As part of a 4-part series, Video Volunteers is sharing what we’ve done over the last year, our experiences, and what we’ve learned. Part 1, which you can read here, was a basic introduction to IndiaUnheard, our flagship rural feature service.

Part 2 outlines new ideas we implemented into our training programs in 2011. For instance, we set incentives for our community correspondents in India. This triggered a series of valuable positive changes for the communities concerned.

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Video Volunteers’ community correspondents focus on activism.

Incentives work

In October, we held an advanced training session for our strongest community correspondents which focused on activism and getting “impact.” (To us, “impact” means that the community correspondent is able to resolve the problem the video addresses.) We told them we had decided to incentivize impact.

They would be paid 5,000 rupees (approximately $100) — more than twice the regular stipend — for an “impact video,” which means they would make a video; show it locally to get the issue solved; and make another documenting that process and proving the impact actually took place — and for that second video, they would get the 5,000 rupees.

Some amazing impacts happened this year: In Orissa, illegal timber smugglers were stopped by local villagers. In Mumbai, a factory was forced to clean its pollution. In Assam, politicians released desperately needed water to villagers. Rather than be turned away, Dalit children got help in village child centers. Expectant mothers received folic acid which had previously been withheld. And, in one area, some 600 women for the first time were paid minimum wage.

These are just some of our stories. You can watch our impact videos here.

Recruitment is challenging

Our goal is to have 645 community correspondents, or one in every district of India. We had to think hard about how we could quickly scale up if we needed to.

Our first two rounds of recruitment for IndiaUnheard was through our existing network. We sent emails asking people to nominate someone from the villages they work in and then to help them fill out the online application. We got a few hundred applications that way and thought we could keep doing it like that. But when we tried for the third round, the number of eligible applications was low (though the overall applications were higher than previous years). Maybe we had tapped out our existing network.

So how could we quickly scale up? Possibly through big non-profit institutions (like microfinance). We are reaching out to them now.

Choose the right geographies

For our first two rounds, our goal was to get one or two people in every state. Now that we’ve almost done that, we’re going to focus on key regions we feel are “unheard.”

Last month, we took about 20 new community correspondents from Jharkhand. We chose Jharkhand because it is part of the so-called Red Corridor where there is a Maoist insurgency taking place. In the future, we’ll look at the North East where other separatist movements are taking place, and Kashmir. (Those two areas were out of our budget this year.)

My colleagues Kamini Menon and Stalin K. spent two weeks traveling around this area meeting the activists and doing the recruitment; this live recruitment is making recruitment easier and will also make retention higher because the 13 new correspondents, each representing one district in the same state, can support each other.

Partnerships are challenging

Two years ago, when our Community Video Units were our primary focus, we felt that we could scale this network through investments from NGOs (non-governmental organizations). We’ve realized that co-ownership is very difficult and can at times be a hindrance to innovation.

We now feel that we can scale better through partnerships with the mainstream media, rather than NGOs, and so for that reason, a huge focus this year has been on ensuring the content can work for both a local community and outside audience.

From our Community Video Units, we’ve learned a few other things: One is that a model where people are paid only when they perform is better than the Community Video Units model, in which the six or seven people who work together on a film are given a monthly wage.

Women produce more

Two observations we are thrilled to see: Women produce more, and retention is higher with the underprivileged. It suggests that journalism really is an appropriate livelihood for the poor. We started to see that with online recruitment, we had selected certain people whose incomes were clearly higher than they had told us on the phone. Live recruitment in extremely remote areas of Jharkhand will help get the correct balance.

The amount they can produce is low

We ask correspondents to produce two videos a month. They produce on average one or less. One reason is that being a journalist is difficult; it takes a lot of personal courage to confront officials and ask people private questions. They can spend a whole day on a bus getting to an official who then won’t see them. They have to take care of their families, too.

I learned this year about the concept of “businesses in a box” and franchises, such as rural women selling solar lamps or soap sachets, and I discovered that we should make the process as simple and step-by-step as possible.

But journalism is simply harder than selling soap. We also ask them to produce tough stories that they have to research and which take time, unlike stringers, who are told to “go film this event and send us the footage.” This means that our “cost per story” is higher than we would like. But we also aren’t taking huge steps to increase their productivity right now, because we don’t yet have enough buyers to support a huge level of production.

Choose the right people to train

The fact that we put such effort in selecting interesting people to train is a huge asset for us. Our new batch of correspondents includes people whose personal stories are, in some ways, the story. We have two boys from Kashmir who have seen the insurgency; a young man whose sister was the first dowry death in his state; women who have experienced sexual violence and have the courage to speak about it; and a good representation from the North East, including one young man who got the first footage of a particular insurgent camp because he’s from that area.

In our training, we teach them that their power as a community correspondent will come through using their personal experiences and connections to the issues. This is what they have that no professional, no outsider, can ever replicate. They learn that they themselves must speak out, and speak personally, if they want their communities to do so, too.

Good training is not necessarily scalable. (That’s another thing that we learned in 2011 — that the training aspects of our work will always be expensive because education doesn’t have a lot of economies of scale.) But it is the most valuable investment.

You can watch a video from our trainings here:

Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series, which will focus on our modes of online and offline distribution and our experience with earning income from partners and the mainstream media.