Video is a powerful medium.
Not only is it fun to watch, but it captures the emotion behind a story, forming a deep connection with your audience. When telling your nonprofit’s story, it’s important to not only share your impact but also what makes your story personal and unique.
Alex Leonard has volunteered all over the world, working closely with organizations focused on environmental issues. He is the founder of AL media and the Communications Director for the Pollinator Pathways Project in London Ontario.
His work in Sri Lanka inspired him to create his documentary Humans and Elephants, where he shares his experience as an eco-tourist and the shock of the impact it was having on the environment.
Today Alex shares journey of producing his documentary, including:
- Why the story had to be told through video
- The exact moment Alex knew he had to share his experience with the world
- The power that video has to connect a cause to your audience
- How his international experience helped him promote P3
Today, we talk with Alex Leonard on his documentary Humans and Elephants, and how he's using it as a way to spread awareness on eco-tourism.
Hello and welcome to Driven's Fundraising Superheroes podcast.
I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente, and as an innovator and non-profit, technology Driven is determined to help you unlock the true potential of your data and reach your fundraising goals. Visit us at trustdriven.com to learn more. We specialize in management software for your volunteers, donors and your staff, and we would love to talk to you about your organization.
So a story can be told a thousand different ways, an image, a few words or even a film, the medium really is a message and it's up to us to make sure it's being told well.
This is why content is such a powerful tool in fundraising. Your non-profit has a story, and finding a way to share that story with others is really the key to connecting with your donors and reaching an audience. Alexander Leonard is the communications director for the Pollinator Pathways Project and the founder of AL Media. He's worked internationally with nonprofits to solve environmental issues and created some amazing content on the way. So thank you so much Alex for joining me.
Thank you so much for having me, Sabrina.
So you're currently working on a documentary called Humans and Elephants to raise money for a nonprofit in Sri Lanka. So can you tell us more about that? What do you hope to achieve with this documentary?
So most of the documentary is actually finished, so. Yeah, so I'm done.
The documentary and the footage draws on my own personal experience from having travelled in 2013 and2018 and having gone to different elephant sanctuaries and throughout parts of Southeast Asia, particularly in Sri Lanka and Cambodia and Thailand. And the purpose of this film is to highlight the impact that tourists have when they are traveling, particularly in an environment where you see ecotourism and understanding the consequence of eco-tourism. That's why I like to use their spiritual background to offer on any call where I'm talking about the film, because it really highlights the.
The almost normalcy and the sinister side where people are not riding elephants here, per say, right. But yeah, you know, you can kind of see, but for almost every elephant, when I was at this park in northern Sri Lanka, there were at least two Jeep and the amount of traffic that was at this park and the amount of people who would push their driver to get closer and closer to the elephants was really heartbreaking to witness. And what was seemingly ecotourists trip where we're going to a national park and we're seeing wild elephants.
There was this side to it where, you know, upon reflection, I was like, well, really, how sustainable is if everyone's in a Jeep? And, you know, for me, I felt especially hypocritical travelling by myself, having one whole jeep versus, you know, the family of like six Germans beside me. Right. Like they, you know, clearly talking ethical here. Am I more guilty because I'm using that much more carbon emissions?
So I'm getting pretty nitty-gritty into this. But that was my aha moment, which is I need to talk about this, and that is why I created the film.
That's really cool.
So it's this idea of exploring the natural world, the elephants, because obviously, you know, Jeeps and humans probably weren't in that space for thousands of years and how they're coming in and disrupting their lives and how it's making it hard for them to, like, live and really disrupting the whole ecosystem of that area.
Yeah, exactly. And so the film does talk a bit about riding elephants, and we do get into that. So that's kind of one element of the documentary is highlighting what it is, the impact of of the role of the tourist and the role of that tourist when you go on eco-tourism. Right. Like what? Even as eco-tourism, how does that impact to the well-being of elephants and that that scope? But then there's also a large part of this film that talks about the relationship that elephants have with locals and the farmers in these areas that are increasingly seeing a ray of rapid development and urbanization and who have growing populations in countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand and Cambodia and Lao.
And, you know, these are just the countries I feature, let alone other countries in the world that have elephants or other large animal wildlife who are dealing with these same issues. And, you know, there's increasing conflict. There's increasing death rates between humans and elephants. Both humans are dying. They're being trampled more often. There's more in conflict and elephants are dying at an exaggerated rate. So I used data from my own personal research from recently being a student.
And so I tie in this data into the film and show that, like, the situation is getting worse and worse and, you know, something needs to be done. And the film as any classical, you know, film arc does have a happy ending somewhat. You know, I talk about solutions, conflict mitigation, solutions that have been put in place, particularly within Sri Lanka and how this is working to mitigate this conflict between humans and elephants through a sustainable way like using citrus trees.
Mm hmm. That's really interesting. I want to dive more into that side of the story before we do. Can you give an explanation of what ecotourism means? Because I know that's a new term for me. And just so our listeners are on the same page.
Yeah, absolutely. So there's a lot of theories about eco-tourism, like you can find definitions and kind of an overarching definition would be that it's a form of tourism where you have some sort of sustainable impact for the communities. A lot of eco-tourism ties into community-based natural resource management. So what I mean by that is you are helping that community and you're helping them with their natural resources. So like tree planting or building schools or taking care of wildlife, like, you know, there's a lot of eco-tourism in Central America about endangered turtles.
Where there are a lot of endangered animals you're going to find eco-tourism, right? But then you also have to think and when you take a dive deeper in it, and so I don't know who this theory is, but I like this theory and I don't even get into in the film. But ecotourism is really on a scale. So you have soft eco-tourism on one end, which would be like the people in this image who, you know, it's cushy, it's shorter in duration.
You know, it's it's not so much physical labour. There's maybe less of a financial investment involved and the impact is as not as long term. Right, so maybe it's doing something like, you know, today we're going to wash elephants at the sanctuary, we're going to bathe them for like a one day period. Like that, for instance, could be a soft eco-tourism versus hard eco-tourism is much more labour intensive. Generally, it's longer periods.
So a month onwards, it has more longer term impact by. So you actually you're not just bathing the elephants, but you're planting trees for food for these elephants in future generations. Right.
So that and, you know, I don't want to be here lecturing people that like when they've gone to sanctuaries and they have elephants, they're not doing a good thing. Now it's more so to understand that it's a scale, but it's a scale of impact. And so, you know, being in a jeep, going to a national park for a day is not going to have the same impact as, say, working with that national park to help them with their say, you know, wildlife conservation research.
Both of these could be ecoterrorist. And that's something that one of my personal mentors said to me is she's like, you need to be careful when you make this film because you don't want to piss people off, because not everybody has the luxury of travelling to Sri Lanka for half a year to live in a sanctuary. People have only two weeks vacation. And if they want to just go and do, only a few days like that should be OK.
So you shouldn't be penalizing people more so try and educate them about that impact. And now it's like it's actually a really good point. Right. And it's something I was very cautious up in the film. I don't want it to be almost patronizing, but I do want it to be enlightening.
That's so interesting. That's a totally new concept to me, because I didn't I never even thought of measuring the impact of, OK, you're doing two or three good things, but, you know, you're adding a lot more carbon emissions into the environment or you're using up a lot of resources.
So, you know, putting it in terms of a scale is a really great way to frame it. Kind of visualize where your impacts will be.
Yeah, that's why I really like the scale approach, because it helps you to understand in multiple avenues like, you know, and I would like sometimes you could have things that are maybe super labour-intensive, but they're not long-lasting or, you know what they mean. Or sometimes you could be doing something that's not labour-intensive, your essay writing policy or doing advocacy work that is long-lasting. But you're behind a desk all day, right? So I wouldn't like I would say these things are not you know, I'm trying to say I feel like they're not mutually exclusive.
It's like a term for this.
The level of physical labour does not equal the level of the impact of the work.
Yeah, exactly. And like, they're almost in silos, but not quite, because obviously there will be connections between these in terms of your impact. But it is a good way to identify, you know, when you are when you do see these trips in the future thinking, OK, like, yeah. Like what? What is the impact?
Right. Like if I go to this sanctuary, what am I going to be doing there? What is the long term benefit, you know, that this sanctuary will benefit from? And at the end of the day, really, it's just money. Like that's why a lot of these things are quite expensive because. Sure, you know, you can plant trees, they can hire locals to plant trees. That's that's not necessarily something that a skill that you're bringing in that is highly sought after, really.
It's that two thousand dollars attached to that two weeks that that's and mean that that's the real benefit from it, which is unfortunate because of covid. Now, a lot of these places have completely lost all volunteers. They've lost a lot of that income from people who would come in on a consistent basis or on a seasonal basis. So that's something that I talk about in my film. And part of the reason why I thought I'd be a good guest for this podcast is because in 2021, at some point I plan to fundraise.
Right now I have a goal of ten thousand dollars. I haven't done all the math. There's a lot of places I'd actually talk about in the film. A lot of the sanctuaries and organizations even that I've never been to but helped make this film the possibility of one of the interviewees speaks about her experience at a conservation park in Lao. And but then there's like, you know, I don't know if we need to get into it, but there's a lot of politics too.
Like even I'm pretty involved with elephant groups on Facebook and I post there a lot.
And, you know, I talk about some of these organizations that I've helped out and they're like, oh, you know, did you know this about that organization?
Like, they're not as ethical as you thought. And I was like, well, I actually didn't know. Like, yeah, that is kind of a red flag. And it's almost made me question like, do I want to fundraise for this organization? I had a positive experience, but people are highlighting up things even prior to my time visiting the 2018. Well I did, you know, in 2016 they supported elephant use and like this parade in Sri Lanka where they're historically known to abuse animals and can you really be behind that.
And it's like, well you know, these are hard ethical questions, right? It's like at the end of the day I want to help fundraise for a lot of these organizations, but where do I draw that line?
And once I do that, how do I divide that know? Does everybody get 25 percent to some get more funding because they have a bigger ask? So for instance, Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society right now, almost all of them have a go fund me or some sort of fundraiser right now because of covid and everything else. You know, some are asking for fifty thousand euros, some are only asking for, you know, eight thousand dollars.
Right. So it's like do the ones that have a bigger ask, should I allocate more money to them because they have a bigger ask? I don't know that these are questions I'm still trying to process, which is partially why I keep pushing back this date in my mind just when I want to launch this. But one hundred percent, I am going to launch it this year. I've made that as a commitment to myself and the other really thing for me.
You know, it's like that's really interesting because I come from like a film background. So the idea that not only the conversations in the film are discussing, you know, the ethics of the actual nonprofits, but then there's that whole, you know, behind the scenes aspect of like the need, the legality.
So that's really interesting. But I'd love to, like, build on that because it sounds like there's a lot going into this documentary, you put a lot of thought into it. So why was it important for you to document the process? How does putting this issue into something like a documentary into a story really add to that vision?
Yeah, it's a good question. So it came, I actually won a research trip to go to Sri Lanka in 2018, so I applied for a wildlife and conservation grant. And so I won that grant out of over five thousand applicants. And so having won that, it was like, hey, you get two weeks to go to Sri Lanka, we're paying for your flight, we're playing for the volunteer program there, and we're paying for your travel insurance.
And you can go whenever you want.
And I was like, amazing, like, wow, so I did my research, I figured, OK, August is the best time. This is actually where I can see the largest gathering of Asian elephants, which is technically, this gathering, I mean, they move around.
So coming back to your original question, why was it so important to document this? It was for me, it was really important to document it, because I really understood that there's a story to be told here.
And it's interesting that this trip to Sri Lanka essentially started my whole entire video production business because I had that trip, because it was so premeditated because it was part of this contest, I was like, well, you know what? I need to buy a drone.
I mean, why would anyone else think we're going to a country like Sri Lanka, you know, especially looking at evidence of what was happening and seen all this amazing drone footage from Sri Lanka. And I was like, oh, it's beautiful.
I need a drone. Right. Like everyone else is down there. So anyways, so I got a drone. And then I started to film. I was like, well, before I go, I need to get experience because I knew I wanted to tell the story. And it wasn't till after the mentor I spoke about before. Her name's Kelly Peckman, super, super influential for me in the story. She really helped open up that this was a much bigger story I could tell here.
And it came to the point where I filmed so much there and I knew I wanted to tell a story from that experience. And she made me realize it doesn't have to be just a Sri Lankan story. Right. It's not just about the issue that happened in Sri Lanka. It's about the issue of what's happening everywhere with elephant tourism. And that's what really kind of started the track. I was having writer's block. I was getting a lot of information from different people, advice on how to put this thing together.
And it was really I just sat down with her and met her at Forest City Film Festival. And I was like, I want to talk to somebody about my film. I'm kind of stuck. And so she took me up on that. We got coffee and it was like, yeah, I hope that was a good experience. But that was it really made me feel like there's something here. There's something more packed. When I see two Jeeps for every elephant like that, it kind of made me feel like this is the place I've been trying to get to this whole entire time.
I've been waiting so long to come to this moment. And I felt guilty about it. You know, like that to me was like, whoa. Like I almost need to take a few steps back and reflect on this. And the documentary is very much told to do my voice. I narrate the whole thing. You know, you see the clips of me making the film and things like this because it's very much a self-exploratory way of breaking apart this story through my own lived experience, but also then told through research that I've conducted and had animated and then also through the interviews that I did with researchers, researchers in Sri Lanka, as well as someone who also has done the elephant tourism, who worked in the conservation center for a while.
I love how you mentioned it just kind of happens, which is some of the best stories. You know, they come to you and you don't even plan on finding them. And if you're going to your website, which I'll link for those listening in the description box, you have a ton of work. I have never seen such a diverse portfolio. It was insane. You have experience with animation, filmmaking, visual art and, you know, going back to storytelling, there's a ton of different mediums that you can choose from to tell a story.
And how important is that medium in telling the story, how important it was for this documentary?
Yeah, yeah, I like that question. And there's something about having this as a documentary that makes it seem real and it makes it seem it makes it seem authentic in the sense that when I first came back from Sri Lanka, you know, I had all these interviews and I had all this footage and, you know, I shared photos, but I was like, you know, like, this isn't enough. Like, I have these amazing interviews, you know, with these people in Sri Lanka that I talk intentionally to do something.
And I didn't know what I wanted to do. So I made like small like five minute edits of these interviews with b-roll and things like this. And a lot of that actually didn't make it into the film. Because for me, it was like this, this is missing the point, right? This is not getting to the root of what I want to tell here.
And so so in having, you know, the media as a documentary, not only is this helping reinforce the story and giving my voice validity and authority, it's not just like I'm a YouTube baron here is like my travel video or my travel blog. You know, like now it's an actual film that has been recognized internationally. So, you know, it's been featured at the International Beacon Film Festival. Right now, it's part of the Colorado Environmental Film Festival.
So that's super cool. Really proud about that one. You know, it's been a finalist at the Four City Film Festival coming full circle. That's in London, by the way, where I'm from, London, Ontario. And it's also been recognized for an international peace award. Right. And so this film in itself as a documentary versus, say, bits and snippets on social or whatever else it could live has, I think, given it more of a voice and it's giving it more of a platform by putting it together.
And, you know, and it's only 20 minutes is a short documentary, but that cohesively put together kind of propels it forward more than if I had just stuck to how I started, which was just like, well, let's just put out this little snippet of that interview and those social media clips here and there on the issue. I was like, that's not doing it justice. There's a greater story that needs to be told here. That's awesome.
So it's like the viewer is almost as you had that like aha moment when you went to go see the elephants are almost like reliving that with you.
Yes, that's the hook like right away in the first two minutes of the film, you hear me explain that aha moment like what is my impact as an eco-tourist? Because I want to hook you in like I want you to also project yourself where I was and be like, oh, you know, I've done a safari.
Right. And it seems seemingly innocent at the time, but like. Yeah, like those roads and these it's like, you know, those weren't always there. Right.
And, you know, I use Google Earth throughout the film quite a bit. And, you know, I show Google Earth of this part and it's literally like road, you know, it's like not even a park anymore. It's just like a parking lot, which is nuts to think about the number of roads that are carved throughout these grasslands. And these elephants are trying to dodge around these cars like it's kind of sad.
We've talked a lot about your international work, which is phenomenal. But you also are working with a non-profit in London, Ontario. So they're called the Pollinator Pathways Project.
And you were the communications director and somebody who, as we touched on, has a kind of experience, all different mediums of storytelling.
How have you been able to channel the lessons that you learned internationally into P3? And what are the lessons that you learned about communication and connecting with the audience?
Yeah, absolutely. So for anyone who's interested in who's a gardener, an avid gardener, and I highly recommend checking out Pollinator Pathways Project dot com. We have a lot of resources there for gardeners and southwestern Ontario and the Catalonian region.
And I would say that a lot of my experience from working internationally really ties in well with the Pollinator Pathways Project and with working with local nonprofits here within southwestern Ontario, because I'm able to bring a cultural understanding of working with people who maybe are ESL or people who aren't from this region and really connecting with them and connecting with their story and, you know, being able to collaborate with a diverse group I think has been helpful.
And especially when you go and you do a placement like this, you know, like there were people from all over who are, you know, who are also volunteering, who are also there. At that same time, they, you know, just they had paid. The only difference is I was there on a research grant myself. Other people were there for various reasons, at different stages of their life. And so I think that that has been really beneficial.
Right. Not even just connecting with the local researchers, but learning how to work with people from all over the world who are passionate about the same reason I'm passionate, who are there, particularly from the communications lens. You know, some of the advocacy work I was helping the Sri Lankan Wildlife Research Conservation Society last year was in the video production but was also an email marketing and a lot of the same tangible outreach that we were doing there. We're just doing here the different brand name, but the same platform.
It's you know, it's the same style. It's the same techniques to increase your open rate, to increase your click-through rate. Right. To increase donations. You know, the different messages, different causes. But you're always you know, there's going to be similarities in how you try and make emotional polls. So you try and make, you know, urgency polls and things like this that can help build your platform, build your organization in your community for that greater social or environmental good.
I guess it doesn't matter where you are in the world, you're able to find people that connect with you. Just as you know, you had you probably were there. And there's people from like all different backgrounds, all different age groups, all different ethnicities, beliefs. So I guess that that's a really great way to see the actual light community that it causes like that could bring. You can kind of take that passion and put it into P3 and bring it back to London.
Yeah, absolutely right, like, I think I think it's important that people listening, young or old, like find out what that is that they're passionate about and get involved in their community, like with P three. I do it all pro bono. I just help that organization for a few years. And, you know, that's one of our biggest struggles is how can we bring more people on and, you know, ignite that passion in them so they keep coming back.
So they want to volunteer. So they want to give their time. Right. Because at the end of the day, that's something that in the nonprofit sector we all struggle with is, you know, lack of resources. And so it's finding ways to really lift people up and make them feel that the work that they're doing is meaningful. I think that's always going to be a struggle, but that's also part of the enjoyment and part of the process.
Well, thank you, Alex, for joining us on the show. I didn't know a lot about ecoterrorism. You taught me so much in this interview. And I look forward to learning more.
If you want to get in contact with Alex, please come and visit at AL media. That is his content creation company. And if you want to learn more about his work we talked about on the show like Humans and Elephants or the Pollinator Pathway Project, I've also linked those and the description box as well. And we would love for you to join the Fundraising Superheroes family here as Driven. So if you want to see updated episodes, get access to a ton of resources, you can visit us at trustdriven.com.
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