Build Effective Partnershipss

In addition to impact campaign funders there is a whole constellation of partners who would be keen to learn about your film. The reason they are most likely be interested in partnership is due to their shared interest in the issue you are trying to highlight.

We might think of them as sitting outside the documentary film ecosystem – campaigners, philanthropists, brands, media, policymakers, foundations or NGOs. But they don’t have to be. And in the context of film impact space, they probably shouldn’t be! These partners can enrich the campaign in a plethora of different ways outside of monetary support, from arranging meetings with key stakeholders, to setting up non-theatrical screenings, or lobbying the media.

The right partners can offer your team valuable context about the issues, solutions, and target communities. They can help make your engagement efforts stronger and more relevant. If they trust in your efforts, they can become your trusted messenger with the audiences that you need to engage.

In other words, the right partnerships can extend the campaign's reach, deepen its efforts, and amplify its voice. In short, what they can offer is priceless.

In the case of American Promise, the film team spent considerable time getting organisations and foundations invested in the film, mobilising a total of 66 national partner organisations and 118 community organisations around the release. This advanced engagement proved invaluable when it came to spreading the word about the theatrical release, rolling out the community screening programme and engaging audiences around the campaign.

Likewise, No Fire Zone worked closely with national and international partners including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group and many Tamil organisations who made a huge contribution by organising high level influencer screenings in a number of key territories pivotal to the campaign strategy.

The Virunga campaign was the result of a long-term and coordinated collaboration between the film and the Virunga National Park. They worked together and built a plan to ensure that the park would be a source of peace and prosperity in the region. The first key part of their strategy to achieve this was to highlight activities that might impede that, such as oil extraction, and stop them. The next part of their strategy was to point to the alternatives (such as hydroelectric plants) and inspire people to see that Virunga could be so much more. And finally, to build those alternatives and the support needed to ensure the park’s success over the long-term. The Virunga film and campaign stopped the existential threats (of oil exploration and extraction) and made sure the park would survive long enough to get there. The film team continues to work closely with the Virunga Alliance to continue their efforts to achieve this shared vision.

Let's look for a second at when educational charity Facing History and Ourselves (an educational nonprofit that engages students in an examination of racism, prejudice, and anti-semitism) attendedGood Pitch. They were so taken with the Bully documentary that they offered to create a free downloadable learning guide and online training resource to accompany the film, as well as introducing the film to 3500 educators as part of One Million Kids. As well as that, they introduced the Bully team to their own funder, the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, who ended up becoming a major funder for the Bully project.

Or perhaps when The Innocence Project were so moved by Give Up Tomorrow that they set up a new organisation called the Philippines Innocence Project to work on reforming the nation's criminal justice system. Here's what the filmmakers had to say about securing the partnership:

'With Give Up Tomorrow we really really wanted to work with the Innocence Project.

We are big fans of their work and what they've accomplished: exonerating hundreds of wrongfully convicted prisoners, many of them from death row.

They are such a perfect fit for our campaign, as they champion others victims just like our main character Paco. We tried desperately to reach out to them, but they didn't know us, and as you can imagine are extremely busy saving lives.

We were invited to do a screening with Philanthropy NY hosted by Ford Foundation's JustFilms. JustFilms asked us who would be good candidates to join the panel discussion afterwards. Here was a great opportunity to invite the Innocence Project. JustFilms sent them an invitation, and they accepted! Finally they had a chance to see the film on the big screen at the Paley Center for Media with a sold out audience, and that's all it took. They recognized that our issues were aligned and our film was able to convey the same message they do. A few days after the screening, we were invited to their offices in downtown New York to brainstorm how to work together.'

The Escape Fire filmmakers approached healthcare foundations, but then also started to think about how the campaign would play with the military. They met the head of the US army’s Pain Management Task Force and the Department of Veteran Affairs at Good Pitch, who helped arrange screenings for military personnel, and the team also managed to secure screenings at The Pentagon, Capitol Hill, and the Department of Defense, hosted by the Surgeon General of the US Army.

Sometimes, a film becomes the face of an organisation. Miners Shot Down, which provided an alternative narrative to the one the government was spinning about the Marikana massacre, became the face of the Marikana Support Campaign. And Invisible War became the face of Protect Our Defenders.

Similarly, Please Remember Me became the face of a network to support families grappling with Dementia and Alzhiemer’s in China. Prior to their film campaign, there was no national network, so their corresponding Memory 2030 campaign became a hub to connect existing support facilities and programs. To do this effectively, they knew they would need a couple of key partners to weigh in on the campaign strategy. So they pulled in Jin Mei, who organises family visits for elderly care patients, and Jian Ai, an expert on early care and prevention. They also knew that they needed an Impact Producer who was an expert on elderly care with a government background.

The result? An app that helps families to identify the resources they need, which grows by the day, and over 250 screenings held by organisations that they pulled into their network. These ranged from hospitals and nursing schools to city governments and even pharmaceutical companies. The over 25,000 audience members who attended these screenings were informed of available support.

This smart partnership strategy not only won them a government endorsement of their campaign, but it also led to government-supported campaigns for Dementia and Alzheimer’s care. The film team is now working on a second ITVS-supported film about a Shanghai Opera Director who is battling Alzheimer’s. Because they formed this network, which continues to be active due to the efforts of a committed Impact Producer, they now have a network that is ready to be activated around this next film.

Some food for thought:

There is tremendous possibility for all kinds of powerful partnerships around film - but you need to be diligent and attentive to the landscape that you’re operating in. For example, while it’s a hard thing to track for certain, anecdotal evidence suggests that at the present moment in the U.S., the social change landscape is flooded with story-based media. Social movement organisations can get inundated with partnership requests. So be clear about what you want and what you’re offering. The best partnerships are the ones where you don’t need to convince them of the value of your story to their work.

Also, be honest about whether you want a partner or a customer. Partners have a working relationship towards a common goal or interest. Often a partnership is built on some level of trust and shared understanding. In a partnership, both parties are bringing something of value to the table. But customer relationships are mostly transactional. You have something to sell (your film) and they want to buy it. Done and done. Knowing the difference allows you to approach a person or group with more transparency.

Some food for thought:

So now here's an exercise and a practical tool to help you identify partners and to organise and manage these relationships effectively. Although various contacts databases exist, and these do all sorts of whizzy things, our own version is a simple spreadsheet which we hope can be used by everybody, regardless of budget or technical ability.

This picks up from your issue map – but now it's time to do the job a little more systematically, and to keep a record while you're doing it. There are six steps to building and maintaining the Partnership Contact Log:

Step 1

Let's go back to our issue map, where we scanned the issue thoroughly and mapped the issue landscape (if you skipped this section, go back to it here ). From this, you can begin to develop a long list of organisations (and, wherever possible, named individuals in those organisations) to add to your partnership contact log. You might find the following useful as a research prompt:

  • Research the history of distribution and the impact campaigns of previous films in the field. Look at film credit lists, study films’ campaign websites, social media and press.
  • Learn who the key stakeholders and funders were. Study which organisations sponsored screenings, who sat on post-screening panels and who led Q&A’s. Read final campaign and funder reports.
  • Ask whether the campaign achieved its goals and how those goals evolved and changed over time. Learn whether the stakeholders found it a positive and effective experience. For some, it may have been a waste of their time, resources and organisational energy.
  • Study the field of the issue itself, not just the films. See where there is collaboration among organisations and funders and where there are turf wars between organisations.
  • Collaborate with films on a similar subject where possible. Working Films institutionalised this practice with the Reel Engagement initiative: thematic collections of documentary media that turn competition into collaboration and show how groups of films on the same issue can make a stronger impact together than they can apart (Reel Aging, Reel Energy, Reel Education).

Step 2

Once you have a list, it's worth carrying out some basic analysis of these potential partners, in order to understand their strengths:

  • Type of organisation: International, national or local? Size of organisation?
  • Constituency: ie: youth, business leaders, women, rural, paid memberships, mailing list signup, website visitors, Facebook/Twitter followers?
  • Experience in film partnership: First time or veteran? Resistant to film or embracing?
  • Likelihood of partnership: Aligned with the issue, outlier or unexpected?
  • Partner power assessment: Issue field leader or less influential?
  • How or where does partner deploy power: Lobbying, grassroots campaign, support services, elite influencers, publications, cause fundraising, social media, conferences, offline or online partnership (ie: Avaaz,, etc)?

Step 3

Think about and then list what you might, in an ideal world, get from each potential partnership.

Step 4

Prioritise. From an impact perspective, what expertise and capacities do you need most on your campaign?

Step 5

Update constantly. Keep using it and update after every conversation, or at least make a note to update as a team on a regular basis. Put alarms in your calendar to make sure you do.

It's vital you keep on top of this – it'll give you a really clear idea of where you're at, and what other opportunities exist.

Download the Partnership Contact Log

Step 6

So now we've got a list. But how to start? These people are not film people. Will they understand how we work as artists? Will they value us as change makers? Will they overvalue us?

Our top tips are:

PICK UP THE PHONE AND GET STARTED! For all the advice we can give, there's no substitute for getting on the phone (far better than email or social media, though Twitter can be great for making contact and for finding the right individuals). Call people. A lot of people. It works for us.

INSPIRE FIRST, CONVERT LATER. This can take the pressure off you as well – feeling like every conversation has to directly lead to something will put you on edge, and that in turn will put your prospective partner on edge. Start by finding common ground and sharing your passion for the issue.

Your impact vision might come in handy here. You'll find that people want to talk to you if you start from this level and ask them to respond, rather than asking for money or support right off. Finding common ground also means that you LISTEN for their vision and what their priorities are, too.

LOOK FOR THE RIGHT INDIVIDUALS. Often we've found that the organisations which really ought to get involved in a film project, don't; and organisations whose link is less obvious, do. It often comes down to the individual. Find the right person, and if you don't see the spark in their eye, ask yourself whether you're ever going to.

START SMALL. Small asks can go a long way. Deliver results and build from there. A small ask lets you test the waters and get a better understanding of each other's value. Partners (or funders) can see the direct impact in the shorter term, and become more deeply engaged in the project and its potential.

PARTNER WELL. Building strong and effective partnerships requires clear and effective communication. Prenups for Partners is a brand new resource by Active Voice Lab (just released in late 2018) designed to help stakeholders navigate sometimes tricky decisions. It builds upon the Prenups referenced above to include changemakers such as activists, nonprofits and issue experts. Here’s a peek at some key themes to address at the outset:

MISSION: Why are we working together?

METHOD: How will we design and implement our collaboration?

MONEY: Who’s paying for what?

MOBILITY: What happens when things change?

Geek Out: Ideas for further reading

Once you've forged the terms of your partnership together with shared expectations and goals, you might find it useful to have a look at this excellent sample Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between filmmakers and nonprofits, which could be a useful template for other types of partnership agreement too. Thanks to Molly Murphy, Co-Director of Working Films, for sharing it for use in the Field Guide.

In that same spirit, we love Gillian Caldwell's super-smart checklist for what it takes to maintain successful partnerships, as shared at Working Films & The Fledgling Fund's REEL CHANGE training. It’s tough to go wrong if you have:

  • Shared vision
  • Clear expectations regarding roles and responsibilities
  • A system for communication with clear points of contact
  • Active honesty
  • Awareness of power
  • Willingness to submerge identity/share credit
  • Flexibility and willingness to readjust
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Love

As you go about working on your films and campaigns, remember to always keep a positive attitude. An attitude of gratitude

Marty Syjuco & Michael Collins, Filmmakers, Give Up Tomorrow

Putting your Strategic Plan into action is about assembling people and parts. The configuration of your team is entirely dependent on, and should be proportional to, the scale of your project and available resources. As with your motivations and vision, there's ultimately no wrong answer - just what you decide it takes to get the job done. Thinking ahead about each of these pieces of the puzzle will help you to develop a timeline for production, engagement and distribution.

Up next, we figure out what distribution looks like for your unique plan.

Made byDoc Society Made possible by: Ford Foundation - Just Film Bertha Foundation Sundance Institute Knight Foundation Dox Box DOCSP Ambulante MX