#INTERVIEW: Michael Hoffman, CEO of See3 Communications, Discusses Why Nonprofits Need to Embrace Video

Michael Hoffman Standing in Front of Blue WallMichael Hoffman is co-founder and CEO of See3 Communications and a leading authority on online video for nonprofits and online fundraising and outreach strategies. After turns as a political consultant and developer of Internet startups, he founded See3 to bring together his vision of the web and his passion for nonprofit fundraising. The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal of Nonprofit Marketing 360 and a frequent contributor to the MKCREATIVE blog.

MKC: What was the concept of See3 when you founded it?

MICHAEL: See3 was a coming together of my background, which was really on the web side in terms of Internet business and strategy, and that of my partner, Danny Albert, which is video. Danny has been a documentary filmmaker for 20 years. Around 2004-2005, we both saw some trends that we call our ‘your chocolate and my peanut butter moment.’ I was telling Danny about changes on the web and the development of broadband (It’s hard even to remember that only a few years ago, some 90% of people were still using dialup). Broadband was around the corner and Danny asked me, ‘What does that mean? What will broadband do?’ And I immediately answered ‘video.’ When you have broadband web, the web will become a platform for video, just as it is with us talking over Skype now on this interview.

At the same time, Danny was telling me about how documentary film has changed. How things like the cost of equipment was going down and down. And also how in the social-documentary world − the PBS world that Danny has been in for a long time − engagement campaigns have become ever more important. It used to be that if you were a documentary film maker, you made a film and that was kind of it. You were done. Today, the funding is not just about the film, but about what is the social campaign around that film. So whether it’s a documentary about education, or about religion, or food, or whatever, those documentaries are not just about film any more. It’s about using the film to activate people.

So he was telling me about film is now to activate people and I’m telling him about how the web is going to change to become a platform for video, and we had this moment of coming together that created See3.

MKC: Has your concept of what you do evolved over time or is it pretty much the same core?

MICHAEL: Over the last few years we’ve stressed different things. One thing we didn’t want to fall into was the idea that we are just a production company. For us, video is just a tool − just like a website or email. If you’re a nonprofit, you really need a strategy. You really need a campaign. Who are we trying to move? What are we trying to get them to do? Why does it matter? Video really has to fit in that context. We always wanted to wrap the video services and the web services in that greater context. I think we’ve stressed our ability to think about these things as well as our ability to do them.

MKC: When clients come to you, what is it that they think they want? And what do they really want?

MICHAEL: I think all of our clients have the same bottom-line goals: to raise more money or recruit more activists or make good change in the world in some way. I think sometimes they think they know what they want so they come to us and say, ‘We need a video and we want you to produce that video.’ And sometimes they come to us earlier in the process and they say, ‘We have a problem’ or ‘We have a challenge. We need your help to figure out that challenge.’ We certainly like those conversations better, because sometimes the answer that comes out of it is not the answer we thought it would be or they thought it would be. In the end, it’s not about pretty pictures or pretty video or pretty websites; it’s about results: Have you been able to move the needle for your client.

MKC: Most of the nonprofits I work with come out of the gate saying, ‘We need fundraising.’ How video has performed as a fundraising tool?

MICHAEL: We get that question a lot now. I think that the most important way to think about the question is to understand that fundraising is not just about solicitation. You don’t just walk up to a random person on the street and say, ‘Can I have a $10,000 gift for this thing that you’ve never heard of yet?’ There’s an awareness piece of fundraising, of course there’s the solicitation phase of fundraising, there’s a thanking piece of fundraising that’s critical. There’s a stewardship aspect to fundraising that’s critical. So when we talk about video and fundraising, we need to think about how video fits all around that cycle, and not just focus on solicitation. Can I introduce them to a new thing, and get them to give money?

You do have a history of video raising money on television, of being really powerful in the sense of saying, ‘This child is going to die unless you send money.’ In that sense video can be effective directly in the solicitation, but for most organizations that would be the wrong focus. The right focus is to say, ‘Where is video going to fit across that cycle?’ I think you end up with a much more nuanced picture of how some video can be in the solicitation side of things, but with the bulk of video being in other parts – maybe to get people involved in the first place or to get people to sign up for something.

One place where video is extremely under-utilized in fundraising is in thanking people. The power of the web and of video is being able to treat your low-dollar donors the way you treat your major donors. If somebody writes a check for $10,000, the development guy picks up the phone and says, ‘I just got this check and I want to thank you for it!’ At See3 we’re trying to put video into that stream for low-dollar donors. Imagine when you send out an email thanking a donor for that gift, it’s actually a video of your executive director saying, ‘I really wanted to thank you personally for this gift.’ And imagine that video actually has your name in the video and has the dollar amount you just donated. And maybe even breaking down where those dollars go! Imagine seeing a pie chart showing where, say, your $40 goes. As a donor, you’ll watch and think, ‘Wow! I really made a good decision.’ It’s reinforcing your decision. I believe, and as we collect data I hope we can prove, that those people are more likely to give again, and are more likely to give more.

MKC: It sounds like what you end up recommending to your clients is a package that is a campaign, which may have a video and some kind of social media aspect as well.

MICHAEL: Yes, but we don’t have a one-size-fits-all package. It’s really about how you use your best assets. What we want to do with the Sierra Club is not going to be the same as what we can do for the little neighborhood organization working on their own environmental issues. Of course budget is a big factor as well. If an organization has a small budget, we often will not recommend that they have a professionally produced video, because that video could eat their entire budget and not leave room to do the other things that they need to do.

MKC: Then is video only for the bigger organizations? Or can smaller organizations make use of it with their limited budgets?

MICHAEL: There are great examples of smaller organizations using video, and there are great examples just now with the DoGooder Nonprofit Video Awards, which we run with YouTube. Those awards are organized by size of organization. In the small-organization category you see some incredibly creative people make videos that really aren’t expensive. It’s about having the energy to figure out how to do it.

For smaller organizations, especially, there has to be a commitment from the top to say, ‘We understand that this new world is happening, and we can’t bury our heads in the sand or simply claim we can’t afford it.’ The questions they must ask are ‘How can we do it? How can we afford it?’ There’s so many different ways to piece that together. That’s something that every organization has to struggle with, just as they struggled in the past as other new media have come up.

You can follow Michael on his blog, on Twitter [@Michael_Hoffman], or on the See3 website. Winners of the 2012 DoGooder Nonprofit Video Awards were announced last week. You can also see an example of personalized video here .

Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at

This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.

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