Fundraising in a Slow Economy

With the economic downturn upon us, it would seem that the outlook for documentary funding in the United States looks bleak. Individual donors are tightening their belts. State and local government funds are being cut across the country, with arts funds often the first to suffer. Corporations facing smaller profits or losses translate into less money being put into their foundations. And media-friendly community foundations have not been immune from the souring economy since many are vested in the stock market (with one - the JEHT foundation which has funded a number of video and audio documentaries on topics related to the legal and human rights implications of the war on terror - has actually ceased to exist as a result of putting too many eggs in the Bernie Madoff basket).

In spite of these depressing facts, funds are still out there. It's just that the competition for them has increased and only the strong and scrappy will survive. That's one of the reasons we are going to draw on our in-house fundraising talent, Sam Hampton, to teach both aspiring and experienced documentary filmmakers everything they need to know about coming up with fundraising proposals. And it's also why we decided to continue our fascination with the power of the Internet as a tool for fundraising by looking at two very different approaches.


The Traditional Approach Goes Online

While many documentary filmmakers know that grants are one way to go, especially when it comes to social-issue films, not all filmmakers know that there is an organization which dedicates itself to ensuring that grant-makers see that their missions can be realized through the power of documentary. Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media (GFEM) is an affinity group for grantmakers who fund (or are considering funding) media content, infrastructure, and policy.

GFEM's Chair David Haas, a longtime advocate for social interest media, has spent years finding ways to make more funders realize the potential of media projects as potential grantees. The challenge he found was there were many funders who wanted to fund media, but didn't necessarily have a program set up or didn't know how to go about identifying projects which fit into the mission of their existing programs. Haas came up with the idea that GFEM should have a database.

Rather than reinvent the wheel with a database similar to that of the Foundation Center (where potential grantees could search for potential grants which would fit their projects), GFEM decided to create a database where potential grant-makers could search for potential grantees which would fit their mission and programs. "For instance, you could be interested in conflict resolution or kids' education or AIDS or homelessness or the environment," says GFEM Program Director Pamela Harris. "You can search on a topic or keyword to find a project which deals with that topic."

The result is the GFEM Media Database which was unveiled in December 2008 and will be doing a bigger launch later this month. Even with the soft rollout, the database already has more than 25 projects uploaded, including video and radio projects, interactive content, and media policy projects.

Beyond the base criteria that a project already has to have funding from at least one foundation grant or government funder, the GFEM team which reviews the submissions to the database is also looking at what the public interest element is to each submitted project. "The philanthropy piece has to connect. It has to be for the public good," says Harris. "We want to add to the field and make the field a more robust place." Though she says GFEM does not want to say no to projects, they want to be clear on what the project is about; ones which are missing information or have an unclear purpose may be sent back for clarification.

So far the feedback on the database has been positive from GFEM's constituency. "There's a real interest in leveraging fundraising dollars," says Harris. "It could get funders to partner with other funders. Funders can see who is funding what kinds of projects." Harris is particularly pleased that many of the content producers uploading projects are ones who are new to her and others on the GFEM team. "We want to reach far and wide to the broadest possible constituency. There has to be a diversity of voices."

One common element of many of the films in the database is an emphasis on outreach as well as production. "There's no sense in making a film and not having anybody see it, " says Harris who is also a working filmmaker, "Who's my audience? How will it get out there? Will it have a life? It's never too early to think about outreach. It's never too early to think about potential partnering organizations. It's never too early to think about who would be interested in watching this and why." While the database's primary audience are funders and potential funders, it is also worth it for filmmakers to look around the site to get a sense of how other documentary projects define themselves in terms of proposals, budgets, trailers, and outreach campaigns.

Although the media database represents a step forward in the use of technology to bring potential funders and fundees together, filmmakers should be realistic in their expectations of the database. "We don't see the database as being a replacement for a proposal, "says Harris, "It's more of a bridge. A funder can look at a project which looks interesting and decide to ask the program manager for more information and take the conversation offline by asking for a full proposal. It's the beginning of a conversation, not the end."

Harnessing Social Networks for Fundraising

Meanwhile, I also wanted to see how a film which -- for whatever reason, may not have been able to go the traditional route towards grant fundraising -- could still find a means to an end online. I decided to follow up with Cameron Hickey, whose production company Pattern Films is collaborating with DoubleSpeak onThe Delegates, referenced in an earlier blog entry. The film follows four delegates to the historic 2008 Democratic National Convention and aims to illustrate a personal side of the democratic process of selecting a presidential candidate and party platform.

With tight lead time on a time-sensitive project, the filmmakers did not have a chance to go the more traditional route of fundraising through grant-raising. They did get a fiscal sponsor to manage private donations from people within their network and raised $15,000 this way. But they still needed more to be able to cover the costs of following the delegates from their home towns to Denver, so decided to take a page from the Obama campaign and seek smaller donations through online, viral outreach and social networking.

The Delegates team decided to go with Chip-In, a Flash application which allows online fundraising and works on websites, e-mails, blogs and social networks such as MySpace and Facebook. It is one of a number of online tools to allow fundraising for films -- which range from donation sites through fiscal sponsors such as the International Documentary Association (IDA) to sites specifically focused on independent film fundraising such as IndieGoGo. As Hickey says about why they chose Chip-In, "We didn't have a lot of time before we had to leave to shoot the film and this was the most expedited way to get money into the bank to pay for travel, equipment, and other immediate production expenses."

They sent the Chip-In link along with a passioned please to their shared network, reaching about 1200 people by e-mail and another 1200 through Facebook direct contacts and viral ones after they set up a group on the social networking site. They benefited by having a large network, with most donors only being one "degree of friendship" away from the producers. "If you have a lot of friends who you aren't ashamed to ask for money, 1200 email addresses is a lot. This isn't that useful if you can only muster 200 addresses."

There were costs involved in fundraising, including hosting the website, the transaction fee or percentage Chip-In took on each donation, and e-mail marketing tools. In the case of The Delegates, they used Campaign Monitor, a tool which allowed them to send 1200 e-mails out without being marked as spam; and track some aspects of their fundraising mailings, such as how many people opened the e-mail, how many forwarded it to their friends, how many bounced, how many unsubscribed, etc. But the costs were far outweighed by the amount of funds which came in, something which allowed them to move forward with the project. They ultimately raised $10,000 online from this campaign (receiving 133 donations through Chip-In, with the average donation at about $75).

Hickey said these approaches, like all fundraising, is a strategy. "It's especially useful if you have a subject or theme that people are particularly interested in," he noted. In the case of The Delegates, "The Democratic National Convention was guaranteed to be something everyone would be excited to learn more about. We're working on another film about a tunnel construction project in the northwest border region of Pakistan. It seems much less likely anyone will care about it, so we wouldn't use the same strategy for that film."

Hickey and the other Delegates filmmakers were influenced not only by Barack Obama's own approach to online fundraising, but by strides which have been made in the film world with "crowd-funding." Also known as "crowd-sourcing," this type of fundraising goes one step beyond the "one degree away" approach of The Delegates by asking other people to do your fundraising for you. By telling a few people about the project and then asking them to reach out through their own networks, this type of viral outreach gets other people to donate just because they think it is a good idea, not necessarily through any direct connection with the producers. Probably one of the best known documentaries to benefit by crowdsourcing is The Age of Stupid, a British film about climate change which managed to raise 450,000 by "selling shares" to more than 200 individuals and groups to get the film made and is now taking a similar approach to raise funds for outreach.

Social networking has become a means of documentary outreach, particularly in raising awareness about a film and reaching audiences interested in the issues in the film. Now it is also being used as a method of fundraising. "Social networking is an obvious tool to use for building audiences around niche subjects," says Hickey, "but using it requires a delicate balance between restraint and pushiness/self-promotion. This is especially true with respect to fundraising." While the timeline urgency of The Delegates helped people respond right away, Hickey thinks they will modify their approach with the next go-round of fundraising for post-production. "Personally I don't think you can do this kind of "ask" more than once, or you end up making people think you just contact them when you want money, and they start ignoring you."

Still he is hopeful that this kind of grassroots fundraising can be an effective tool in the fundraising toolkit, especially if the audience is vested in the topic. Pattern Films will next be working on a project about the birth control pill in contemporary society and they plan to start with a website where members of the public will be able to share their personal stories about The Pill. By having the public help create some of the content for the film or provide leads for new stories to follow, they will have a ready-made niche which can help the film get funded to be made and provide the initial target audience for when it is completed.

Want to learn more about how to fundraise or put together an outreach campaign for your film? Docs In Progress will be offering courses on both of these topics, starting the last week of January at our Documentary House in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. Visit our website for more details.

(c) January 2009, Docs In Progress, Inc. This article may not be reprinted without permission.

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