Ethical Storytelling Shifts the Energy

Ethical Storytelling Shifts the Energy

August 19, 2020
28 minutes

Ashley Gutierrez · Founder, |  Listen in as Ashley and Justin Wheeler, Funraise CEO and Co-founder, recall the worldwide response to KONY 2012's viral video, talk about how people-first storytelling sits at the intersection of social justice and mental health, and discuss why nonprofits' media operating budgets are holding them back from creating greater impact.


In 2012, Ashley Gutierrez experienced firsthand how the power of a story can shift the narrative. She took that experience and has brought it to nonprofits all over the world as a master storyteller with impact storytelling group

Working for Invisible Children in Uganda during the KONY 2012 campaign, Ashley's role was to document its effects in East Africa, to tell the story from the perspective of local leaders. As Invisible Children's video went viral, the energy shifted; people felt heard and seen, and they understood that their stories mattered, which encouraged them to share their experiences on an even deeper level.

As Ashley notes, the Latin origin of the word "emote" is "to stir, swell, or move", so our natural instinct to sway hearts and minds with emotional tales has a long, storied history.


Hello, I'm Justin Wheeler and welcome to Nonstop Nonprofit. Last week, we talked to Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children. It's a rad episode! Go this and if you haven't already. And this week we're talking to another Invisible Children alum who's taken those key experiences and turned them into a voice for nonprofits. Ashley Gutierrez is the award-winning filmmaker behind Cliff Co, an impact storytelling group she founded with fellow Invisible Children colleagues. Their focus on the intersection of social justice, mental health and the stories behind it have led them to be the pioneers in the practice of ethical storytelling. As I talked with Ashley. Her people-first approach became obvious. The way she tells stories pulls from both her experience in the nonprofit sector and the trainings she's been through to become a therapist. This is the expertise that draws in audiences and moves them to act. Listen in as Ashley and I recall seeing the world respond to Kony 2012's viral video. We also talk about the surprising healing we witness even in the midst of great oppression and injustice. And discuss why nonprofit's media operating budgets are holding them back from creating greater impact. Let's dive in!

Justin Wheeler Well, Ashley, thank you so much for joining the podcast. It's so good to reconnect. It's been, I think, over 10 years. So I'm so excited to catch up and learn more about what you're doing with video and the nonprofit world.

Ashley Gutierrez Yeah, thanks for having me, Justin. It's good to see you and be able to connect this way.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. Let's get started. Since we both worked at Invisible Children different times. So we have that sort of common thread. I'd love if you could share just like what got you into the nonprofit community to begin with? And how did video become such an important part of what you did today?

Ashley Gutierrez So actually, what got me into the nonprofit community was watching a documentary film, Invisible Children's first documentary when I was in college. And so I had a very, you know, real life-changing moment where I was studying broadcast journalism, creating stories for four news. And I knew after watching Invisible Children spell that I wanted to tell stories in a different way for a different purpose. Now, I've been in the nonprofit media space for a little over 10 years. And as you mentioned, you know, you and I both got our start at Invisible Children, which now at one point was like a leading example of like I youth-oriented, action-oriented movement. We really used media and I worked there for almost six years, creating short and long-form films and learned a lot. Saw success. Saw small failures, too. And they just reached a point where thinking about what else I wanted to do, I just saw so many organizations, people that were doing really, really amazing work and adding so much value to the world and so much hope. And it's like, how can I take what I've learned at Invisible Children about story, about filmmaking, communication, and help other organizations tell their story in an effective way? I left Invisible Children in 2014 and Cliff Co was started from that question like how can we help more organizations tell stories? And it burst through friendship. Fellow team of creatives from Invisible Children, friendship, collaboration and just a belief that stories can really connect and move people across culture, language, and we kind of create from that core belief in the power of story.

Justin Wheeler That's awesome. I'm excited to come back to Cliff, go and talk a little bit more about the company and types of products you guys work on. Before I get into that, I'd love to know. I mean, so many nonprofits that we work with and have come in contact with. The question I feel that they always ask is, how do we inspire young donors, people to give in? And so when you were in college, that inspired you, once you saw the film to actually do something, what was it that that got you to move?

Ashley Gutierrez Being told what I could do and that my voice, like my presence, my participation could actually affect change because learning about like an overwhelming humanitarian crisis, it felt like physically sobering, overwhelming, like, oh my gosh, what can I possibly do here with my very limited resources? And Invisible Children in that film just made it very clear of how I could participate and how I could affect change. So that was, I immediately joined a club, on my campus, university and got involved.

Justin Wheeler That's awesome. It's very similar for me. It was a little bit earlier in 2005 and it was the second screening of the rough cut. And so it was Laren and Katie Bradel. They came to our university and I was a sophomore in college at the time and they shared the film. And I felt like I just got punched in the face after. It was one of the most insane thing! I had no idea there was such a thing as child soldiers and the way the story was told. I was used to like growing up, like hearing stories, not told in that way... I mean, I hated documentaries. I couldn't stand them before. And this was just it was so well put together, like it held my attention that at the end I was like, I have to do something. So the next day I looked up on Invisable Children's site like where are they showing this thing next. It was about an hour away. And a friend of mine, we drove to the screening. Bobby was at that one speaking at. And then we asked Bobby, what can we do to help? This was before the nonprofit existed. It was just the three filmmakers, you know, getting the story out. He told us to go to Uganda. And I was like, what? And I'd never been out of the country at this point in my life. And it was a few weeks before summer. And we were back to our dorm at night, bought tickets to Uganda and spent the summer in Uganda. That was my introduction, but totally resonated. Just, like, do something. Like that's really what it was. It was just this idea that, like, if you care, you're passionate, you've got to do it. And I think this is where a lot of nonprofits get it wrong as they make it so hard for people to get involved, especially young people who have so, so much they actually can do even in a pandemic age behind the screen. They can do so much. They just have to be inspired first. And I think that's important. So that's why I want to jump in, actually before jump into Cliff though, I have one more question for you. You were at Invisible from 2009 to 2014, which means you were there during a very interesting time, Kony 2012. So I know you were split between Uganda and San Diego? So were you in the office for the craziness of Kony 2012? And could you talk a lot about that experience?

Ashley Gutierrez I was actually living in Uganda at the time that Kony 2012 was released, and the aftermath. That film, that campaign was a long time in creation. So I was a part of the conversations and the lead up to it. But when it was actually released, I was living in Uganda at the time. So my main role in that was to document what was happening in the region, in East Africa, and talk with community leaders and government officials and representatives, people that have been affected by the conflict and help tell that side of the story.

Justin Wheeler How is it to be in Uganda at the time of Kony 2012? And let's say fast forward six days after Kony 2012 when the video had gotten 100 million views. At the time, Invisible Children had hundreds of employees, Ugandan employees working in Uganda. What was their reaction to just sort of the impact this film was was making and having in the US? What was it like to be in Uganda with the team on the ground during that time?

Ashley Gutierrez There were waves. Waves of different types of energy. But what I remember was just a sense of pride and encouragement that finally people were hearing and understanding and we're learning about something that affected communities for decades. And it was a point of care and attention. And so there was a lot of groundswell and good energy around that. And then alternatively, when the narrative started to shift, it became really hard. The energy was still there. People wanted to talk and speak truthfully about their experiences and what was happening because the narrative and the focal point just started to shift during that campaign. So there was pain in that, too. It got really tough.

Justin Wheeler Well, we're going to bring Jason onto the podcast in a few days and to talk a little bit more about what it was like for him. We're gonna talk about mental health and we're looking forward to that conversation. But anytime I get a chance to talk with individuals that were a part of the campaign, it's always great to learn about that experience. And so I want to transition to your company that you started with, Cliff Co. Obviously, you spent so many years at Invisible Children, saw the power that film had on, I mean, we could take millions of people around the world. What led you and what inspired you to start your own media production company? And are you working with only nonprofits to that

Ashley Gutierrez So we are working only with nonprofit organizations. And it really, like I mentioned, it just burst out of that question, like, how can we help organizations tell stories more effectively? And it really came like a belief of we've been through some really successful campaigns and some really tough things, and we want to apply some of the ideas and some of the things we know work to other organizations. So me and a group of creatives, we all transitioned out of Invisible Children at separate times and found each other doing freelance work for a variety of clients. And we missed working with one another. We'll miss that collaborative spirit. And like iron sharpening iron. Creative ideas are births. And so we moved into a shared office space. We started collaborating on projects and we started building a portfolio together. And Cliff Go kind of just grew through like truly friendship and collaboration and wanting to do meaningful and impactful work.

Justin Wheeler Wow. That's really cool to hear. Have you found it so since you work exclusively with nonprofits? I feel like we're just starting to kind of turn the page on convincing nonprofits that, like their digital presence, should be amazing. And they should have great websites and have a strong, you know, have a strong brand strategy. Where do you feel like the needle is at as it relates to nonprofits and video like the importance of video as a part of your programing, as a part of your overall mission communication? What's your take on how it's perceived today in the nonprofit community?

Ashley Gutierrez Often times I feel like nonprofits are held to really tough standard. I really admire Dan Pallotta's work and when he talks about marketing and the way like nonprofits, basically the standard that they're held to. And we know that a lot of times media and marketing for some organizations or with not a whole lot of operating budget, it's like a luxury. and it's the first thing to get cut. It's a major, major investment for a lot of organizations. And when we talk with folks, it's a lot of learning about how they communicate with their audience, where they're at, how their audience engages with them, because it is important. And I would love for there to be like an industry shift where video is more commonplace and not looked at as maybe like such a heavy, heavy, like a one-time investment, but more of a central tool and mechanism and communication strategy. And I think that shift is like it's it's happening. But we work with a lot of smaller organizations to where it's you know, maybe once like one time a year or once every other year where they're able to do a film.

Justin Wheeler Got it. So as someone that has told a lot of stories and is a very good storyteller and has told a lot of different stories for nonprofits, how does the nonprofit know when they have a story to tell, that should be through video medium. What are your thoughts on our help? How do you help nonprofits kind of guide them to create that story? That should be told through video.

Ashley Gutierrez So I say like to use yourself as a tuning fork. As someone who is working with an organization that assumes we like really believe in the purpose and the need for the work. Does this story strike a chord with you? And if it does, then why? Why does it strike a chord? And so using you know, starting with just internally, like, does this feel like something that could be worth exploring? And, you know, then it's is video the best way to tell the story? Because there's so many, there's so many ways that you can approach storytelling. It's like how do we want to think about this message? How might we communicate this? Like, what are our options? I also like something that is a part of our work. We do a lot of work with human trafficking organizations. And we also think about like the reciprocal relationships in creating nonprofit films and oftentimes, like the road to hell can be paved with good intentions. And so it gets really important to stop and examine, like how you tell stories and like the nature of the story that you're wanting to tell and consider the people involved in that process and the possibilities for re-draumatization or exploitation. And so just like we take a more sensitive, like, tentative approach in navigating, like just because it feels like, oh, my gosh, we have to tell this story, what kind of slow our partners to a pause and really think about like representation. And just like the power dynamics that can come in with some of these filmmaking opportunities.

Justin Wheeler Yes, that was a constant, I feel like a battle we had when I was at Liberty In North Korea. We were constantly helping North Korean refugees. And during part of the process was like this intake to better understand where they came from, what thier life was like North Korea and there was oftentimes that it was like this story like story has to be told, but individual would be like no, I don't want to tell a story. I just want to live go live a normal life. You have to respect that. That typically creates tension between, like the programming team and the fundraising team. So do you find yourself kind of in the middle there where you're often trying to understand, like, how do we tell this good story? How do we respect, you know, the program team and obviously the individuals that are being served by the organization? How much is that a problem for you or how often are you dealing with that sort of conflict within organizations?

Ashley Gutierrez Not so much. Like we have really amazing partners that care really about, like approaching especially at cross-cultural storytelling, like filmmaking in a really, really sensitive and mindful way. And we kind of only partner with folks who get that. The team and I talk about like what's called like ethical storytelling. And that's something that's a constant and lofty and constant like evolution but it means we attend to things like power dynamics, like the integrity of the story and like we put people first before the story and we think about the folks that we get to meet and we get to sit with and learn their story and really, really bring them collaboratively into the process. And how do you want your story told? Like maybe the organization or partner has certain metrics and things, but we're like really focused on the people whose story we get to tell. And it's kind of just something that we stick to and in filmmaking, constantly refining and learning and how evolve that?

Justin Wheeler Wow, what's one of your favorite projects you've worked on or one of one of your favorite videos that you and the team have made that you're really proud of?

Ashley Gutierrez There's many. So I really love the films that are highly collaborative and where the people that we get the honor of telling their story where they're like really involved in the creative process. And I love the bidirectional relationship where it's like our partner organization watching it and like this so, this is exactly what we wanted. And then also where if there's a survivor that we're working with of trafficking or war or genocide. Whatever, they're some of their origin is where they're able to watch the film. And it's like, oh, my gosh, that is me. That brings me back to this place or I'm really proud to see my story in this way. So it's kind of like the both ends of the projects are my favorite. And actually, right now we're working on a film for an organization as part of their end of the year campaign. And it's survivor-centric. So it's with a young woman who was sold in domestic servitude at five years old and spent over a decade in experiencing slavery and trafficking. And it's all first-person. So she's creating the campaign. She is creating the call to action. And it's honestly like one of my favorite projects. Also just navigating it and in a pandemic. So it's a lot of Skype's just different that our creative scope has changed over the last few months and how we approach that even. But it's become a really special project.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, I can imagine it's become it has become more challenging with obvious reasons. But you're still able you still have found ways to continue the work and to continue to tell the stories and have been able to sort of innovate on top of other guys this business model, and are still able to tell stories regardless of, you know, being on site and so forth.

Ashley Gutierrez Yeah.

Justin Wheeler Cool. That's good to hear. Something you said struck a chord. And I imagine that since you're working in the nonprofit space. Right, you're typically working on stories that are highly impactful and emotional. So how... Is it hard to be in that sort of work day in and day out, you know, whether it's behind the camera, behind the screen telling stories that are, you know, are just hard to listen to or obviously it ideally ends with hope and where the organization is trying to accomplish. But does that take a toll on you ever just being immersed in such heaviness?

Ashley Gutierrez Yeah, I when I first really engaging in this work, when I started with Invisible Children, it was like my world view got completely popped and shattered. Like you were mentioning. You saw that film and you didn't even know child soldiers existed and neither did I. And so at the start, I was just exposed to a lot that I did not know happened in the world and that was really heavy to witness. To hear. I'll say that not in a way where now that I've been, I don't feel desensitized because I still get emotional and feel really deeply but there's not at this point, there's not a whole lot that surprises me. In terms of human nature and also like possibilities. So I think what is helpful and what kind of keeps me in it is really, really, really having witness to healing and to restoration and for there to be possibilities, even amidst, like, great injustice and oppression. And that just comes like I've seen the both. But if I only ever heard like that, first part of the story would be really hard. But you know that there's other possibilities. So that kind of keeps me, keeps me on it.

Justin Wheeler Got it. Why, you know, you let me think about, like, a video that nonprofits making use of. Oftentimes it's tied to fundraising campaigns or something, you know, very specific. And I don't see a lot of videos that are made for brand awareness or at least just supporters cultivation or just as a medium to engage with their supporters and to be curious, to kind of hear like what sort of is your guys' approach with filmmaking? Is it to get the sort of user at the end of it to take a specific action like donating or is it something different? And I know that you work with so many different clients as probably spread out. So maybe the better way to ask this question is why should a nonprofit make a video? Like, what is the thing that the video we're trying to accomplish with the video that organizations should prioritize and should be this medium?

Ashley Gutierrez You call yourself in your question, it totally depends on the nonprofit and their use. But I think why like, just think about like, why video? It's a way to show rather than tell. And both are vitally important. But I think if the end goal is donating, it's a way to take your audience to a place where that's tangible or intangible in a way that they might not have access to themselves. So we'll speak specifically for the human trafficking organizations we work for. There are people on the ground who are like the hands and feet of those efforts, and videos are a way to show the impact and the work that is able to be done because someone decides to give. And so that the supporter is a vital part of that team. And so it's a way to make people feel a part of that team, to bring value and think about the emotional impact as well. And I like to think about like the Latin origin of the word emote is to move, like to agitate, to stir. And like a good story, a good video can be hugely compelling for the audience to want to do something. So yeah, I think it's a way to transport your audience at a high level.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. I love that. I mean, that's what moved. That's right. When we saw the rough cut of Invisible Children and a good story in general moves people to action. And it doesn't have to be financial, but it can mean so many different things. And so I love that. And I'm wondering if over the last several years, as technology has progressed, I feel like also video format has changed or has at least expanded. And so what I'm thinking currently within this pandemic age that we're living in is a lot of nonprofits have looks to do live streaming, whether it's like live streaming events, live streaming impact, some form or fashion of that. So have you guys experimented with that at all? If you work with clients and helped on the lifestreaming side of events or video projects or anything in that realm?

Ashley Gutierrez No, we haven't yet. But you're absolutely right with the innovation and how people are shifting and really finding beautiful creative solves and ways of connection. So we've not done any live streaming or anything yet. We were talking just throwing ideas out of a wall with one of our partners about how to move their in-person gala, which is for some organizations like they'll have gala where they raise the majority of their funds in one night and that's a big shift for a lot of folks. And so we've started ideas at the wall about what those digital, like what a digital gala could be, but haven't actioned on any creative yet.

Justin Wheeler Got it. So we, as you know, Funraise works with nonprofits all over the country. And oftentimes, you know, we hear and get requests for video work. So how can people get in touch with Cliff Co? What's the best way for them to reach out to you or the company to maybe inquire about working with your gas company?

Ashley Gutierrez Yeah! You can email. A way to reach out and say hey.

Justin Wheeler Awesome. Well Ashley, thank you so much for spending the time with us today to talk about your work, the importance of video and just your experience in the nonprofit community. We really appreciate it and look forward to sharing it with our listeners here shortly. So thanks for your time.

Ashley Gutierrez Thank you. Justin

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