December 22, 2014

Lumpkin and Safinia Reflect on Six Transformative Years at the IDA

As the documentary world now knows, Michael Lumpkin will be stepping down as IDA’s executive director after six transformative and impactful years to take up the director position at AFI Docs. In that short tenure, he, in concert with the Board and staff, managed to move the IDA into a position of unprecedented prominence in the documentary community. New, expanded offices...departments in communications, development, education and filmmaker services...an organization-wide rebranding...and the GETTING REAL conference: These are the major milestones that have helped solidify IDA’s service to the community.

Prior to last week’s announcement, Documentary sat down with Lumpkin and IDA Board President Marjan Safinia—who joined the Board at the same time that he took the helm—to reflect on the dramatic growth and achievements that have defined the past six years at IDA.

 

You both came on board at the same time—Michael, to assume the executive director position, and Marjan, to join the IDA Board. Before you plunged in, what did you feel were the strengths of IDA and the challenges that needed to be addressed?

Michael Lumpkin: I was aware of IDA but, not living in LA, I didn't have a great amount of knowledge. The thing that struck me was that, having witnessed from a very close range the demise of Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco, I was very interested in a somewhat similar organization that was still around and still relatively healthy.

It certainly was a signal that there was something here of value to work with. The other thing was IDA being in LA and being kind of in the center of the film industry. To me that was another strength I feel the organization likely had; it had associations within that industry, which certainly were going to be beneficial and of great value to the organization as I stepped in.

Marjan Safinia: I had known about IDA for quite a while; I'd been a member for at least a few years. IDA had always had a standing in the community. So those were strengths and of course being here in LA, it was an opportunity [for me] to be able to work and give back.

But regarding challenges, there was a crushing sense of irrelevance, of being out of touch with what filmmakers out there in the world were doing. And a real sense from folks that, “Oh yeah, I know about the IDA, but what do they actually do?” That was really the bigger challenge: How do we bring this organization around to a place where it is in step with and meeting filmmakers in the field with the kind of supports that they need?

And I feel like we've really made tremendous progress in that department. There's plenty more work to be done, but I feel like especially this year the relevance piece has come right around, and that's something I'm really proud of.

ML: When I was checking out the organization, and talking to people I knew in the independent film community, it was the same thing: people saying they didn’t really know what IDA did. I guess it's the way I'm wired, but some people probably would've run the opposite direction from that.

But for me it was one thing that drew me to the organization. I saw that I could come in here and change it. That was an attraction to me; I started seeing that the organization needed what I could offer. That's critical for what I want to do professionally: I want to be needed. I want to be the right person for what is needed in the job. That just kept getting confirmed as I met with board members. I just more and more felt like it was a really good match for both me and IDA.

 

What did you see were some of the challenges on the inside that you needed to address right away?

ML: I quickly got to a realization that there was opportunity for the organization. I knew this before I took the job, but there was no development staff, and I thought, Nonprofit, no development staff? And then when I got in and really saw where the support came from, I realized that the organization had never in a real, professional way pursued foundation funding and even government funding and support from individuals.

To me that was OK; that was something they hadn't done yet. There was a lot of low-hanging fruit here that I knew how to pick.

MS: When I joined the IDA Board in the beginning of 2009, I had never been on a nonprofit board. I have to say, I'm really thrilled that I got to learn with Michael at the helm because he has always brought from Day One a level of professionalism about the business of nonprofits.

And the board made a commitment very early on—perhaps even a tacit commitment—that it was going to be a real learning, growth curve for us, and a large piece of that would be to redefine what it means to be a board member and where those two roles differ—where the staff's job and the board's job are separate, and to learn to take ourselves out of stuff that we have previously very much been in, that wasn't really our rightful place.

And then to step up into the places which were the board's job that we weren't doing at all. So for example, there was no fundraising happening on a board level, very little fundraising happening at all. When I first joined, you just had to be an $85 member. So this was all a tremendous amount of learning for us. But I think those first couple of years were much more about just securing stability. Once we felt that things were back on stable ground, we could start making some of the critical decisions that have led to the place where we find ourselves.

 

Michael, what advice would you give to someone coming into a nonprofit organization to lead it and what's the best way they should go about doing it?

ML: Well, I think there are different approaches; I don't think that how I approach it is necessarily the best way, but I know that works for me. When I came to IDA, I wanted to fully understand before I took any kind of action to change things. There were certainly things that had to be changed quickly, and that happened. But I didn't want to come in and have it be my reaction to something that I discovered or I was made aware of to be the reason that we're changing it.

It's not about what I like or don't like; it's about what's best for the organization. It does take time to know what makes this organization work, because certainly it was up and running when I walked in. There were a lot of things in place that were making it work, and I didn't want to destroy anything that was working as I attempted to make change. Change can be very disruptive; it's trying to minimize that as much as possible as you do make those changes.

 

What advice would you give to the next executive director?

MS: We're very lucky that Michael has chosen to leave us at this time because he's done it very strategically. As an organization—both internally and in housekeeping on a nonprofit basis, but also externally in how we're perceived in the field—we're at an all-time high. That is a tremendous service, a gift, that he is giving to the next executive director. So the opportunity is there for somebody to walk in the door and really take over.

I feel like we've been tilling the fields now and fertilizing the ground and making sure that everything is ready now for seeds to be planted that will really take root. It's a tremendously exciting opportunity for somebody out in the field. That person will be able to quickly pick up the reigns and push us forward in this new direction.

I'm conscious of the fact that I don't want to overplay the GETTING REAL conference as the only thing that we've done of any value. But I do feel like we really turned a corner with the conference this year. It was a moment of clarification for the organization: This is the role that makes the most sense for us to play now. And I think that was also seen by the field in the same way—all the people in the industry who came here and saw IDA with fresh eyes. That's a real opportunity. Our field desperately needs some kind of shepherding to bring everybody together and collectively raise our efforts on behalf of filmmakers because this forum that we work in is more critically relevant to our democracy than ever before.

So if we can all pull together to really clear the path and be on the side of filmmakers so that they can do the most important and most difficult of jobs more easily, that's a real win for everyone, and it feels like IDA is a logical organization to lead that charge. And I don't mean lead it as in, “It’s IDA's way.” But lead it in the sense of shepherding, of bringing everyone together, tapping people with their strengths across the industry and collectively changing the agenda.

 

Looking back, what are some of the projects and/or accomplishments that you're most proud of?

ML: Again, like Marj, I don't want to make it sound like everything's about the conference— but to a large extent it is. It was a process that culminated in the conference: the planning and work that took years to do and to execute—and then the impact that the conference had on the organization. There was impact on the field as well, but I think for the organization—and I'm going back to what Marj said at the Awards— “Our path is clear.”

If I can leave that for the organization, I'm really happy. It's clarity that a lot of organizations struggle to acquire and maintain; it was just seeing that what I've tried to do over a number of years resulted in that, and the change in IDA's position in the field and its relevance. That is the most gratifying part of what I've done.

MS: And the conference couldn't have come without all the work that came before. So the conference was the pulling together of a marked change in our education programs, of the sort of adoption of advocacy as one of our main banners in the clarity around the need for a sense of real cohesive community in this space. The conference was like the debutante ball, but in a way we were all very conscious that it was almost the unveiling of work that we had been doing for years.

 

You're empowering the community to make it their project.

MS: I agree. It's a very important piece that the leadership absolutely is there from IDA, but it is about what is better—the collective good for filmmakers—and if that means that a strength lies outside of our organization but we can bring that person to the table, then we've done our leadership and they've done their expertise and I don’t think we feel pressure about where the work originates from. We feel like as long as we keep the focus on what's best for the filmmakers here, then that's when we're going to have a result.

 

What have you found most encouraging and inspiring over the past six years and as the community moves forward?

MS: The form is just on fire. Film is just so damn good and the craft of the field is really moving forward. Over the last six years this real distinct space opened up where documentary just started to fill that role that journalism just left by the wayside somewhere. That's penetrated way beyond our little documentary bubble.

I'm conscious that because we live, eat and breathe this stuff, we see the boundaries of our world as being the boundaries of the documentary world. But what really matters is when the mainstream public clues in. And I hear and see that over and over again. I hear and see folks who have nothing to do with the field of documentary, when I tell them what I do they're like, “Oh my God! Documentaries are so exciting right now.” Or for young people, that's what they want to watch on Netflix. And I think that's phenomenal.

So the field had really moved forward in that way, and I think that's why this IDA piece has been so important. They had to keep in step and be at that place where we're really looking at these big ideas about documentary, as opposed to just small programs that are run locally.

ML: And I think that that attention, that success of the form, makes it even more critical that we address and bring to the forefront issues like career sustainability and funding. I want this for IDA and more importantly, I want it for the field. But it's like, “OK, docs are getting hot; show us the money.” This can't be done on the backs of nonfiction filmmakers.

That's the really hard work. The filmmakers are going to continue to develop the form and expand it and stretch it and challenge it, and IDA has to be there to make sure that all happens in the best way possible for those filmmakers—that they're not getting the short end of the stick when they're doing something this important.

 

How does IDA transcend being an LA-centric organization to being one that serves a national and international community?

MS: I think it's largely in the nature of the work. If the work is related in large part to truly changing things—whether that's sustainability issues, advocacy issues, funding issues—then they affect all filmmakers. I also think it lies in programs like the magazine and the website; having the documentaries available online is great because that's truly international.

And I think that that's work that we can continue to build on and improve on. I strongly feel like we need to have a more national footprint and a more international footprint, which of course becomes ever harder.

But I also feel like we shouldn't be apologetic for doing great programming in LA. This is where we are. This is where we've been headquartered for 32 years and, sure, we're going to do programs here and we're starting to do similar programs in other places. I think it's a really nice idea that the International Documentary Association can just wave a wand and administer to the needs of the entire global documentary community, but realistically speaking, you need real resources to be able to do that. So as we are able to build resources for the organization, we're able to that more. But we're moving in that way just by the changed nature of the work and by a commitment to take new programs and doing them in other cities.

ML: You can't get around it. You have to live someplace, and I've tried to emphasize the positive aspect of being in LA. A lot of it hasn't happened but some has, where there are opportunities for filmmakers that exist here in the hub of the industry.

And so that's partly behind us trying to venture out beyond the classic definition of documentary and expand who we're relevant to, and that is more than just the filmmaker trying to make the feature-length film and trying to have more involvement with broadcast and nonfiction that's produced specifically for broadcast, which was behind our expansion of the broadcast category at the Awards this year. And two of the recipients spoke to that, of how happy they were to be part of this community.

So, I think it is more about promoting the value of IDA being in LA and what that offers to filmmakers outside of LA. And I think the conference started to show and demonstrate that indeed there is a documentary community here.

MS: There's a fantastic documentary community in LA, with many of the real leading lights of documentary working here. So I think we need to kind of get over this idea that documentary equals New York. It's not true.

ML: I think if filmmakers from other parts of the country or the world come here and experience IDA and this community, a great result of that would be that they become members of IDA and they become involved. Another great result would be if they go back to wherever they are from and say, “We can have that here as well; let's do it. Let's form an organization. Let's try to get some of what IDA does and has in LA here where we are.”

MS: I think one really big win over the past six years is to change the relationship that people have with the IDA from, “IDA does programs in LA, so there's only a value to me if I can attend programs in LA, or I can get discounts for things in LA.” I think we have changed this and I think there's more to be done.

But the reason to support IDA is because IDA is supporting you. If you're a documentary filmmaker, then the work that IDA is doing directly benefits you, whether or not you can attend a class. But the must-have is that there is somebody advocating for this field, and I think that people are starting to get that. I think that members outside of LA are really starting to understand that the value of supporting IDA is akin to the value of supporting, say, the ACLU, in the sense that you support them because they stand for values that you believe in and you want to see in the world.

And I think that's been a real shift that we started in the last six years and that we really need to continue. The reason to be a member of IDA is quite simply because you believe, like we do, that documentaries are this tremendously important piece of public dialogue and of creating connections between people, and that is a value that you uphold in the world.

 

Michael, what will you miss most about IDA?

ML: I'll miss the community. I'm not leaving LA, and I plan to continue to be part of the community, but my focus now is going to be shifting to another place. I plan to stay a part of the community, but my focus now is going to be shifting to another place. It's not going to be as much a part of my life as it's been with IDA, where I'm interacting with filmmakers on a constant basis.

 

Getting back to where IDA is now from an organizational standpoint, as Michael mentioned earlier, six years ago there was no development staff. Now IDA not only has a development department, but communications, education and filmmaker services departments as well—but IDA is not a bureaucracy.

MS: No, it isn't. I'm of course sad to be losing Michael because I care about him tremendously and we've developed a great working relationship and I'm very fond of him. But he's leaving us in great shape to be able to do the work ahead. I'm happy for him that he gets to get off this constant, year-round cycle a little bit because it is incredibly challenging. So I'm really happy for his personal choice and I really feel like there's a lot of harmony within our organization.

When I took over as president, past board members came up to me and said, “Oh my God, I'm so sorry. “ I had no idea what they were talking about because we've just not had any of that in the last six years. We have harmony on the board. We have harmony with the staff. We have strong working relationships, a lot of camaraderie, a real sense of “Together we run this organization.” So we're in a great and happy shape.

I'm really sad that I won't be able to talk to Michael on a daily basis, but I don't think it's a loss. It's the next phase of our evolution as an organization, and he's left us in great shape to be able to take that on.

 

Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.