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How Making A Documentary Film Saved Our Annual Event During COVID-19

This is the first in a monthly-series of staff-written blog posts from the Conservancy. We hope you enjoy this new outlet for us to keep you updated on our mission and impact!

The famous nonprofit annual event. In most cases, this event is the "make or break" when it comes to meeting annual fundraising goals for a nonprofit organization. The typical event can be broken down pretty simply - a silent auction, a raffle, local catering, a guest speaker, inspiring words from the executive director - all followed by a direct ask to donate to the mission directed at all 200 - 300 people in attendance. This formula may sound predictable, but most donors truly enjoy it, and more importantly, it WORKS. Depending on the size of the organization and the level of execution, these events can bring in anywhere from $40,000 to upwards of $1,000,000 (or even more)... that is, when a global pandemic isn't taking place.

I'm Zach Tucker - the Director of Development & Communications at the Central Colorado Conservancy, and when COVID-19 hit the world, my job got a lot harder. Before we dive into the story below though, for those of you who don't know, I'm parting from the Conservancy this month to help raise our new daughter, Wynnie, and grow our family business. It's a bittersweet goodbye, but as I reflect on my time spent at this incredible organization, I can't help but think about how the biggest project I spearheaded in this role (and the most enjoyable of my career), our documentary film, Now More Than Ever, came to be.

At the Conservancy, we're one of those smaller organizations mentioned above that counts on an annual in-person event to meet our fundraising goal each year. We're a humble operation - a team of 6 (3 full time, 3 part time) - but our mission of protecting the lands, waters, and wildlife of Central Colorado is monumental in our eyes. So, when COVID-19 came about in March of 2020, with forecasts of 60% drops in fundraising for nonprofits, it was my job to figure out how to navigate the choppy seas ahead to ensure our mission (and our jobs) remained intact.

Just like thousands of nonprofits around the world, in a mere matter of days, our biggest, and much needed, fundraising event was no longer something we could depend on. So what would we do? Could we still hold an in-person event and keep people safe at the same time? Would a virtual event be possible? Would a virtual event still have the same emotional effect as our standard annual event? Would people still give with the economy doing so poorly? How would our mission continue without this critical element of our fundraising efforts? To say the least, there were many sleepless nights during this time.

As the pandemic continued to escalate, we saw many nonprofits in our network go the virtual event route. Some actually had no other choice because they had early spring events scheduled with tickets already sold and no time to delay or cancel. After gathering feedback from fellow nonprofit directors and staff members, we learned the virtual route can get the job done. But just as we thought, there was a good chance it would lack the emotion and engagement needed to raise adequate funds and inspire our donor base. Along with this feedback, there was also a terrifying new buzz phrase that started appearing in the industry - virtual fatigue. From the endless stream of Zoom meetings and conference calls, everyone had just about had it with virtual anything. In our eyes, this meant a virtual event was not possible. However, we had zero idea what the alternative would be, and the clock was ticking.

Central Colorado Conservancy - Zach Tucker

Central Colorado Conservancy Staff - Zoom Conservation Warriors in the Age of COVID

With our mission and our jobs on the line, it wasn't until a staff Zoom call, on an idle Tuesday in May, that we saw our first glimmer of hope. As we were all discussing this seemingly unsolvable predicament, our Director of Conservation, Lucy Waldo, suggested we do something at our town's local drive-in theatre. The amount of relief and sheer happiness I felt in that moment was nearly indescribable. I knew Lucy had just cracked the code. The idea of hosting an event at a drive-in was everything we needed - not only was it an outdoor venue, it also provided the ability to social distance and weather didn't pose a cancelation threat. It was safe, unique, and simply brilliant (THANK YOU, Lucy!).

With this new idea and a reclaimed sense of energy in tow, I was ready to plan an annual event. But one question remained: What would we show on the drive-in screen? To raise the kind of funds we were depending on, we knew simply tossing up a Nat Geo Documentary wouldn't cut it. We needed something BIGGER. We needed something that would tell OUR story. Something that our donors could RELATE to and RESONATE with. Taking these needs into account, the film degree sticking out of my back pocket led me to blurt out "Why don't we just make our own movie?" Without even thinking twice, I knew we could do it. If we could take the content that would have been communicated at our annual event (stories about our projects and easements, information touching on our conservation and restoration programs, and any and all updates on the organization itself), and tie it all together with filmed interviews, in lieu of live speakers and written pieces, we could potentially have enough content for a feature length film. So that's what we set out to do - create a real, professional-grade documentary about our mission and impact. How hard could it be, right?

After a warm reception from Adam, our executive director, and our staff, I picked up the phone and called David Skaggs, a friend from film school that I was still close with. After learning that his wedding videography business had shuttered due to COVID, I asked if he and his crew would be interested in driving to Colorado to shoot a documentary on a shoestring budget. With "Are you serious?!" being his first response, I knew we were off and running. As many entrepreneurs hurt by the pandemic, a job like this could save David's business. Documentaries can cost anywhere from $50,000 to several millions to make, but having the big heart that he does, David gave us an incredibly generous discount to make the film possible.

With the right price and the right team in place, we were able to set a date for Dave and his crew to join us in the mountains and attempt the impossible - plan, shoot, edit, and deliver a feature length film in less than a month.

Lights. Camera. IMPACT!

Central Colorado Conservancy - Zach Tucker David Skaggs

A series of behind the scenes photos from the week of filming.

From day one, things couldn't have been more thrilling. With an overly excited staff ready to tell the story of our mission, and an energetic film crew happy to be working on set again, we had the perfect team for tackling this larger-than-life project. But it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. As the shooting week progressed, we experienced longer than expected set ups, poorly timed summer rainfalls, shoots going for hours longer than planned, and a tired and sunburnt film crew from the Midwest, experiencing the harsh reality of working at 10,000 ft. All of these things combined led to a week filled with little sleep, heightened emotions, and a nervous film student turned nonprofit warrior that was second guessing what he had gotten his organization into. With that said, we wrapped up the final day of shooting with everything we needed to get the crew back to St. Louis to begin editing.

As the boys got to editing back at home, we began promoting Conservation From Your Car: A Night At The Drive-In With The Conservancy. The event itself fell into place just right. Our idea to host at the Comanche Drive-In couldn't have gone over better with our donors. With guest safety being our top priority, we were flooded with positive messages from donors, over the moon knowing they could get out of the house for a SAFE event in the middle of the pandemic. As the word got out, tickets started flying off the shelves, and our days of stressing over the possibility of a virtual event seemed like ages ago. With tickets and meals being sold left and right, and our donation total getting higher and higher, all we had to do now was make sure we could deliver a REAL movie the night of the event. With a thousand things that could go wrong in between now and then, tensions were high as we sprinted closer and closer to our deadline to save our organization.

Central Colorado Conservancy - Zach Tucker

After a few long weeks of directions, notes, and revisions sent to David and his editing team, Adam and I were finally gifted the rough draft of the film just days before the event. Our reaction? We almost couldn't believe we actually pulled it off. The stories were informative and emotional. There was a consistent theme tying everything together. There were even credits, well-timed music, a trailer, and everything else a movie you would see in theaters would have. It was everything we thought it would be and more - a lot more, actually. With smiles on our faces and relief in our minds, we gave David the green light, and we were sent the final copy of the film the morning of the event.

Central Colorado Conservancy - Zach Tucker David Skaggs

A series of stills from the documentary, Now More Than Ever: Central Colorado Conservancy

Everything seemed to fall into place just right the day of the event as well. Everyone showed up excited to be out of the house and to see the film. The catered meals from Sorelle Deli were warm and tasty. The weather even cooperated. It was all too surreal. When the time came to kick the tires and light the fires, Adam and I looked at each other in the projection both, shared a silent nod of congratulations (and relief), and pressed play. As I quickly ran to my car to catch the opening scene, I couldn't believe I was about to watch a movie that our staff had created. Since I was 7 years old watching Jurassic Park on VHS in my parent's living room, I had wanted to make a movie. And now, it had happened. The opening credits began to roll, and I opened the car door to join my wife and our 3-month-old daughter to watch my literal dreams come true.

As we ate our homemade popcorn and rocked Wynnie to sleep (several times), I almost couldn't believe the level of happiness I was experiencing. But this night wasn't just a win for me and my childhood film ambitions. This was a massive win for the Conservancy and the communities we protect. Just as we had hoped and prayed would happen, that night, we surpassed all of our goals - attendance, donor satisfaction, and, yes, we even blew past our fundraising goal. In fact, we nearly raised as much as we did the year before, pre-COVID, which was something we hadn't expected. Being a small nonprofit in the midst of an economic crisis, that depends on the generosity of others to keep our doors open, to say our staff was grateful in this moment would be an extreme understatement. While our movie played on, the sun fell and the stars of the Colorado sky began to shine, we all sat in wonder and enjoyed what we had accomplished together.

Zach Tucker - David Skaggs

With that said, this outcome was not guaranteed, by any means. There were hundreds of things that could have derailed this film from being shown and our funds from being raised. However, our staff and our leader rose to the occasion to beat the odds and create something beautiful to ensure our mission would live on. As someone who often dreams of pursuing projects and adventures of this scale, I couldn't be more proud to have worked with such an incredible team on such an ambitious and important project. The passion and dedication of this organization and its staff know no bounds, and the people of Central Colorado can sleep well knowing they are protecting their lands, waters, and wildlife.

While looking back on the 18 months I've spent with this organization, I can't help but smile ear to ear. My experience in this role has

been a vibrant highlight in my career, and I am blessed to have had this opportunity. As I mentioned before, this goodbye is bittersweet for me. Although I'm excited about what is ahead for my family, there isn't a chance in the world I won't miss this organization and the people that make it so wonderful. This season of my life will always bring me so much joy when reflected on. Having said that, I cannot thank those of you who supported my wild and crazy ideas while here enough - our donors, our board, our amazing staff, and so many more. My impact on our mission wouldn't have been at all possible without each and every one of you.

If you haven't seen our film, Now More Than Ever, I've linked it below for you to enjoy. It may have not been made in Hollywood, and will never be shown in theaters across the country, but it means the world to our team, and the impact it has created for our mission will live on for years to come. To us, that alone has made this crazy story worth every second.

For one last time - to the possibilities,

Zach Tucker

Director of Development & Communications

Central Colorado Conservancy


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