Elevation Q&A: Liz Norton, Stone Soup Films

June 11, 2013
Erik Kyrka, Elevation DC

There are countless nonprofits in Washington with amazing stories to tell about their work. Unfortunately, many can’t—or can’t afford to—tell those stories in a way that ordinary donors and volunteers would understand. That’s where Stone Soup Films comes in. The organization creates professional quality documentaries for deserving nonprofits—absolutely free.

Liz Norton is a former television producer and the founder of Stone Soup Films, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary. The organization has now completed 25 films, recruited over 400 volunteers and seen its work on national television. Elevation DC sat down with Liz to talk about Stone Soup Films’ impact in the Washington nonprofit realm over the past five years.

What’s the inspiration behind Stone Soup?
I was on the board of a local foundation, doing site visits, and also a television producer. I was doing site visits for organizations that seemed very impressive and amazing. They would show me their marketing materials and they were horrible, and I couldn’t figure out why; couldn’t figure out what the disconnect was. I saw there was an enormous gap in the communication sophistication of nonprofits. And I was very sick of criticizing other people’s films. I thought that [criticizing] was a little bit half-assed, and maybe there will be other people like me, who can come in on a pro bono basis and fill this need. And it turns out it was more than just a hunch, because that was the beginning of a huge explosion.

Can you explain how your background helped you transition to this project?
I’ve been producing for 12 years, mostly for national broadcast, PBS and TV, and other freelance-type work for television. And I worked in the Clinton Administration in his first term, doing strategic communication in the areas of crime and drug policy, so the strategizing and messaging came from that, and the technical chops from my producing for national television broadcasting.

How does a nonprofit apply to Stone Soup Films?
We have a very rigorous application process that starts with an online survey. From that, we have a television conversation to determine their eligibility, and then we have a committee assigned to them. They do a site visit and an exhaustive investigation into their program, and also how visual it is.

One time we received an application from a pediatric HIV nonprofit that does incredible work that would make you weep, but we can’t make a film for them. We can’t show any kids; we can’t show what’s going on there because of privacy issues. It wasn’t until we went there that we realized, “We can’t do this.”

We also determine their capacity to be able to handle the film as a marketing tool and their ability to use it. So they can be a wonderful organization doing great work, but if they don’t have the capacity to market it or show it to volunteers, we won’t do it with them either, because then it’s not a good use of our time.

You’ve done many films on very serious subject matter. What requirements do you have to apply for Stone Soup FIlms?
We actually do not have any issue restrictions at all. We take any organization that is serving the people of Washington. They don’t have to have a small budget, but they have to have a small communications budget.

We did one for a food bank with a $6 million budget, but every single one of those dollars was tied up in programming, and their communications budget was $20,000. So we took them on because they could have never afforded it, and what we gave them was valued at about $40,000. They could never have spent that money. They have to have no existing usable video, and a small communications budget in proportion to their regular budget, and they have to be serving the people of Washington.

We’ve done more artistic stuff. We did a piece for an Asian-American dance troupe here, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be a heavy issue.

We did another piece for a camp inside a maximum-security prison for fathers who are never getting out of jail, but trying to have a relationship with their children. So they run this camp. It’s 25 hours a year inside the jail. And the problem was people didn’t think these kids had any business being inside of a prison; that these guys are bad role models, bad fathers. So we took all that information and completely tailored the film to show how every one of those opinions is bullshit.

If you don’t do it strategically, you are not helping the organization. If you just make a shallow piece about what they do, then you’re not moving or helping anyone. So they are really targeted, and that comes from my policy background.

What kind of individuals do you have coming to volunteer for Stone Soup?
A musician came here two weeks ago. He’s scoring two of our pieces, saving us hundreds and hundreds of dollars. We also have a guy who came in to design an animated bumper for our video blogs. So now we’ll have this super-cool animated bumper, something people would charge a thousand dollars for, and everyone does it for free. It’s a really cool spirit of people coming in here together saying, “Hey, what can I do?”

We could never pay everyone, so we don’t. Everyone does their work for free: professional photographers, cameramen. We even have a guy who works for Al Jazeera who does filming for us. They’re just really great people, and they really like the service aspect, the giving back.

How does Stone Soup Films fundraise?
A bunch of local foundations are huge supporters of ours. We get money from individual foundations for operating expenses, but we’re super lean.

We also offer classes that are taught by volunteers. Those classes help defray our operating expenses as well. The classes usually sell out. We do workshops on the weekend, like a DSLR workshop for $250, and it’s like the biggest bargain because you’re basically getting a hands-on tutorial all day from someone who shoots political campaign commercials for Newt Gingrich.

You have numerous partnerships with local universities, is there an emphasis on education?
We have partnerships with local schools because we have an internship program here. We take four interns every season. They’re getting an unbelievable education while they’re here. It’s very hands-on. They’re out shooting, in here editing, they make all of our video blogs. I like the fact that part of our deliverable is training young people to do service work, and to do it in a strategic way.

How many projects has Stone Soup done?
We’ve done about 25 so far. By next month we’ll have done 13 just this year. We’ve hired three people since December 2012. We have two part-time and two full-time people. We’ve been able to make much more because we can organize more and the logistics are better. We literally are in production on like 12 films right now. We made one film in our first year, by the way. And last year we made like 14. So it’s really ramping up.

But I laugh about that, because in the beginning I thought it was going to be hard to get people to work for free. Now we have this production schedule that says, “Here’s everything we need to get done the next month,” and within 24 hours, it’s full. We turn people away. Constantly. “Sorry, it’s full. Better luck next time. Respond faster.”

Have any of Stone Soup Films’ videos been televised locally or nationally?
Comcast picked up a couple PSAs. They showed 3 out of 5 minutes of the film we did for the prison camp on MSNBC. But that’s not really the objective. That’s just the icing on the cake. If it ends up being shown nationally, that’s great. But our objective is to help the local nonprofit increase their visibility locally.

For the demographic we’re seeking out, they don’t watch much television. It’s all about Facebook and Twitter, their websites, and pushing out viral videos. We’re more focused on mobile and Internet usage of our films. For example, we don’t make our titles too small to read on a phone. 50 percent of email and video is watched on your phone now. We’re trying to keep pace with how this media is consumed and being forward thinking for our partners to try to anticipate challenges they may have technologically. So we do that thinking for them.

Do you have anything to add?
As far as we know, we are the only organization in the country that is doing this service. We have not heard of anybody else who is using editors, cameramen, musicians, graphic designers, and all those people together to deliver marketing tools (free) for nonprofits. We’re kind of reinventing the wheel.

I like to say that D.C. is an interesting city, because it’s very divided. There’s a lot of well-meaning, sophisticated people with serious money who don’t know anything about what’s going on across the river. I think that’s a really big motivation that helps us here to match people who would like to donate to a causes they feel really strong. We’d like to educate them about organizations they would never have known about otherwise.

This interview has been edited and condensed.