Find the Right Funders

Our community is pretty familiar with the small group of funders whose core purpose is funding film: Sundance Institute, Doc Society, Tribeca Film Institute, Chicken & Egg, Southern Documentary Fund, San Francisco Film Society, IDA and Catapult Film Fund to name but a few, as well as all the national film funds - Danish Film Institute, Australian Film Institute, British Film Institute - and broadcasters who are still enthusiastic production partners for feature docs - SVT, POV, Independent Lens, ITVS, BBC Storyville, HBO, Arte/ZDF, YLE etc.

There is also a broader and growing group of funders, from large institutional foundations such as Ford or MacArthur Foundation, to smaller family foundations such as Perspective Foundation and Bertha Foundation, as well as specific funders such as Wellcome Trust (biomedical projects), Arcus Foundation (LGBT and environmental projects), Fritt Ord (to promote Freedom of Expression) or Hartley Film Foundation (on world religions and spirituality), individual philanthropists and even brands such as Patagonia, who also fund film impact campaigns (not necessarily as their core purpose, but because it furthers their aims and priorities). Some have film funds allocated within their organisation. Others may only fund film in exceptional circumstances, on a case by case basis. Have a look at three very different examples to get an idea of the range of funders out there:

What are the reasons that funders support impact campaigns?

Funders who have supported a feature length documentary will do so for a variety of reasons, including of course artistic merit. But the most common reason funders cite for supporting impact campaigns is that it is a good way to fulfil the funder's objectives in terms of the change they want to see in the world – changing minds, structures, communities or behaviours.

So, identifying funders who share your impact goals is key, and will help you secure funding against the criteria that funders set out. Your Strategic Plan will help you with this. Head back to the planning session to refresh your memory.

What are the reasons that funders support impact campaigns?

Across all the funders we surveyed, the majority of grants given for production and for impact campaigns were under $75k. This is a useful reality check against the budget you have laid out in the previous section. Certainly, it's an indication of the numbers of funding partners you may need in order to support the work, and the imperative to create multi-year funding relationships.

Funding through many foundations requires real planning, given that most grant cycles take several months between the initial proposal and the actual grant award. Many applications have multiple rounds where additional material is requested and funders may contact you for revisions, clarification or other questions in the interim. Funders may only have one or two calls for proposals per year, so map out on a calendar the upcoming dates for proposals you want to submit. (Hint: deadlines in future years will generally occur around the same time even if you don't know the exact date, so you can still plan ahead).

But don't limit yourself to the MacArthur and Ford foundations of the world. Small family foundations are often overlooked. They don't have fancy websites or visibility, or even formal application processes, but they can be approached individually, can turn around funding on shorter timelines and may be excited to fund an out-of-the-box project about a local issue. In the United States, The Foundation Center is an excellent place to look for family foundations in your area. European Foundation Centre , Donor & Foundation Networks in Europe , Alliance Magazine are also all useful sources of information and research.

This section of the module will hopefully guide you through the process of budgeting to turn your ‘ideal' impact campaign into a real-life entity.

Do let us know if there are others we should add to this list.

Whether their portfolios are large or small, some of the non-traditional or non-film industry funders are very experienced working with filmmakers. Others have only recently begun supporting documentary films and are still testing the water. These are the individuals making the case internally for the support of film and so are under real pressure to deliver. It's just worth acknowledging the differences between these kinds of funders, to be mindful of their level of knowledge and internal needs.

Have a look at Active Voice Lab's excellent resource The Prenups, which you'll also find in our Library. Focused on the relationship between funders and filmmakers, it offers invaluable advice about how to build a partnership that works for both parties.

Here's our five bullet point sneak-peek of the Prenups Guide to whet your appetite:

  • Clarify goals and ask whether they overlap, differ, or conflict.
  • Define needs and expectations on both sides at the outset.
  • Talk about respective roles and the level of involvement desired.
  • Identify the risks and contingencies – there will be some.
  • Make it explicit – put your agreements in writing.

Do read the Team and Budget sections of this module to get your thinking straight before applying, and to be very realistic about what you promise!

What funders expect in return

Getting a funder to commit to your project can take months of work, but in the experience of many producers, once they do provide initial funding, they are often willing to continue adding resources to the project as its impact campaign progresses.

It's so important that you continue to maintain a process of updating them on the film and campaign's progress, and to keep them aware of your evolving needs. Send good news but also alert them to a change in direction or a slip in timeframe. If you take the time to make your partners and funders feel like part of the inner circle, you never know what rewards you could reap down the line.

To quote our very own Doc Society partnership guru, Mr. Sandi DuBowski: 'Be truly grateful and generous. Take your lead supporters to dinner. Send handwritten thank you notes. Give flowers. Thank supporters publicly at screenings, in printed and online materials. It seems so basic, yet people forget.'

Funders are way more than a cheque book. They are partners who may become major allies to you and to the movement. They can unlock far more important resources than just money. For one, they can make the case to other funders.

Of course there is also likely to be formal reporting required. Your funders will want to know what has happened with their resources, and will expect you to demonstrate how your campaign has fulfilled its objectives.

Funders should accept, and film teams should build-in, variability statements alongside their impact statements to account for inevitable changes in the campaign. This allows for necessary flexibility and experimentation. We'll tackle this in more detail in the Measuring Impact chapter - How to report effectively and appropriately.

So now, let's focus more deeply on how to identify and make great partnerships.


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