Video for good with Reuben Herzl

Episode aired July 22, 2021: Video For Good

Reuben Herzl of Groundmaking is an expert nonprofit video director and producer. There’s a lot that goes into making a great video which will mobilize supporters to take action. In this episode Reuben discusses 

  • the SPICE routine when preparing to record
  • tips on how to successfully film kids
  • what types of video your NPO should be recording and using
  • why you need to find the right story circle, not arc and 
  • how testimonials can help your fundraising efforts. 

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a video and storytelling expert, Rueben Herzl. Rueben, how you doing today?

Reuben: I’m doing well Ephraim. Thanks for having me.

Ephraim: A pleasure. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.  

Rueben Herzl is a documentary video producer and director focused on helping nonprofits tell their stories through video. He’s the founder of the video production studio Groundmaking. Since 2017, Groundmaking has served clients such as the California Community Foundation, Korea Town Youth and Community Center, Descanso Gardens and the Trust for Public Land. In 2019, Rueben was a speaker at the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference, with a talk titled Video Production in Your Pocket. 

Prior to his video production career, Rueben was the chief creative officer at Aclima, a technology company that builds air quality measurement networks for customers such as Google and the California Air Resources Board. Prior to Aclima, Reuben worked as a designer in architecture studios in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. He holds a master’s degree from the Yale School of Architecture and a bachelor’s degree in international economics from the University of California San Diego. Rueben is a certified advanced scuba diver, licensed commercial drone pilot and loves running on any mountain trail he can find. He lives in San Diego with his wife, three-year-old son and rescue mutt Siena.

Advance Preparation Before Recording

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss video. Let’s dive right in. Rueben, everyone has a smartphone. Everyone can record a video. What do they need to prepare in advance before hitting record?

Reuben: Well I guess now that everyone has something they can record on in their pocket, I think there’s  no excuse anymore but I still think there’s a few things you should do regardless of your budget before you hit record. I was trying to come up with a clever acronym to help me remember, so I came up with SPICE. If you remember from Dune, the quote goes, “he who controls the spice controls the universe” and so in this world of video production, I think these five steps are super important.

You really want to get first of all a scout of the location itself.  SPICE goes scout, permission, interview, calendar and equipment. You want to first get your bearings on the site. You want to ask yourself if you’re doing an interview where are the bathrooms, right? That’s going to be one of the basic questions someone’s going to ask and you just want to be able to point them in the direction of where they are. You want to know where the parking is. You want to know how the light is, if it’s noisy or distracting, everything about the environment. So the scout is by far one of the most important first steps.

You want to ask for permission, release forms and make sure that folks are comfortable with what is expected of them in participating in the video.

You want to actually interview them before you interview them on camera. Are they somebody who is comfortable sharing their their rock bottom stories, if you will. You want to know if there’s certain boundaries that you want to be aware of there and then.

C is for calendar. You want to have everybody on your team, as well as all the subjects and all the conference rooms you might be sort of booking on a calendar that everyone can have access to. That’s really important just from clarity of mind before you hit record. You want to make sure that everybody knows where they should be and when.

The last step is not just equipment. E is for equipment is just being your lights or your cameras or your sound equipment. You want to make sure you have everything you could possibly need on that day. If there’s a distracting disco ball in your frame, you want to make sure you have a ladder to bring that down. So scout, permission, interview, calendar and equipment.

How To Interview Kids

Ephraim: That is an excellent acronym and a very easy way to remember what you need before hitting record. You have compared filming kids to nailing jello to a wall. I happen to very much like that phrase. Please share with us tips on how to successfully film kids.  

Reuben: Well before you even bring out the camera, you have to nail their parents or their guardians to a wall because you really have to ask for permission. Make sure in your release forms you actually have this section that releases the minors. Anybody under the age of 18 years needs to have a parent or guardian sign off and so you know, that’s the first step in that process of filming kids. Make sure you have the permission.

If say you’re doing a spotlight on one kid’s story, having them sit down for an interview, I would say don’t put your eggs all in one basket. Interview more than one kid. If as soon as you bring out the camera or you know anything that feels just like out of the ordinary at being asked questions by a complete stranger, kids can freeze up. Sure they can say the darnedest things when you capture that but make sure you have some backups in your interviews or in your stories.

When it comes to actually asking them questions, I would say with kids and this applies to most anybody, not just kids, but ask for stories, not for answers. You might think about something in their past that for you might just seem like a really simple answer to ask them but you might want to ask them instead, tell me a story about that favorite stuffed animal that you lost when you lost your home. You won’t really talk about the home, you’ll talk about the specific experience of that child. That’s just one example. Another thing that is kind of neither here nor there is whether or not you want to be the fly on the wall that’s capturing kids with say an iPhone or if you want to actually take advantage of the fact that you have a distracting video camera in their presence. Some kids really love it because it’s like moths to a flame. They want to gravitate towards it. In some instances, if I’ve ever wanted to create a crowd of kids, I would just flip my LCD screen towards them, not even look at my frame and just watch them flock to the camera to sort of watch themselves making faces at each other and being as a group. Two kids becomes four and eight and twelve before you know it. So get down on your knees, get down to their perspective, shoot them at their eye level. That’s a really important tip. But yeah, I love shooting kids and I say have fun with it.

Types Of Videos To Record And Share

Ephraim: Fantastic, I like that. Have fun. I know how nerve-wracking it can be but definitely have fun. That’s the most important. Today’s actionable item: Please tell us three to four types of video a nonprofit should be recording and sharing with its audience and why or how each type can help the organization further its mission?

Reuben: Yeah, there’s actually a dozen or so different types of videos. I actually have a blog post on my website that kind of breaks down 12 or so different types but I’ll just go over four that I always go to. Number one is the client or beneficiary testimonial. This is an incredible tool that you can actually draw a lot of value from, not just from a video perspective but you can draw quotes from it, for publications or for print or for your website. That testimonial I’d say goes a long way and it really represents to any prospective donor or anybody who doesn’t know anything about your organization who do you serve. I think that’s one of the most important questions you have to be able to answer with that.

The second kind of falls in the category of behind-the-scenes type of content and it’s not necessarily just for social media. It could be an interview of your employees or the volunteers, the people who are actually behind the scenes doing the work of your organization. I think that content really answers the question to folks who are you. It’s an opportunity for you as an organization to show your personality and to show the faces of those people who are actually doing the hard work in the background. 

The third kind of video is more of a piece of evergreen content that I find folks benefit from and it’s the kind of content that you might make only every three to five years and I call it an agency anthem or nonprofit anthem. It’s something that you would play to somebody who knows absolutely nothing about your organization. It just sort of shows them, shows any viewer what you stand for and that’s a really important anchor for everybody to go back to.

The last kind of video is related to donor impact or to say videos that are focused on corporate partnerships. I know I’m kind of grouping a couple different concepts into each other but for me, this kind of video answers a question of who does your organization stand with to serve these folks and to do these things that the organization believes in and for me, the the kind of donor impact video is kind of a mishmash of a kind of testimonial as well as a kind of personal thank you. So it’s kind of a testimonial in sort of showing what the donor experience can be like but it’s also a personal thank you. In some instances I’ve found where it feels like you’re making that one video for that one donor and that in itself is extremely powerful when you want to show thanks to that donor but you know it just signals to other donors, this is what it’s like and this is what you can get out of this relationship.  

Capturing Moments That Inspire

Ephraim: Those are all four extremely important and definitely worth recording and then getting it out there to the masses. So you touched on this just now a little bit. Video is a wonderful and powerful way to tell a story. Your company groundmaking.com and here I’m quoting, “you capture moments that inspire others to think, act and donate.” What’s your awesomesauce in making that happen?

Reuben: What’s the awesomesauce? To me it really comes down to focus. We don’t do nonprofit work on the side. We’re not shooting weddings and corporate videos and commercials and things of this. I decided years ago that the space itself just needs a lot of support when it comes to marketing and video production. So for me it just it pained me to see and I guess a lot of the awesomesauce is from that focus, which basically means we can go deep on specific organizations.

I remember being approached a few years ago by the Koreatown Youth and Community Center in Los Angeles and the first thing they asked me was, we have a 30-second spot that we want to show in the jumbotron in the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles and in 30 seconds we want people to know who we are, know what we do and know all these different things. I was just overwhelmed. Like how in the world are you going to say all this in 30 seconds and also of all the people to help you do that is somebody who knows absolutely nothing about your organization. They put a lot of faith in me in the process and the process really required me to sit down with a bunch of employees and interview them back-to-back to back and really try to cull a story out of that. Really the one insight I came up with in that process of interviewing everybody was that this organization was not just about Koreatown. It was about serving tons of different people from all around the world. A lot of Hispanic, Latin American immigrants who are served by this organization.  So the 30 seconds was more about showing the diversity of all those different people and the only way we were able to do that was because we were able to go deep with the organization.

The Story Of One

Ephraim: Okay, so your awesomesauce is concentrating on a specific niche sector and being amazing at it. I love it. I often talk about telling the ‘story of one,’ using one service recipient to explain an organization’s mission and show donors how their donation is solving a problem in their community. Since this is your expertise, how do you suggest a nonprofit go about choosing the right person to tell that story?

Reuben: Well, I think… there’s the first kind of objection that some clients will raise which is the story of one is kind of a scary proposition, right? It’s like let’s put all our eggs into just this one basket and just sort of hearkening back to this other thing I said before and I always have to remind folks that we’re not making a video. We’re building a library. So although that story of one might be for the specific touch point, you are going to be seeing this in context. So just to kind of deal with that objection, that’s kind of how I recommend folks think about it. You’re building a library of content.

My recommendation for finding that one person to really help you out is really looking for folks who have a narrative. Not arc but a circle. So there’s this one gentleman that we interviewed for L.A. Family Housing a few years ago named Eric Montoya and he’s basically been for 20 some odd years, he’s been outreach coordinator for L.A. Family Housing. He’s going down into the trenches of the Sepulveda past, just finding those folks who are suffering the most from homelessness. And the circle in the story is that Eric used to be homeless himself and used to have that experience. So that kind of narrative circle is just… how do you say? It’s like the flywheel of a story, right? It just kind of feeds on itself. It helps in not only conveying to other say potential volunteers or employees. It tells a story. It’s a recruiting tool but it’s also just a value statement from the organization, showing who do you serve, who are you, what do you stand for. It kind of helps in that ability. I’m not sure if that makes sense but look for circles. Look for narrative arcs that come back on themselves.

Let’s Learn More About Reuben

Ephraim: That’s a very interesting way of thinking about it, because I’ve always been taught look for that arc and what you’re saying actually makes a lot of sense, especially in the nonprofit sector where you can build… you can form that circle in somebody’s head. Where they were, where they are today and how this organization helps them. I very much like that. Let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about you. So what did get you started on your nonprofit career path?

Reuben: Well I didn’t know I had a nonprofit career path until you asked. I didn’t really think of it that way. But I guess it goes back to when I was in high school. I always preferred making videos over writing term papers, so I try to persuade my teachers and professors eventually in college that instead of writing this paper, I’m going to make a video about it and most of the time they would say okay fine, because you know it’s fun for me and it was fine. So I made a short film about The Cask of Montillado in high school. It’s a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, with a bunch of friends and in college while I was studying abroad in Budapest, Hungary, for this humanities course actually made a short kind of mini doc about street musicians in Budapest and it was the first time I had actually interviewed anybody in a kind of documentary sense. 

But I actually diverged after college. I decided to go to architecture school and go down that path because I thought design was a really interesting path. But I ended up moonlighting on the side, using my design thinking skills to help start a tech company actually in San Francisco called Aclima and Aclima was an incredible opportunity. Let me step back. Aclima actually, it’s an environmental sensing network company and they built networks for Google or for city of San Francisco or all these different air control air pollution control districts throughout California and in the United States. Basically my role in the company was to help tell that really tough story about air pollution, how it impacts our health, how it impacts our planet and so from a storytelling perspective, it was incredibly challenging and I learned a lot about it.

But while I was at Aclima, I actually experienced the client side of hiring production companies to help tell that story. We had these small-scale videographers who would help out and then we had some larger budgets to really help launch the company with these videos and I decided, since I was in a leadership position, I thought why can’t we just do this in-house? Why can’t I do it? It goes back to writing, writing term papers. Why should I write a term paper when I can make a video? So I was always finding an excuse but the silver lining was also just being exposed to the startup world.  In the tech world we met a lot of philanthropists. It was in the early days of this whole concept of social impact and social enterprise and sustainability. This is back in 2007-8, 9 that I was learning these things and so I decided if I’m gonna do this on my own, I’m gonna focus and maybe maybe I can work at an agency. So I applied to an agency called verynice led by Matthew Manos in Los Angeles and they basically referred me for a project with the California Community Foundation to produce their annual report videos. It was six videos. It was a risky venture because this wasn’t my world yet. But yeah, that was the first project I got in L.A.

Ephraim: Cool. So now that you’ve been working with nonprofits and you know a lot more about the sector, if there’s one thing…

Reuben: A little more.  

Ephraim: A lot, more than a little. If there’s one thing you could shake up in the nonprofit world what would it be?

Reuben: Yeah. I think I was doing a Google search a few years ago on nonprofit rankings, whatever this was.  There was this one Google search result that pissed me off more than I was expecting. It was the phrase, I think it was Charity Navigator, it had a tagline that went above it. It said “perfectly efficient charities” and I was like what does it mean to be a perfectly efficient charity? What are they actually measuring? And you kind of dig in a little bit deeper and you realize what they’re measuring, to me it’s just… it just flies in the face of empathy. It flies in the face of where nonprofits could excel, which is taking risks in solving some of the world’s hardest problems. It flies in the face of team building, donor efficiency, all this stuff. It’s not something you’ll see on a 990 form. Sorry to get   in there but this idea of a perfectly efficient donor dollar just kind of drives me insane.

Ephraim: I totally get it. You’ve mentioned this before, so now we’ll follow up. What did you learn from your time as an architect in training?  

Reuben: I think architecture… well, I would not have met a met my wife if it wasn’t for architecture. We met in a in a studio, Kenner Architects in Santa Monica. So thank you architecture for that. I think a lot of the design thinking, tools in kind of making spaces work for human beings is part of it. But when it comes to filmmaking, it’s kind of a super power to be able to break down a building and know where, be able to predict where the light is going to be or where you need to… it’s giving me that ability to break down space and to really appreciate it as a narrative tool. It’s like everything in the background helps tell the story of a character, if you’re doing an interview of them. So I’m always thinking about how the architecture contributes to that story.

Ephraim: I like that. What license do you have from the FAA?  

Reuben: I am a certified commercial drone pilot under part 107, which means I can fly and get paid to do it.  

Ephraim: Cool. I saw that on your LinkedIn and I got curious as to what that was. Since you deal with nonprofits and you deal in video, a favorite all-time story kids story?

Reuben: Kids story. Well I have to be biased here. My son has been like… that favorite all-time story recently, it’s kind of not in the nonprofit sector work specifically but it’s just in the experience of watching him be fascinated by the digestive system. By intestines, by the stomach and all the stuff. He’ll make little Play-Doh models or whatever but what I’ve been trying to do is just interview him. Get these little snapshots of him just talking about how the esophagus connects to the pyloric sphincter or whatever. You asked me for favorite kid’s all-time story but like I gotta say it’s been with my son filming. My son has been super fun.

Ephraim: No no, that one wins. If it’s with the kids and the kid, that wins automatically. Lastly we will turn the table. You get to ask me one surprise question. I have no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Reuben: Yeah this is harder. I was trying to think of this phrase ‘comparison is the death of joy’ where if you’re always comparing yourself to somebody or somebody else, you’re just gonna extinguish your motivation. I was kind of thinking for myself who would that person be and it’s probably somebody you’ve never heard of. It’s a documentary director, film director out of Italy. His name is Gianfranco Rossi and he directed a film a few years ago called Fire at Sea which was about the migrant crisis in southern Italy, from all the migrants coming on boats to this island called Lampedusa. Anyways his work is amazing. I look up to him. Nobody’s ever heard of him but in my world, he’s somewhere there. So in your world of expertise, marketing, communications, nonprofit sector, all that stuff in your universe, who do you look up to that nobody has ever heard of?  

Ephraim: You know it’s funny because there are a lot of names in the field that I could use. But I’m gonna use one that nobody’s heard of simply because it’s my grandfather. One of the things within my bio that a lot of people don’t know is I’m a third-generation nonprofit executive and fundraiser. I go back to my grandfather who was doing this already in the 40s and in the 50s. He was also a teacher, he was a rabbi of a synagogue and then he went into real estate. But all the fundamentals that I have, he passed down to my father and then I got it and that’s what I kind of look up to. I had a chance… I got his speeches that he said as a rabbi in synagogue back in the 40s and 50s and 60s and I got them in his handwriting and I transcribed it and I published a book just for the family. But I had a chance to see how he prepares, how he talks, how he looks at… when he had to make an appeal from members of the synagogue for money, for whatever the cause was and to see how he did his ask and how what he was saying and how he prepared the speech and everything else. That for me is my guiding light because I learned preparation is the key to everything. He wrote everything out word by word and I have doubles and triples of certain speeches, because he didn’t like this so he’d go back and rewrite the whole four pages again in a beautiful script. So that’s kind of…   I look at that, I say that’s my guiding light. If I get to be ten percent as successful and as good as he was, I’ve done my job.  

Reuben: That’s cool.

Ephraim: That would be my… like you said, somebody who people don’t know. I’ve got one. Rueben, thank you very very much for appearing on the podcast today. I encourage everyone to connect with Reuben on LinkedIn and you can learn more about his work at groundmaking.com  It was a pleasure learning from you today Rueben. Thanks.

Reuben: Thank you so much Ephraim. See you later.

Ephraim: Have a good day. Bye.