Four Stories That Melt Your Heart. TBT to 1997!


Is That Kool-Aid on the Craft Service Table?

By Randy Murray

Let’s face it – the words “non-profit ” and “do-gooders” are used derogatorily in some circles. When you are not actively involved with organizations like Valley of the Sun United Way, it is natural to make a few assumptions about the effectiveness of the work being done. Twenty years ago, even I had doubts about how much they helped. But then, in 1997, I began working on this second campaign video for United Way. I got to meet and spend time with the people who are actually helped by this work. I was able to put a human face on the talking points of a script and everything became real and personal. My doubts were washed away and my perspective on this organization and the work of the caring community was changed forever. It was then that I drank the Kool-Aid.

BW Basketball Darren 2

The Tears of Pre-Pro

When I began pre-production on this video, I was given a number of potential stories to tell. The client wanted to drive home the message that they served the whole Valley, so I met with agencies all over our community. The stories I heard were so powerful and inspiring that I often had to sit in my car for a few minutes after hearing them just to compose myself.

Living in my little bubble of a life, it was a shock to realize how lucky my family and I were. It was truly humbling to sit across the table from someone who calmly shared their tragic and life-shattering personal story. I was completely blown away by the strength of character and fortitude these people had; I was equally inspired by the people who stepped up to help them.

Many of the stories were just too heartbreaking for a fundraising video – our task was to inform and inspire our audience, not make them cry in front of their coworkers – so we had to be careful in our selection. We finally settled on four uplifting narratives that we wove together in the hopes of making our audience feel good about giving to United Way. A mom and her son running from an abusive situation and the mentor who has changed the boy’s life. A young man with hemophilia who heals by giving back. A senior center giving joy and purpose to its residents. A man who wants his kids to think of him as “the greatest dad in the world who just happens to be blind.” And yes, I may have cried into that Kool-Aid I was drinking.

It Wasn’t Long… Long Ago

When we sit down to structure a fundraising video, we look at it the same way we look at a TV commercial, an episode of a TV show or a feature length project: we start with the objectives and apply those to a structure. We then keep those objectives in mind as each and every decision on the project is made, including the running time of the video. In this case, that was eight minutes!

Back in the day, they tested people’s attention spans while watching TV and found that people stayed engaged for twelve minutes at a time. But we were not going to be any longer than eight minutes. We wanted to be quick and to the point!

United Way Winners Graphic

Ah, how times change. An eight-minute video is almost feature length by today’s standards. Tests are finding that we may only have an attention span of eight seconds! Yes, eight seconds! This is why today’s world is filled with fast cuts and super short videos. So relax and enjoy the leisurely pace of 1997 as you watch the video. Oddly, it is kind of nice to see the slower moving graphics and to have the stories take their time.

The Sun Rises Early

It is true, I have a thing for sunrises. While they are not always as fantastic as sunsets, they are the more forgiving golden hour. Once the sky goes dark, you are done. On the other hand, if you start your day with a sunrise and it takes longer to get your shot than expected, you can still get your shot. So I shoot a lot of sunrises. (The night owl in me does not like the director in me. I think many crew members and talent feel the same way.)

In this video, I needed to interview a blind man and decided that a beautiful sunrise with a panoramic view of the Valley would bring power to his story. So I selected the top of South Mountain for his interview. We got up early, got up the mountain in the dark in time to hike to the vista and set up the gear, and filmed the interview at the golden hour Рall for a detail many people do not notice. But we do. And I feel it brings much more to the shot and the video overall.

South Mountain Sunrise

Four Lives

The four stories told in the 1997 United Way campaign video were selected to create a balanced watching experience. As I mentioned earlier, we wanted to tell stories from all over the Valley and we wanted to show that United Way helps a diverse group of people.

We started with a story about a super cute boy and his mentor. While this story focuses on an investment in our future, the back story is also important: he and his mother were homeless because they ran from an abusive situation. We eased the viewer in and let them get comfortable.

United Way Mentor Program - Firefighter

Is That a Cuss Word?

The second story also takes an uplifting spin. A story on life with hemophilia, we focused on this young man’s experience helping kids at a camp while just touching on the fact that his uncle had recently died from AIDS. This horrible disease was a controversial issue in 1997 and we felt it was important to include the fact that it is not always sexually transmitted.

When you watch this story, you might get a glimpse of an inappropriate word spray-painted in Spanish on the wall behind him. We did not catch this until the video was released. In the end, we decided to leave it as the shot was designed to show how difficult and hard life was on the street. It was a place where graffiti like this was a part of their daily life.

Graffiti Hemophilia

Dancing and the Dark

We knew we wanted to end on a powerful note so for our third story, we went light. The story about a cute octogenarian couple going dancing at their senior center was perfect. The pair I interviewed was just too sweet and a treat to talk with. Their energy was inspiring.

Gilbert Senior Center

And that brings us to the story of Steve, the dad who just happens to be blind, a story that really drives home the point that each and every one of us could be in need of a United Way-funded agency at any moment. No pun intended, but in the blink of an eye, our world could be turned upside down. Steve was brave to share his story, to be so vulnerable in front of the camera, to let me drag him to the top of South Mountain so early that summer morning. As a dad, I knew that could be me. I wondered if I could be so brave? And he was doing it just to help United Way! He was so grateful for what this important community organization did for him and his family in their hour of need. So am I. Pass the Kool-Aid, please.

I encourage you to watch his story, as well as the others, in the ’97 video. Here is a clip featuring Steve, and you can watch the full version on Vimeo or YouTube. I hope you enjoy it. Thank you!


Randy is an award-winning director and producer with a passion for helping others through the power of storytelling. He’s also a political junkie, loves college football, and enjoys performing random magic tricks for children he meets in the street.