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10 Steps on How UN/NGOs Can Work Responsibly with Artists

Lisa Russell (filmmaker) and Jidah (singer) at the United Nations. Credit: Pascal Bernier

It’s no surprise that art and storytelling are powerful tools to humanize global issues and create content that moves audiences on complex issues such as peace and security, gender equity, climate change and more.

However, as the UN/NGO sector taps deeper into the talent of the creative community, we need to discuss ways to ensure we give artists the ability to bring high-quality content and performances into the global development space and that the creative partnerships built between the different industries are meaningful and sustainable.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the creative economy is booming with more than 300 million workers in the creative class.

The SDG Fund states that cultural and creative industries are major drivers of economies by capitalizing US $2,250 billion and creating 29.5 million jobs globally.

Therefore, not only is inviting artists into the UN/NGO space responsible, it’s also smart, as these partnerships can be lucrative for the global development community.

As a professional UN/NGO filmmaker and arts curator for the past 15 years, I have curated endless performances, workshops and partnerships utilizing films, spoken word poetry, music, dance, beatboxing and even stepping to help elevate policy and program-heavy events. I do this by tapping into my global health background and combining it with my creative expertise to incorporate relevant and dynamic content into UN/NGO communications, advocacy campaigns, fundraising events and international conferences.

Here are my 10 steps on how to effectively and responsibly work with artists in the UN/NGO community followed by a few personal examples.


Artists are often asked to perform or display our creative work but are rarely asked to become more involved in the organizations or institutions we are partnering with. This creates a culture of “tokenism” where artists and storytellers may feel as though we are seen only as “entertainers.” That minimizes our potential. Given our inherent creative-thinking skills, we can actually bring new and innovative solutions to whatever challenge or world problem you’re institution is trying to solve.

EXAMPLE: During the writing of the SDG Outcome Document, there were only two creative professionals in one of the Town Hall meetings — myself and a radio personality from the Caribbean. We advocated to include specific language into the final document. Unfortunately, out of the nearly 16,000 words in the final document, “arts” and “artists” are never mentioned and “creativity” is only mentioned twice. If there had been more artists in the room, we may have had a different outcome!


We often hear how important the role of different “players” are in helping to meet world targets including the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs.) These players include the private sector, academia, governments, media and so on. However, artists are rarely mentioned yet we are growing in vast numbers worldwide and contribute significantly to the global economy. So, for example, why wouldn’t you want this untapped power sitting in a room with policymakers, talking about climate change?

EXAMPLE: When I approached a former UN Assistant Secretary General about this after one of his speeches listing these players (and not mentioning artists), he helped secure a contract for me to produce a film on engaging creatives on the SDGs which you can view below.


It’s very exciting to be able to curate a film festival or a creative event and therefore a lot of policy and program experts have taken the lead in developing or executing creative components to their events or campaigns. However, because this is not their area of expertise, they are not privy to the vast quantity and quality of international artists who work outside the UN/NGO “bubble.” Nor is this really an ethical way to work with artists (just as is having youth events curated by only adults.) Invite artists to lead or partner on the curation of creative events.

EXAMPLE: In my work with Global Health Corps, I have for several years curate their “entertainment” night during their training institute that used to take place at Yale University. Each year, they have given me full creative freedom to curate the evening with performances by socially conscious artists whose work aligns with their mission. This has yielded a really strong and respectful partnership.


One of the fastest ways the UN/NGO community can lose the interest of the creative community is by not crediting us for our work or taking our ideas and passing them off as their own.

If an artist contributes an idea or produces creative content, give us credit! Even if we are a work for hire, make sure you mention us in all postings, press, descriptions and so forth. This includes our name, our social media handles if relevant and a short bio. Just as an author of a scientific paper is always credited, so should every professional artist.

EXAMPLE: After working with a social impact brand on a proof of concept project utilizing performance art to enhance brands social mission statements, the company began utilizing my creative ideas and work model without my permission. So one of the things I did was write this Medium article: “The Dos (and Don’ts) of Brands Working with Artists.”)


The second fastest way to lose our attention is by not offering any form of compensation.

While we do understand not every event has a budget or the budget is low, there are ways to still compensate us for our time. The problem comes when this part of the conversation is glossed over. Or when we hear the words, “by working with us, we’ll give you exposure.”

We as artists survive in the “gig economy” and exposure does not pay the bills.

Artists have (by choice) made many sacrifices — financial, personal, etc — to do what we love. That doesn’t mean we don’t value our contribution to society. Nor does this take into consideration that your organization is also getting exposure to our followers — many of whom may not know of your work or issue but would.

Instead, have a candid conversation with an artist. If you are paying for other services like refreshments, postcards, etc, then pay the artist. If you genuinely don’t have a budget, ask for what you could provide to compensate them for their work. Perhaps you can promote their work on your social media, do a blog post, share their crowdfunding campaign, etc. We don’t always need to be compensated with cash, but please do not ask us to work for free!

EXAMPLE: This also applies to those asking to “pick our brains” on one of your events, ideas, etc. We don’t have full-time employment where our time to jump on a phone call, speak at an event, provide feedback on your idea, etc is compensated by an umbrella salary. If it is to negotiate a potential paid opportunity, it’s part of the process. But if it’s to use our expertise (that we have invested years in developing) for you to then run with it, then we should be compensated. An hourly consultation rate of $50-$150 is standard.


Many artists who want to engage more with the UN and the SDGs express frustration in not being able to do so. Personally, in my 15 years working as a contracted filmmaker and arts curator at the UN, I still am unable to get a UN pass! I either have to register as a nonprofit or get media accreditation (which requires a letter from a broadcaster.) I’m not interested in either as I work independently so I have to resort getting escorted into the Secretariat by a staff member every time I have a meeting or want to attend an event and I miss many opportunities to infuse UN work into my creative work because I lack the access.

The same holds true for conferences. While there are youth and media scholarships for many international conferences, I have yet to see artist scholarships. That means we don’t have a presence in international gatherings where our voices, once again, can provide new and innovative ideas to solve world problems and where we can grow as informed professionals.

EXAMPLE: As curator for the Women Deliver Film Festival since 2010, I have consulted filmmakers on how to affordably and strategically attend the conference to represent their film. This includes how to effectively work with other filmmakers to bring attention to the film festival, how to get organizations interested in hosting screenings and how to seek potential story ideas and contracted work.

Although Women Deliver has been a huge supporter and thought leader in integrating arts and storytelling into their conference, industry-wide this is not the case. However, while attending IFP Week, SXSW and Tribeca Film Festivals to encourage filmmakers to submit their films to Women Deliver, I received an enormous amount of interest as I pitched it as a place where global changemakers may see your film. Make it easy for filmmakers and artists to attend your conference — it’s a win, win!


What better way for us to learn about an organization or institution’s work than by letting us have a regular presence in it. Artist residencies are common to those working in visual or performing arts and usually provide travel, lodging and a stipend for a certain length of time. The outcome of the residency is a display of the work produced. This would be an excellent opportunity to attract and produce creative content for your organization. (Again, this residency should be developed and curated with input by an artist!)


Artists don’t normally interact with the UN/NGO community on a regular basis and therefore there are only a few of us who fully aware of the work of the UN/NGO community or are versed in development “language” (ie, acronyms, catchphrases, etc.) That’s because there are not many opportunities to do so.

Schools of Public Health have been dabbling in courses but there is no formal track on Art, Storytelling and Global Health (that includes appointments of working artists and filmmakers) to provide a real in-depth training atmosphere. There are journalism and public health dual degrees but none that I’m aware of that fully prepares students to be a working artist or storyteller in the global development world.

EXAMPLE: Every year, I do arts and storytelling related workshops at the awesome Unite for Sight Global Health and Innovation Conference held at Yale University each April. Every year, I throw out to my workshop participants the idea of a responsible storytelling conference. There’s always a huge amount of enthusiasm but usually, there has been no movement. Happy to announce an upcoming “Narratives for Change” conference I’m involved in curating taking place at Harvard University in October.


While celebrities may help give you a big bang for your buck, building a meaningful and long-lasting relationship with them may not be feasible given their lack of time or your budget to accommodate them. However, a well-known artist who is not an A-list celebrity may be able to be more accessible and able to invest in your organizational work. In addition, you don’t have to worry about being associated with potential “bad press” that goes hand in hand with paparazzi and celebrities. Not all of us are fans of celebrity culture.

When identifying “ambassadors”, honorary guests or guest speakers for your program, campaign or event, consider an artist whose committed — and available — to your cause.

EXAMPLE: During the SDG Summit in 2015, I released a short poetry video called “Mother’s Cry” on climate change (featuring youth poet, Savon Bartley.) It premiered on Slate Magazine with the title “The Deeply Moving Video on Climate Change Every World Leader Should See.”

Since it’s premiere, it has screened three times at the UN, won a Best of Fest award at the SF Green Fest and myself and the poet have given official remarks at the United Nations as climate artists. In addition, it has screened (and continues to screen) at over 35 international social change and environmental film festivals. We became invited artists in many UN/NGO events focused on climate action.


For many years, I have spoken publicly about my idea for the United Nations to create a UN Arts Envoy’s office whose mandate would be to both educate and inspire artists around the world on the work of the UN and also to help bring the voices of the creative community to Member States. Similar to the youth movement, we struggle with tokenism, poverty, lack of necessities like housing, access to healthcare, and more. Also, our work can sometimes be deemed as dangerous as our rights to freedom of speech can be violated by societies who want to silence artists. Having a formal Envoy would elevate the importance of a thriving, global creative economy!

To conclude, we have an unprecedented opportunity to engage the creative community’s powerful presence, talent and ability audiences in the work of the UN/NGO community. However, in order to do so, the global development community must move forward responsibly by removing institutional obstacles and creating a more artist-friend environment. The most effective way to do so is to let artists lead and strategize the growing creative movement in the UN/NGO sector.

To schedule a phone consultation for how to bring artists into your organization, email

To learn more about Create2030 artists and programs,

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