Giving: The Healthy Alternative to Partying Like It's 1999

Giving is Good for Your Health!

By Randy Murray

Okay, it’s time to feel good about doing good, and I don’t mean you should have to talk yourself into it. I mean we are genetically built to do good and it makes us feel good when we do. I’m not kidding! Just like eating, sleeping and breathing, doing good is part of our genetic makeup. Science has discovered – and continues to prove – that helping strangers is an important part of who we are. It doesn’t matter what your religious inclinations, political persuasions or level of education are. So let’s sing in praise of altruism as we look back at the 1999 Valley of the Sun United Way campaign video as well as the original song we wrote for it.

VSUW baby with chubby cheeks

Like It’s 1999

It was a year of celebration because Prince had encouraged us to party. More importantly, VSUW felt that it would be a smart strategy to celebrate the good that we, as a community, were accomplishing. And there was a lot to celebrate. So I turned to Big U Music, a local audio studio, to write a song about the year’s theme: Give Hope a Hand. They wrote something with a gospel feel and it turned out great. I then decided to have a large group of people dance to the song as the thread through the video. We gathered the people from the seven stories in the video plus others from the community and filled the giant staircase in the new Phoenix City Hall. Like the previous campaign video, we had the support of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury.

A Dance Lesson

When you are both developing the creative for a video as well as directing it, you naturally want to push yourself creatively, take some chances. This is always great when you try something out and magic happens. If things don’t work out perfectly, you try to fix it in post and hopefully learn something from it. The lesson I learned on this production? Don’t make real people dance on camera. While I am very proud of this video, the dancing makes me chuckle every time I watch it. So when you watch it, don’t laugh at the people who gave their time to be a part of this video; this was my idea, my creative, and I made them do it. Please join me in laughing at the director instead.

NBA basketball player

I did have the good sense to not make Danny Manning dance at least. After watching him try it, I decided it was best if he stood still and just focused on his lines. And he did a great job. But some others who danced – a family from one of our stories in particular – showed what kind of mettle they’re made of just by being there. I’ll talk more about them later, but they showed me that sometimes even dancing is an incredible act of courage. This was the best dance lesson I ever had.

Unlike Chauncey Gardner

Watching this video after all these years, I feel like it still holds up fairly well. A bit long even by 1999 standards, it moves quickly and touches on seven stories – some inspiring, some encouraging, and some just plain powerful. Remember, this video was created primarily to be watched by large groups at places of work.

Making a video to be watched in a large group setting requires different considerations than one made for a family watching on the couch or a single person watching on a computer. To figure out the best structure, I would not only study donation patterns, but also regularly attend United Way meetings at large corporate giving events to see how the videos were being received. I would sit close to the screen and watch the audience watch the video. It felt a bit voyeuristic but it was helpful. I watched to see if the audience was engaged, when they shifted in their seats, if anyone nodded off and if anyone had to wipe tears from their eyes.

Old People Dancing

The good news? This video worked well. At almost every screening, a good number of people moved with the music and the tears did flow.

From focus groups to crowd observation during screenings, there is real insight into the art of storytelling told by the faces of those watching. Yes, “I like to watch.” But unlike Chauncey Gardner, Peter Sellers’ character in the film Being There, I am the one who learns from the experience. And as we began making theatrically released feature documentaries, this experience of observing audiences helped out tremendously.

Healthy Giving or Vice Versa

The one thing that always struck me when I attended these events was how happy people seemed to be when they were giving away their hard-earned money. Initially, I thought it might be a fabricated corporate culture thing, something big corporations used to help worthy causes like United Way. But now I see it is the other way around: while they may not realize it (though I think they do), United Way makes these people happier and healthier.

In the massive new study and book “The Paradox of Generosity” by sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, results show that those who donate 10% or more of their income have a lower depression rate than those who donate less. This is the most comprehensive study ever done on giving. They followed 2000 people over five years and proved that generosity has a positive effect on happiness and health.

Thumbs Up

This does not surprise me; in the 1980s, accomplished scientist George Price proved mathematically that humans have a genetic disposition to altruism. Price proved that, like animals in the wild, we are wired to be kind, to help strangers and to give. The book, “The Price of Altruism” by Oren Harman, follows the life of Price on his journey to this important discovery. It explains how Darwin and other scientists struggled with the counterintuitive fact that there is altruism in nature. The book talks about a surprisingly large number of examples of animals and insects regularly acting in an altruistic way. While I struggled with the math, I couldn’t put it down; it reads like a novel. It was only a matter of time for Smith and Davidson to prove that doing so is part of a healthy lifestyle, much like eating right and exercising.

Spanish Dancer

These are just two examples of the science that led me to believe that giving to United Way is good for your health and that running a United Way campaign ultimately benefits the corporation’s bottom line, or if you prefer, the health of the corporation.

Building an Arc

The work of United Way is both joyous and heartbreaking. Documenting this work has been an emotional roller coaster for me. A ride I treasure. In 1999, I was both lifted up high and knocked to the ground hard. And I strategically used those ups and downs as I built the viewing experience to increase donations levels. The structure of the video creates a story arc that lifts the viewers with a couple of feel-good stories, then hits them emotionally, only to lift them again with a few more feel-good stories. This part of the arc is designed to lower the viewers’ guard. And that is when I clobber them with a heartbreaking story, one about something that could happen to anyone without warning. But because “emotionally drained” is not the best state in which to leave your viewers when you’re asking them to give, I ended this video with a story of redemption that sets up the viewers with a feeling of hope.

Firefighters Dancing

Manipulating emotions is a lot of what I do. I spend a lot of time working on how a viewer will feel at each moment of their viewing experience. This is why it is so important to everyone at RMP that we use our skills and tools for projects that benefit our community, or at least do no harm. Powerful Storytelling for Positive Change. It says it on our business cards and we work hard to live by it. I don’t mean to bring this up as a plug but a reminder that, as a community of both storytellers and those who employ them, when we create stories, films, commercials, videos and the like, we need to be deliberate in our intents and objectives. We need to be aware of the power we wield and we need to use it wisely.

Fragile Vessels

I love the stories we told in this video. As noted, we were very deliberate when we chose them. But you can never know what you will uncover once you start telling a story. One was so powerful that we couldn’t share the whole story with viewers, but more on that one in a minute. Let’s start at the beginning.

Kids Having Fun

The first two stories make you feel good about giving: a story about how United Way helps single moms handle the demands of a new baby and another about how a community center lifts up the poor young people it is designed to help as well as the older people who show up to help.

The third story is an example of United Way being an important and integral part of our community. In 1999, a mother took her kids and ran from her abuser. Because there were no beds available in local Domestic Violence shelters that night, however, she returned home. Her abuser shot her dead in her front yard. The front page story shocked our community. United Way stepped up to lead the caring community by better connecting those who are working to help. They call this ‘convening.’ I call it leadership. We chose to tell this with a success story about DV Stop and a woman who escaped her abuser.


The next two stories about helping the elderly and making poison control available show the depth and breadth of the work United Way does in our community. They also set the viewer up for the story about Jesse and his family. A story I will never forget.

Jesse was a hardworking husband and dad with four loving kids. A true “American Dream” success story. Then cancer came calling and neither he nor his family were prepared. What you see on the screen is the story of how our caring community came together and helped Jesse and his family with their crisis. What you do not see is the news Jesse had been given by his doctor the morning of our interview that his treatments had failed and that he had just weeks or even days to live.

Jesse and Family

At the time when he told us this, we offered to cancel his story and not take up any more of his precious time, but he talked it over with his family, all in tears, and together they decided that they wanted to do whatever they could to help United Way and the agencies that helped them. We gave them time to compose themselves. The makeup artist touched them up. And we sat down for the interview.

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I asked questions and yet they all sat there, answered my questions and smiled at each other. I am still amazed by how strong that family was. I felt awful when I asked them if they would help flesh out their story by filming b-roll with us at Vista Colina, the housing facility where they stayed when they were homeless. But they did. And I felt like a callous, manipulative bastard when I asked them to dance and clap for the camera, but I did ask. And they came to City Hall and danced awkwardly on the steps with strangers. They did all of this not because I asked them to and not because this was how they wanted to spend their last few days with their husband and father, but because they wanted to give back to our community in any way they could. That incredible act of courage just for coming and dancing that I mentioned earlier? Yeah. That’s Jesse and his family.

Good to Give

As I mentioned, we ended the video with one last feel-good story: a story of a mom and her two young daughters struggling to work their way out of poverty. United Way coordinated between five agencies to provide holistic services and help this family become productive members of our community, just as they do for many others.

Mom and Daughters

It is an uplifting story that makes a person feel good about giving to United Way. To feel good about doing good. I don’t know what percent the video played in the overall fundraising, but I think that VSUW raised tens of millions of dollars that year. That’s a lot of people who are doing good. And now we know that giving to United Way is in our genes and it is actually good for us. It sure has been good for me.

Here’s a clip of Jesse’s story. To watch the whole video, head over to Vimeo or YouTube. We hope you enjoy it!

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.