The Washington Post

Stone Soup stirs film talent with nonprofits in need

Best Practice: Building a volunteer base.

Nonprofit: Stone Soup.

Type of work: Film production and communications strategy for nonprofits.

Location: Northwest Washington.

Budget: $400,000, includes in kind services

Number of staff: 2 full time, 2 part time.

Marc Alexander, a struggling freelance film editor, offered his expertise to charity and landed a job.

Fresh out of American University’s film school, Alexander was looking to break into the District’s often insular production industry.

He came across a volunteer position online for a nonprofit production company called Stone Soup that needed help producing a promotional video for another nonprofit. During the shoot, he met crew member Jennifer Burton, co-founder of Envision Communications, a political consulting firm. Impressed by his work, Burton offered Alexander work to do projects for her company. Now four years later, Alexander is on staff at the company with 200 political advertisements in his portfolio.

Such stories are why Stone Soup founder and director Liz Norton said she no longer has to hunt for volunteers to support her charity.

“It’s about community,” said Norton, 46. “And the model has been very successful.”

The model works like this: A nonprofit lacking the budget to market to grantmakers and the public applies to Stone Soup for promotional material. Stone Soup, with a volunteer corps of production experts, assigns a crew to produce a project free of charge. Nonprofits walk away with a professional marketing piece and the video crews get to perfect their skills, network and get the satisfaction of giving back.

(The company takes its name from the classic folk tale about man who creates a tasty meal by coaxing strangers to contribute ingredients to a pot of boiling water containing just a stone).

“It’s a win-win on every level,” said Norton, who started the company in 2008. She prides herself on the high skill requirements of the volunteers. Aside from its internship program, Stone Soup does not accept inexperienced volunteers. So the nonprofit boasts a database of producers and editors from companies including Discovery Channel, Al Jazeera, ABC, Corcoran Gallery of Art and National Geographic.

Starting out

Having experienced hands is important to Norton.

A stay-at-home mother with young children, Norton took a break from years of working in politics in Washington and then producing shows in New York City. While working for her family’s foundation, she visited a teen pregnancy nonprofit that was seeking a grant.

Norton said she was impressed with the operation, but appalled by the quality of a video she was shown promoting the charity. “It was so horrible and uninspiring.”

Soon after, she began researching ways to help nonprofits improve their marketing. In 2008, she rented a 150 square foot studio at $700 a month, got incorporated as a nonprofit, and began working on a film for Bread for the City.

Her first few volunteers were industry friends and film students.

The volunteer base grew after the group started recruiting at job fairs. Norton forged partnerships with local universities, and began teaching workshops and speaking on industry panels.

Now Stone Soup has 350 volunteers and it donated videos and services worth $275,000 to charities last year.

The Urban Alliance said a Stone Soup video promoting its youth development efforts helped the nonprofit secure a grant.

We linked the video to our year-end appeal that goes out to donors,” said Jee Pae, chief development officer of Urban Alliance. “We received additional donors.”

While Norton is proud of the the organization’s model, she is sober about her own fundraising challenges. About 70 percent of its budget is from in-kind and pro bono services. The rest, about $125,000, is raised through grants, workshop fees and fundraisers.

The organization hired a part-time development director last week to pursue more funding. Norton said one untapped revenue source might be donations from the companies that employ her volunteers.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.



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