survivors who entrusted us with their stories so that we could join them on their path to healing.

The video may be viewed on the Kovler Center web site:

Contact: Mary Lynn Everson, Senior Director, Marjorie Kovler Center

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