12 Things You Should Look for in a Fiscal Sponsor

Fiscal sponsorship is something that many documentary filmmakers seek out so they can raise grant funds which are only given to nonprofits and are able to accept contributions from donors who want a tax deduction. How to decide on the right fiscal sponsor? So much of the emphasis has been on what fiscal sponsors are looking for in fiscal sponsorees and yet fiscal sponsorees also should explore all their options to find a fiscal sponsor who is a good fit for their project.  Too many filmmakers focus only on which fiscal sponsor takes the lowest admin fee and not enough on all the other factors which can make or break a successful fiscal sponsorship relationship. After giving talks at the Foundation Center on Fiscal Sponsorship in the Arts, our Executive Director Erica Ginsberg adapted her presentation into this list of considerations.



by Erica Ginsberg
Executive Director, Docs In Progress
January 4, 2012

As we begin a new year, many documentary filmmakers are starting to think about energizing their fundraising efforts and may want to expand their prospects by finding a fiscal sponsor who can help open up access to grants which can only be given to non-profit organizations.

While we should begin by noting that Docs In Progress is one such Fiscal Sponsor, we believe strongly that every filmmaker has to find a Fiscal Sponsor which is the right fit for their project.  You can see a list of other prominent fiscal sponsors for documentary projects at the bottom of this article. In the meantime, here are our recommendations for what to look for when looking for the right fiscal sponsor: 

#1 - Does the Fiscal Sponsor sponsor projects like yours?

Seems like an obvious point, but you'd be surprised how many filmmakers don't do their research.  Most formalized fiscal sponsorship programs have eligibility information.  For example, Women Make Movies is very clear: your project must be a non-commercial film, video or multimedia project; you must be a U.S. citizen; and the project director must be a woman.  Likewise, we at Docs In Progress won't consider a project which isn't a documentary.  Some fiscal sponsors may have geographic requirements or membership requirements.  Do your homework to make sure it is a good fit.  If you're unsure after researching on the website, contact the staff person who is listed as running the Fiscal Sponsorship Program.

#2 - Which Fiscal Sponsorship Model Do They Follow?

We are not talking about Tyra Banks here.  We mean which type of fiscal sponsorship does their organization provide?  This could mean the difference between basically making a work-for-hire (not an inconceivable proposition if you are making a social issue film and have found a nonprofit with a similar mission who is willing to help fundraise, fund, or distribute the film) or having more creative control but needing to do all the fundraising yourself.  The majority of film organization fiscal sponsors follow "Model C" (also known as a Pre-Approved Grant Relationship) where the Fiscal Sponsor's main responsibilities are to manage donations directly from individual donors or grant-makers and then "regrant" them to the filmmaker.  If you want to know more about Fiscal Sponsorship Models, the Bible of this topic is Greg Colvin's book Fiscal Sponsorship: Six Ways to Do it Right or check out some of the resources at Colvin's website.

#3 - Do they provide clear guidelines and sample agreements?

A Fiscal Sponsorship relationship is a legal one.  Although the term "pass-through" is often bandied about, any organization which does little more than let money pass through its name is not doing due dilligence to its stakeholders or its special tax status it has been granted as a nonprofit organization.  Nonprofits should maintain a degree of transparency and any Fiscal Sponsor should be willing to share with potential Fiscal Sponsorees clear written guidelines on what is involved in applying for Fiscal Sponsorship and what is expected of both parties.  Go in with both eyes open.

#4 - What is their Track Record?

To find a fiscal sponsor who is a good fit, you want to know as much about them as they want to know about you and your project.  How many films have they sponsored?  What has happened to these films?  Do they have a good reputation within the film community?  What have you heard about how they are about disbursing funds, communicating with fiscal sponsorees, being a known entity to funders?  There are no right answers to these questions.  For some projects, it may be important to be with a long-established fiscal sponsor which has many projects under its umbrella which have gone on to fundraising and distribution success.  For others, a smaller organization which is more selective about its projects but which may offer other more hands-on services may be preferable.  Once again, you just want to know what to expect.

which brings me to

#5 - Do they provide services or other technical support?

This is not a must for every project.  Some filmmakers may only want or need an organization which just manages donations for their projects.  But a number of fiscal sponsors offer other benefits.  Fiscal Sponsors which require you to become a member of their organization often have a number of other programs you will gain access to at discounted rates, including publications and professional development programming.  Some may take fiscal sponsorees under their wing, becoming mentors or consultants to their sponsored projects.  Still others may serve a dual role as a distributor which some filmmakers may find beneficial.  Or perhaps they provide other services such as access to group-rate insurance, video or editing equipment, rented office space, accounting services, or screening space.

#6 - What fees do they charge?

While many filmmakers would probably put this at the top of their list of considerations for fiscal sponsors, we've put it at #7 because it could be penny wise, pound foolish to go with the lowest fee if you need more value from a fiscal sponsor.  That said, you do want to know what sorts of fees are involved -- for the application process, for maintaining standing in the program, for administrative fees when you receive donations, and for any additional services you might need.  As noted before, while membership organizations may seemingly ding you twice for a membership fee and a fiscal sponsorship application fee, you are getting the benefit of fiscal sponsorship plus other benefits of membership.  Similarly, when comparing whether a fiscal sponsor charges a relatively low administrative fee or a higher one, it is also important to consider what the fiscal sponsor does for you.  Some fiscal sponsors with higher fees may also offer mentoring services or other technical support.  They may have someone on staff who does nothing but manage the fiscal sponsorship program, allowing for more individualized attention.  They may allow you to receive funds from federal funders, which often have a larger amount of paperwork required from the fiscal sponsor.  They may be set up to accept online donations.  There are many factors which go into how a fiscal sponsor sets up its fees, but rarely is any fiscal sponsoring organization doing much more than breaking even from these fees when compared with the amount of work involved in running a fiscal sponsorship program.

#7 - What do they need for the application?

 You wouldn't submit a generic resume for a job you really wanted.  So make sure you know exactly what the fiscal sponsor needs for the application and why.  Do they need to see some footage?  A proposal?  A budget?  A fundraising plan?  Do they specify you need to fill out their online application or you can send an attachment?  Are you sticking to whatever word or page limits are noted?  If you are wondering why a fiscal sponsor might need all this information, then you are probably not ready for a fiscal sponsor because they are often simply seeking a shorter version of what you would be submitting to potential funders anyway.  Remember, the fiscal sponsor is effectively representing your project as a sub-grantor for any funds you raise so there is very good reason they need to be sure that you have actually thought about fundraising.  It's not to make you do more work.  It's actually to make sure you are on track to get the most out of your fiscal sponsorship relationship. 

#8 - What is their process for reviewing your application?

Another seemingly obvious question, but one which I can speak to from personal experience.  Since a lot of folks still associate Docs In Progress with yours truly (Erica Ginsberg), they think that since I know them and their project, they are a shoe-in to get fiscal sponsorship.  Nope.  Our applications are reviewed by a committee made up of staff and board members who may not know anything about the project or the filmmaker and have to review the applications against carefully-determined criteria.  Some fiscal sponsors may have a review committee which is completely independent of staff or board and may only meet once or twice a year.  Others may have a system where they can consider applications on a rolling basis.

which begs another consideration

#9 - What is the turnaround time for getting fiscal sponsorship?

Yes, we know your situation.  You are a one man or one woman band who has been trying to balance your labor of love film with other means of income and only just realized that an important funding application deadline is coming up next week so you need to find a fiscal sponsor FAST!  While some fiscal sponsors can expedite the process of reviewing films, most professional fiscal sponsors have a process for applications and want to ensure that they have had adequate time to review a fiscal sponsorship application.  You just want to know how long?  Do they review applications on a rolling basis or only a few times a year?  How long should you expect from the time you submit an application to the time you get the official word you are in the program?  Will they make exceptions for you because you are so special or do they have special reason to follow a seemingly more bureaucratic process?  Know before you apply.

#10 - How do they manage individual donations?

Hmmm, since the main purpose of fiscal sponsorship is to provide a way for filmmakers to receive donations for their projects, you probably want to know how that all works not only for grants, but also for individual donations.  Can the Fiscal Sponsor accept donations online or only in the mail?  Can they accept credit cards as well as checks (and do they pass on any merchant account fees to you if they do)?  Can they accept small donations as well as large?  What about crowdfunding campaigns through Kickstarter or IndieGogo?  And, once the funds are received, then what?  How do they inform you new donations have been received?  As they come in?  Once a month?  Once a quarter?  Only upon request?  When and how do you have access to the funds?  Who sends donor acknowledgments?  Don't know this?  Ask before you apply.

#11 - What are the reporting requirements?

You've been reading this blog countdown long enough to know that fiscal sponsors have a legal obligation in their role as fiscal sponsor to be accountable for all funds raised.  Since a funder may ask the fiscal sponsor about a particular project, the sponsor needs to be kept up-to-date about the project.  This doesn't necessarily mean having to submit every funding application through the fiscal sponsor's review, but it does mean having to provide regular reports on how a project and your fundraising efforts have evolved.  You should know in advance how often reports are required and what are the ramifications for not submitting status reports (in some cases, it could be holding funds or ending the fiscal sponsorship relationship).  Just as with the application process, this is not to create a bureaucratic hassle for the filmmaker.  Keeping on top of a film's status is ultimately to the benefit of the filmmaker.

and this brings us to the last, but not least, consideration

#12 - Is there an out?

What if you want to end a relationship with a fiscal sponsor?  You might need another sponsor for a geographic or thematic requirement for a grant.  You might be not undertaking the film for any number of reasons.  Or there may just be something that doesn't make for a good relationship with your fiscal sponsor (in spite of your thorough research).  You want to make sure you know what the process is for terminating the fiscal sponsorship agreement.  Is there a certain amount of time you have to give notice?  Are there any added fees for terminating the contract?  What is the process for disbursing any remaining funds in your account?  Most fiscal sponsorship agreements should have clear terms for how the agreement can be terminated.  Make sure you know how to say "no more" before you say "yes."

And not to end on a sour note, I hope that whatever fiscal sponsor you find will be the best possible fit for your film.


List of Fiscal Sponsors
The following organizations provide fiscal sponsorship for documentary filmmakers. Some have membership or residency requirements or are by invitation only, so make sure to review their guidelines thoroughly:

Austin Film Society
Bay Area Video Coalition
Center for Independent Documentary
Chicago Filmmakers
Docs In Progress
Filmmakers Collaborative
Fractured Atlas
From the Heart Productions
Independent Arts and Media
Independent Filmmaker Project
International Documentary Association
Kartemquin Films
San Francisco Film Society
Southern Documentary Fund
Women in Film and Video - DC
Women Make Movies

These recommendations were adapted from a presentation Erica Ginsberg has given at The Foundation Center, DC Shorts Film Festival, and at the Docs In Progress/WIFV Roundtable.  They are certainly not the only considerations.  If you have others to share based on your experience as a fiscal sponsor or filmmaker fiscal sponsoree, please feel free to add them in the Comments section.

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