A MOVIE IS WORTH A MILLION WORDS
Liz Norton, executive director of Stone Soup Films, refers to her organization as “an OKCupid for nonprofits.”
Founded by Norton in 2008, Stone Soup Films is a nonprofit production company that creates promotional films for other nonprofit organizations as part of communications strategy.
“So few (organizations) had them, and the ones that did were terrible,” said Norton, of her original motivation. With a background in public policy and production, she found herself reviewing promotional films for nonprofits, and finding them lacking.
“They didn’t know how to move the needle,” she said.
Stone Soup’s first production was for Bread for the City. The first year, they produced one film. In 2014, they produced 21. There are more than 500 volunteers, and five weeks each year are dedicated solely to editing.
“I couldn’t have predicted that (Stone Soup Films) would be the octopus it is now,” Norton said.
“Liz is just a doer,” said Niki Mock, a regular volunteer (Norton calls her an honorary staff member) with Stone Soup Films, “she makes things happen.”
A former broadcast news reporter and Peace Corps veteran, Mock was looking to combine her journalism background with her liberal ideals. The first film she worked on, she said, was for SAFE, a multi-pronged resource for survivors of domestic violence.
“I couldn't imagine how it would told through the eyes of survivors,” she said, “that a woman would be willing to let us put her story on camera.”
Through the production process, she became close with the three women being profiled. One of them, a mother of six, had escaped an abusive relationship. Mock recalls seeing the children’s joy upon entering their new apartment.
“Every time I intensely get into a story, it hits home how there is no difference between all of us,” she said. “As soon as you get beneath the surface, it could be your family."
THE POWER OF TRANSFORMATION
The name Stone Soup Films comes from the old folktale. It tells of wanderers who come to a village, hungry but with no food. So they fill a pot with water and a large stone, and put it over a fire, piquing the villagers’ curiosity.
“Stone soup is delicious,” the wanderers say as each person passes, “it just needs a bit of garnish.”
So each villager adds something – a handful of herbs, a bit of carrot, whatever they have on hand – and in the end, everyone shares in the soup.
“The idea is that collectively you can do something that you could never do on your own,” Norton said. “Filmmaking is very collaborative. I thought it was a terrific metaphor. Everyone brings their different skills and gives their time.”
Collaboration between Stone Soup Films and an organization involves a wraparound plan – not only a film, but strategic communication and distribution advice as well.
“We try to teach them how to fish,” Norton said.
And sometimes, they get a big catch. The Stone Soup film for one organization caught the eye of a donor who decided to give $100,000 a year, for three years, to that organization.
Stone Soup Films produces several types of film: Event-based “Doc in a Day” short-term productions, as well as longer term Partnerships. Interns help produce video blogs and “DC Heroes,” a series that profiles individuals effecting change in the DC area.
Norton said she prefers the longer investments of time. One of her favorites was Urban Alliance, an organization that pairs underserved high school seniors with paid internships, along with additional life skills and job readiness training.
"We met this young man when he was 17, his life was going in one direction, and that direction was not good."
Through the Urban Alliance program, the young man got a job at Morgan Stanley. By the end of his senior year, he’d worked his way up to an account, and was awarded a college scholarship.
"He is so exceptionally good,” Norton said. “The power of the transformation is amazing."
THE BEST OF WASHINGTON
The majority of work done by Stone Soup Films is pro bono. Only 20 percent of the films are produced for a fee, thanks in large part to dedicated, civic-minded volunteers.
“The model is so cool,” said volunteer Patrick Frank. The owner of a small media company, Patch Bay Media, Frank offers Stone Soup Films his services as a shooter.
"Every time I show up to a shoot, I'm like, 'wow, this is really cool, I've never heard of this.’ It's an opportunity for me to use my skills and give back to these organizations that are doing really great work. Hopefully from the footage that I capture, people will have the same impression I have."
At present, there are seven films in production, including Stone Soup’s first feature, which they’ve been working on for almost two years.
"Every day at (Stone Soup) you get to learn something new,” said Mock. “I love learning how people tick and what's behind everyone. There's a wide range and diversity of people."
Norton and her associates recognize that the most well-intentioned organizations can’t accomplish much without money and awareness, and are trying to use the medium of film for good, to help spread the word about the important work that is being done in the greater DC area.
“This area is really interesting, and that's a big part of why we've been so successful,” she said. “There’s a unique combination of incredibly competent, educated people in an environment where there is so much suffering. But then in the mix there's a swath of people who are not satisfied with that. Stone Soup pulls on the best of Washington.”
About the Author: Holly Leber is the editorial director at the Daily Do Good. Through her work, she is fortunate to learn all about the best of Washington.