CHARITY VIDEOS: The Vision Thing

Caspar VanVark

4. Think about your audience at an early stage. Is this a film for a small number of high-value donors, or a general profile of your organisation?

5. Get mileage out of the film. Try having it on your website to maximise the potential audience.

6. Films are expensive, so find out about grants and sponsorship, such as the Awards for All scheme, which donates up to £10,000.

7. You may be offered services for free, but make sure you still have the same level of involvement in the film that you would have as a paying client.

8. If you're sending the film to people at their offices, consider using CD-Roms. They can view it immediately on their computer, rather than having to take the video home.

9. You don't necessarily have to use a company aimed at the charity market - use contacts or word-of-mouth recommendations, as that can lead to discounts.

10. Try contacting film and art colleges to find talented budding film-makers. You could end up with a fantastic film at a bargain price.


End Child Poverty held an evening reception in June this year where Chancellor Gordon Brown was the keynote speaker, and wanted to show a film at the event to illustrate more powerfully the issue of child poverty.

"We were concerned with finding a way to get children's voices into the event itself," says Graeme Brown, development director at End Child Poverty. "Sometimes with a room full of suits, kids will be intimidated and it's not the best setting for them to make a live presentation."

Instead, the charity commissioned film-maker Thomas Hadley to make the film. Funding came from sponsorship by financial services company Zurich, and the entire film was finished in 15 days.

The project was put together in record time. "Thomas Hadley made the film at breakneck speed," says Brown. "We gave him a brief in terms of the approach we wanted, in that we wanted children's and young people's voices to come through on the the key issues around poverty to do with income, health and education."

Hadley based the film around interviews and conversations using two sources: the Hackney Quest youth group in East London, and school students in Deptford.

They came up with some powerful messages, which were heard by Gordon Brown and other key policymakers at the event.

"There was one girl who said something like 'I'd like to study to be a lawyer but I don't think my family could afford the books'," remembers Graeme Brown. "A lot of people on the night mentioned they were very struck by it, and one reason was because of the style - because there were no adult voices. It was a strong message from the frontline."

Now that End Child Poverty has the film, it plans to use it in other ways and at other events. It will also be looking at putting the film on its website.

Moving pictures are worth a thousand words for charities wanting to get their message across, but film-making is an expensive business, so how can organisations make the most out of the medium? Caspar VanVark reports.

Cast your mind back to 1985 - the year of Live Aid. You might remember Bob Geldof shouting "give me your money!" at the cameras, but the films that showed the plight of people in drought-stricken parts of Africa packed a far greater punch.

Film is a powerful medium, one which is often used by charities to get their message across. And the films don't always have to be tear-jerkers that seek to raise money. While some films are aimed at high-value supporters, others are made for the purpose of giving an overview of a charity, for education in schools, or staff training.

The Treehouse Trust, established in 1997, pioneers a new form of education for children with autism in the UK. Until the Trust was founded, the technique was not available in this country and the charity found itself bombarded with requests for information. It used film as a solution.

"We wanted to think strategically about how we could share information about our work," explains Susan Beck, fundraising manager at the Trust.

"We thought it would be great to have a video, and it was a two-pronged approach, because it would raise awareness and be an information dissemination tool."

Cost was obviously a factor - film-making doesn't come cheap - but the Trust managed to obtain a grant of £5,000 from Awards for All, a small-grant scheme, which gives up to £10,000 to successful bidders. A production company had initially offered to make the film for free, but later retracted the offer, so the Trust approached FishEye Television, which agreed to take on the work at cost price.

Film production companies such as the Media Trust and Trojan Horse Productions specialise in charity films, but the Treehouse Trust chose FishEye because it had a personal contact with the firm.

"We wanted to go to a company where we had contacts and inroads," says Beck. "We wanted to be able to say, 'look, we have a minute budget, but will you help us because it's important to get this video made'. So we were able to negotiate a low fee, and I'm not sure we would have been able to do that if we hadn't had the contact there."

But Beck adds: "I do think it's important that you pay your production company, because when you're a paying client you have more control over the project."

The issue of control is an important one, because charities obviously want to make sure that they get the film they want. Production companies need a clear brief and they'll welcome the charity's involvement.

The Media Trust makes films for charities and owns the Community Channel, which is dedicated to screening charity films. Production assistant Matt Rye says it helps if charities are clear about what they want, but they don't always know.

"Charities often have quite a clear idea of what they want and it can make life easier for us if they have a specific concept or message to get across," he says. "But sometimes they'll just come and say they want a promotional video, and we'll tell them to come up with some key messages. Then it's up to us to write a script and get it approved by them."

Rye points out that making films is an expensive and often complicated process, so it's important to have good communication with the client and approval as the project progresses. However, charities also need to know when to sit back and let the professionals do their job.

"It is better for them to have strong ideas, but the problem can sometimes come at the editing stage," he says. "Sometimes their ideas will clash with ours, because generally they're not as experienced in that process and the procedures may throw them a bit. They can get a bit over-involved."

Cost is a big issue, and while some charities are able to obtain grants and sponsorship, it's still important for companies such as the Media Trust to be affordable. "We're a charity ourselves," Rye points out. "And we use a lot of media professionals who are happy to work voluntarily or for a lower fee. We get a lot of postgraduate students who work for us for a couple of months, and we also have arrangements with other media companies that give us lower rates, for things such as duplication and distribution."

Larger organisations may not even use film production companies at all.

Christian Aid makes around 25 films a year, enough to make it worthwhile investing in its own film-making resources. It has three edit suites and its own producers and cameraman, topping up with freelancers when needed.

For its large output, that brings savings and the advantage of control and ownership.

"It's an issue of copyright too," explains Robin Prime, Christian Aid's video archivist. "We want to make sure everything we do is ours and not someone else's work that we have to pay for if we want to use it again."

Having an archive of footage can sometimes bring in revenue too, because Christian Aid often charges organisations that want to use its films for their own purposes. Getting the charity's name into the public domain is the first priority, however, so Christian Aid usually provides footage without charge providing it receives a credit.

Recycling option

One of the concerns some organisations have about making a film is the value they'll get out of it - will it be shown once and then filed away?

This doesn't have to be the case, as charities can get a lot of mileage out of a promotional film, but campaign-specific ones may have a shorter shelf-life.

Christian Aid's set-up means it can recycle its reels. "Because we archive our footage, it makes it easier to re-use it in other films," says Prime.

"So that means we're not reshooting all the time. A lot of our films will be made up from footage shot a couple of years ago."

Film is really coming into its own with the internet, too, especially as more people take up broadband. Christian Aid's website, for example, has a selection of video material, including a film of Joseph Fiennes visiting Angola to report on the exploitation of oil resources. Rather than send out 200 copies of a video at great expense, putting a short film on a website can give charities an audience of many thousands, at little cost or effort.

Getting the film onto terrestrial TV is a real coup, but can prove a difficult task. But it does happen - Christian Aid sends films for free to major news broadcasters in the hope of getting some coverage, and the footage of Joseph Fiennes in Angola was shown on GMTV, along with an interview with the actor.

But is film a suitable medium for every type of charity? Its power is obvious for certain subjects, usually emotive ones such as starving children, orphaned chimpanzees, and birds caught in the latest oil spill. But what about less photogenic issues such as trade laws?

Rye of the Media Trust says it doesn't really matter what the issue is, as long as it's clear. "It's not really any easier or harder to make films about one subject or another, as long as there is a key concept to get across," he says.

Christian Aid's Prime agrees, giving the example of a film it made about trade a year ago. The subject matter was the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank, and the charity used actors to play the parts of the organisations. "It's just something you have to think about more, and the scripts have to be spot on," he says.

Even if an issue is filmworthy, charities can face many obstacles while trying to make the film. The Inside Out Trust, for example, made a 15-minute film about four years ago exploring its work through the eyes of a prisoner, which took around 10 months to complete, mainly because of the difficulty of getting permission.

"It's not easy to film in prisons," says June Ward, arts project co-ordinator of the Trust. "You have to get clearance for the camera crew and that can be difficult, also you've got to get disclaimers from prisoners, so it's a slow process."

The trust, which tries to encourage prisoners to carry out work that benefits disadvantaged people - giving them skills which make them less likely to reoffend, while also helping the general public - is now working on another film to support its 'employment inside and out' scheme, which tries to match employers with potential future employees.

At the other extreme of the film-making timescale, End Child Poverty made its most recent film in just 15 days (see case study). Most will be somewhere inbetween, depending on where you're shooting, what you're spending and how long the film is.

"Generally it's surprising how quickly they're made," says the Media Trust's Rye. "A medium-sized film on a medium-sized budget might have a month in pre-production, a month in production and then two weeks in post-production. It just depends on the budget and deadlines."


1. Decide exactly what you want from a film before you try to commission it. Production companies need a clear brief from which to work.

2. Listen to the advice of your production company. Tell them what you want, but let them do their job, especially in the editing suite.

3. Don't assume that your subject isn't sexy enough for a film. It's the job of the film-maker to make a story come alive on celluloid, and a good one will do just that.

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