Lessons Learned Filming My First Nonprofit in Action

May 24, 2017



In December of 2016 I traveled to Ghana to film a series of videos for the Ghana Health and Education Initiative. GHEI is a small NGO in Western Ghana that runs education and health programs in the community of Humjibre. 


I have been a film and television producer for many years, but this was to be my first time filming something documentary style and my first time as a one woman band. I was going to do all the filming, directing and sound recording myself. 

My experience reminded me that thorough planning is invaluable, invisibility is key, and your attitude and experience will show through in your work - so don't forget to pack a granola bar.


A few months before I was scheduled to fly to Ghana, I began speaking with the Communications Director for GHEI about how to tell their story visually. After several Skype calls to talk about the ins and outs of the organization I proposed doing one short overall video about the organization as a whole, one video on their education programs, and one on their health initiatives. That was it. End of planning.


I arrived in Ghana jet lagged and culture shocked. Everywhere I looked I saw something amazing I wanted to capture. And I did. I have a ridiculous amount of footage from the first two days that has nothing to do with GHEI, health or education.


On day three I snapped out of it and got organized. I wrote out a script explaining their Mother Mentor Program and made a list of shots I needed to tell the story. I enlisted one of the program coordinators to be my fixer. She helped me find my interview subjects, made sure I knew when the best time was to film at the clinic, and introduced me to all the babies in town for maximum cute factor for the video. 


LESSON LEARNED: You can't just wing it. An outline is crucial. For videographers your time will be used so much more efficiently and for organizations your story will be told so much more coherently. 




This is Documentary 101 but you have to figure out how to make yourself invisible in order to get the good stuff. 


I had brought all of my fancy camera gear that helps me get the steadiest images and capture the most beautiful light but to kids, and adults, in rural Ghana I'm sure I looked like a Transformer. One of the few white people in town, I was already a spectacle but the camera put me over the edge. As soon as I arrived anywhere everything would stop and I would just get stares. When I would do interviews and stand behind my intimidating camera, normally bubbly outgoing subjects would practically shut down. New plan!


I went back to my room and stripped the camera down the the bare necessities and carried it around in a small bag. When I would show up to a school or clinic to film, I would try and just hang out and talk first. Explain who I was and what I was hoping to film. After a bit I would I take the camera out. It made a huge difference. Don't get me wrong, the kids were still all over me and wanted to ham it up for the camera but they grew bored of me much quicker. 


LESSON LEARNED:  For filmmakers, you have to get over the fear of missing something amazing and trust that a more at ease subject is better in the end anyway. For organizations, the more you can prepare your communities in advance, the better.




GHEI is located in an extremely remote part of Western Ghana. Electricity is intermittent, the heat is intense, and water needs to be treated before you drink it. Coming from the US, these are conditions you have to adapt to and it can take a minute. On the morning of an awards ceremony for the education program, I hadn't slept the night before at all, I had camera batteries that wouldn't seem to charge, and I hadn't gotten enough to eat for breakfast. This was not me at my finest. 


I wasn't convinced that this awards ceremony would fit into any of the stories we were trying to tell and I didn't want to go. It was really important to one of the coordinators though, so I went but my heart wasn't in it. The footage is so boring. It is technically fine but I didn't get any of the kids expressions as they received their awards. The teachers were so proud giving out the certificates and I only filmed them from a distance. And it turns out that footage would have been great in the education video. 


LESSON LEARNED: Pack a Clif Bar so you don't throw away your money shot!


I did manage to get this one great shot of these students enjoying their reward for top grades that semester, ice cold Coca-Colas!



These are just a few things I learned on my first adventure in non-profit storytelling. Looking back, these seem like pretty basic things I could have avoided but they weren't at the time. And they might be things you could avoid as both a videographer and an organization.


As Do Good Films is still a new venture for me, I am learning so much with every project. I would love the opportunity to hear your organization's story and talk about how we can capture that through video. 


If you are curious about costs, check out the post I wrote about Why Video Costs What it Does here


You can get in touch with me at ashley@dogoodfilms.com




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About the Author

Hi, I'm Ashley Bearden, a digital film and television producer based in Brooklyn, New York. In my 15 year career, I have had the opportunity to work on projects as varied as series for Anthony Bourdain's Explore Parts Unknown, The Onion, and The Sopranos. As an antidote to the stressful world of commercial production, I produce promotional content for non-profits and social enterprises through my production company, Do Good Films. Connect with me on Instagram and Facebook!

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