Categorized | Social Entrepreneur

What you can do to make a change in 1 minute.

Social Entrepreneurship with WhatYouCanDo365.com

By: Julie Tortorici

I’ve been working at On the Leesh Productions as a producer and writer for almost 7 years. The company, led by Alicia Arinella, is a small but active full service production house, focusing on narrative projects as well as all types of corporate video. We hadn’t been very active in the documentary genre, so when Alicia’s long time collaborator and sister, Jessica Arinella, pitched a social awareness series called, “What You Can Do” (http://www.whatyoucando365.com), both Alicia and I were interested in the new opportunity it offered. Jessica felt there was a void in documentary films when it came to offering viewers actionable ideas to help combat some of the most pressing issues in today’s world.

After premiering in 2009 on PBS affiliate, WLIW21, the “What You Can Do” series became a year-long venture where-in a new one-minute video was produced for every weekday in the 2010 calendar year. Along with Jessica, I became Co-Head Writer on the series while Alicia spearheaded the project. Since “What You Can Do” began, I’ve been asked many questions about how and why On the Leesh took this project on and how it related to the company’s goals. To address these questions, I decided to sit down with my colleagues, Alicia and Jessica, to discuss this socially responsible venture.

Jessica, can you provide a little background on the primary goal of “What You Can Do”?

Jessica Arinella: Well, the primary goal for me with What You Can Do” has always been to create a toolbox for change for somebody who wants to be of use in the world, who wants to make a dent in the big issues of our time – whether it’s climate change, or hunger, or human trafficking. I wanted to give people concrete steps so they can really feel like they’re making a difference. We thought the idea of a toolbox was important because there does seem to be a rampant atmosphere of fear and apathy. You see these horrible things in the world and you think, okay, there’s nothing I can ever do about any of this. That’s why we wanted to create this toolbox – to prove to people that there is something that you can do and to give them the tools to do it.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WT-j_Rhr9fY&feature=youtu.be

Alicia, when Jessica first pitched this series, how did you see it fitting in with On the Leesh Productions?

Alicia Arinella: Well at On the Leesh it’s probably fair to say that we categorize our projects into two categories. We have our “for fun” projects which tend to be narrative based – short films, feature films, web series and then we have a corporate video side.

When Jess first pitched the idea of “What You Can Do,” I thought, well, why don’t we put some of our internal projects on hold for a little bit, use the money from our corporate side and fund a certain number of them [episodes]. That’s how I saw it fitting in.

And Jessica, you didn’t start as a producer.

JA: No! No. I am primarily an actress. I’ve taken this on as a project of love and I have very good [producing] teachers.

Though ”What You Can Do” launched in 2009, in 2010 the project became an ongoing series where a new video aired online every weekday for the entire year. How was the company able to take this on?

AA: To give a brief synopsis, Jess had come up with this idea about five or so years ago, but then stalled out with it because she couldn’t figure out what she wanted it to be. So, in the process of it coming to fruition, we had thought that it would be a television show. Then I was on a panel at the Berkshires International Film Festival and I met someone from the PBS affiliate here in New York. He loved the idea and had us come in and talk to the team. They were looking for something in a more contained model. We told them we had this idea to do one-minute actions [in the show], so what if we did one-minute videos? They were like, ‘great’.

We decided, in working with them, that we would do 21, because their call sign here is WLIW21. In the process of contract negotiations we were sitting around and, as I tend to do – I overachieve – I said to the girls, if we’re going to do this, we need to do this right. We need to do 365 [days of content]. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that we could do it. Now the project is developing into something else and I’m just eager to see what’s going to happen next.

Did you think of it initially as social entrepreneurship?

AA: I don’t think so. We took on the project knowing that it would be successful with our viewers. We didn’t however, start a formal business plan with it, per se, until we were probably in the midst of working on the first set of episodes for PBS.

JA: I always believed in the seedling of the idea, but it really wasn’t until Alicia envisioned it as a much wider project – turning it into a full year – that I saw that it really could be a business in its own right.

Alicia, is your hope that “What You Can Do” branches off of On the Leesh?

AA: Yes and no. My hope for “What You Can Do” is that the core team will always stay involved in some way. That being said, I think each of us has a desire for the project to grow into something bigger than we could maintain if it stayed just the three of us. For this project to really get out there to different markets in the country, to different international markets, in books, in longer form series, as outreach programs in communities – things like that – we would need to bring in other people. So I think “What You Can Do” would branch off from On the Leesh in the fact that it could be its own freestanding entity and grow that way, but I think the core team, would always remain.

Jessica, can you talk a little bit about how, with such a small budget, “What You Can Do” has utilized free social media tools that are available?

JA: We’ve had to be very thrifty and adaptable because of our budget. The production of the videos alone eats up the largest chunk of the budget. In terms of promoting it, we have a publicist that we work with on a part-time basis, but we use social media tools that are available to everyone as much as possible. We’ve been able to, on Facebook, grow a community. I think we’re up to about 8,700 fans now. Through that community we’ve been able to create challenges where, for example, we saved almost 2,000 gallons of water collectively as a community. We’ve been able to use Twitter to get the word out to people who are looking for like-minded issues. Right now we are currently using Kickstarter’s online platform to raise sponsorship to get the series back on television.

Alicia, if these social media tools were not available, or if we tried to do this project before these tools were available, do you think it would be a lot harder to accomplish with a crew of three people?

AA: Well, it wouldn’t be the project [as it exists] without these tools, without having a site to host them on, without having YouTube, without a site like Facebook where you can promote and talk about issues with like-minded people. You wouldn’t have the community. People talk about independent films and independent projects and how they grow, but without a lot of luck they tend to be very insular. But now that production levels can still be very high but the cost can be very low, we can easily produce this with three people. With the help of our great web programmer, Noah Diamond, and a great publicist who works with us part-time, Ashley Kaufman, we’ve really been able to sort of brand “What You Can Do” in a way that’s very cost effective for us. Without these tools, without the ability to reach out to somebody who lives in Des Moines or Minneapolis, the project would just exist within friends and family and possibly in the locations where our friends and family live. So without these tools, I think it probably would have been limited to the first television run on PBS.

Alicia, why did you decide to keep the staff so small? Did you, as the lead producer, find this to be a help or a hindrance?

AA: We’ve developed a tremendous short hand. I’ll look at you, Julie, when I’m filming – almost glance a certain way or tilt my head a certain way and you’ll know that, say, the boom is in the shot, and vice versa. It enables us to film upwards of ten “What You Can Do” videos in one day. The editing is so seamless because we know the types of things that we’re going to innately like or dislike on the project. So it really allows us to keep things much more contained, much smaller. I think that the problem comes in with any sort of footage that extends beyond our budgetary limits. We need to rely on other people to get us those bits of material. We’ve found some really great sites online that we’ve been able to work with, to also keep our production costs low.

Alicia, what was your approach to sponsorship and funding? How did you maintain On the Leesh while coming through on this 365 day WYCD goal?

AA: I knew that basically for three to four months we’d be shut down and we’d be working solely on this project – figuring out the format. Do we need to hire an extra writer? Do we need to set aside certain days in the week to shoot? It took us about four months to figure out what that process was. We hired another writer, Karen Hartline, for several of the weeks that we did and she was hugely helpful on very difficult issues. Then I knew that it was a matter of balancing out the corporate side with “What You Can Do,” so that we could pay for it. Of course sponsorship would’ve made it easier because then we could’ve spent the whole year focused on this one thing instead of focusing on paying the bills to get it done. A lot of work was done pro bono amongst the crew and other collaborators.

We’re in the place right now where we’re re-editing and changing some of the videos to get them back onto PBS. That’s why we’re looking for sponsorship now, so we can actually go back in and edit them for television. I was never worried that it would bring the company down, but I did know, as well as Jess and you know, that it would be long hours sometimes. We’re all willing to do what needs to get done and nobody ever complains over here. It’s a great team to be able to work with. I’m very lucky.

What do you think is important for business owners to know before taking on a socially responsible venture?

AA: I would say for any small business owner, you have to make sure you love what you do. I think any of us who work in a small business knows that there is not a lot of money, especially at the beginning. It’s really hard work. You want to be really invested and really in love with what you’re doing. That being said, a project like this… we decided to do it in a for-profit model because we wanted to get it on television so there is the potential for growth. There is the potential for branding on a higher scale. We would love to eventually create some sort of not-for-profit side that would be able to give back to the community. And I think also, just to keep in mind when you’re doing all of this, that at the end of the day it’s not about the financial involvement, it’s about something bigger. This is probably the only project that we’ve ever worked on here that’s been about something bigger. It’s bigger than the three of us, it’s bigger than our 8,700 fans on Facebook, it’s bigger than the 125 people that were involved so far and hopefully it will continue to grow and extend beyond that. So anybody who is interested in social entrepreneurship needs to ask what their end goal is. If it is for monetary reward, I think that it will be more frustrating.

Jess, what advice would you give to someone on following through with a great socially responsible idea?

JA: I think the first thing to do if you come up with an idea is to give yourself time to develop it. As Alicia said, I thought of “What You Can Do” about five years ago, but it wasn’t until a couple of years after that I started to put the pieces together. I thought, initially, that it could be an hour-long television show that would spend a half-hour highlighting an issue and then another half-hour showing someone what they could do about it if they had a minute, an hour, a week or a year. So give yourself the time to actually develop it before you start. If an idea is too broad you can’t make it real.

I think the next thing is, if/when you bring it to somebody, be prepared to show that person how the idea is going to be worth it for them as well. You have to remember that, no matter how good anybody’s idea is, if you can’t show someone how it could have a successful business model for them, or how it could help move their company forward, then they probably aren’t going to take you seriously. So even though she’s my sister and she has to do what I say [Alicia laughs, then protests], I knew that there was potential for On the Leesh to move forward in a different direction.

AA: I will say this about Jess being my sister – we’ve never treated each other, when we’re working together – as siblings. She came to me with this idea and I said okay, formulate it and come back to me. It wasn’t that she said she wanted to do it and miraculously, because we have the same parents, poof she gets it.

What would you tell people who would like to get involved with “What You Can Do”? How can they help?

JA: Absolutely others could help. If people want to get involved, what we really need are additional viewers and sponsors. To really grow this we’re going to need an influx of capital and an influx of people who want to come on board and help us move it to the next level.

For someone who can’t be a corporate sponsor or contribute money, what can they do?

JA: Please help us spread the word. We have a wonderful community on Facebook and we’d love to expand even more. If you see a video and you like it, please pass it along. If you want to give us a shout-out or send an email out – any way that you can spread the world will be hugely helpful.

AA: We need the numbers. We need the fans. We need the followers on Twitter. We need views on YouTube. On top of that, recently we’ve been getting a lot of emails on our website saying, ‘I’m really involved with this organization…’ This helps us find things that are important to different people in the community that we may not have thought of before. So give your ideas as well and tell us what’s important to you. Feedback only helps make “What You Can Do” stronger.

To get involved with “What You Can Do” check out: www.whatyoucando365.com and become a fan on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/whatyoucando

 

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