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Dollars for Docs: Foundations, Fiscal Sponsors and Government Agencies

By Michael Rose

Money's been called the lifeblood of politics, and it's clearly a vital ingredient that also brings documentaries to life. No matter how brilliant your idea is, without funding, it's just an idea.

"Film is the most expensive art form under the sun--except maybe for opera," says Morrie Warshawski, author of the book Shaking the Money Tree: The Art of Getting Grants and Donations for Film and Video Projects. "The most important thing they never tell you in [film] school is, if you're going to make a film, you'll need thousands of dollars, and 80 percent of your time will be spent raising funds."

As you search for funds, you'll have to share your ideas with others, and that makes some documentary filmmakers nervous. "No one will steal your idea," assured Warshawski. "Why would they? It's too hard for you to do."

Funding your dream may not take millions, and you might be able to exhaust your credit cards, hit up your friends, borrow from parents, hold bingos, pawn your comic book collection or set up a PayPal account to accept donations on your website to make it happen. But you shouldn't quit your day job while trying to tap the funding mother lode. "It's not practical to make a living as an independent filmmaker, full time," says Warshawski, who has counseled hundreds of filmmakers over the past 25 years as a fundraising consultant and in his former role as the executive director of the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC). "You'll usually need a paying gig on the side, a spouse who supports your 'jones,' or an inheritance."

Burst bubbles aside, that doesn't mean you shouldn't suck it up and start looking. In addition to appealing to friends, family and neighbors, you'll want to investigate foundations and government agencies that are in the business of handing out money.

Corporations and wealthy individuals and families set up foundations for tax benefits, as well as to perpetuate--and sometimes burnish--their legacies, and to support projects and programs that best reflect the core values and mission of the given foundation. These charitable organizations are obligated by law to give away five percent of their holdings every year; the one hitch: typically, the IRS requires the money to go to nonprofits organized under 501(c)(3) guidelines. You can start your own nonprofit or become part of a fiscal sponsorship program at a nonprofit, such as the IDA, that allows grant-seekers to use the organization's tax-exempt status for a fee-usually between three and 10 percent of the funding you obtain. 

Choosing the right fiscal sponsor is one of your first challenges, and it depends on the interests of the funders you are approaching. "Some want you to work with a fiscal sponsor that deals with films, and some want you to work with a fiscal sponsor that is knowledgeable about the subject [of your films]," explains Warshawski.

Some people have more than one fiscal sponsor, but you have to vet them. "You want one that is credible, one you can trust and one where your money isn't bigger than the organization's budget," says Warshawski.

Some supporters, like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), don't fund projects submitted under the umbrella of a fiscal sponsor. It has "to do with the interpretation of the [governing] statute by the [agency's] general counsel," explains Ted Libbey, director of the Media Arts Division at the Endowment. It "had been allowing fiscal sponsorship but had to phase that out."

What this means for grant-seekers is that they need to find a 501(c)(3) organization that will act as the fiscal sponsor of the project while allowing the filmmaker to maintain ownership of it. In real-world terms, it's pretty much the same relationship you'd have with any other funder, but it's something you'll need to know before applying. You'll also have to think about whether this will work for you as you apply to other potential funders.

Finding a nonprofit to take you under its wing as a fiscal sponsor is important, but like any funder, you too need to define your mission and core values and dig deep to answer a very pragmatic question--Why are you doing this?--before you start. The most important thing to remember, according to Warshawski: "When you ask for money, the reason someone will give you money is because you exemplify values they value."

Once you've sorted out your mission, it's time to start shaking the money tree. In his day-long seminar held as part of IDA's Doc U series, Warshawski outlined some of the steps needed to navigate the foundation and government grant path.

One of your first stops should be the Foundation Center. It collects data on all US foundations, corporate and private, and makes this resource available through its computer database. The Center offers free classes and live webinars (recorded and maintained on its website) that help you get started, or you can go to one of the Center's Cooperating Collections--usually a university library--and ask one of the trained staff to help you start mining the database. 

While the Foundation Center only has five offices around the country, it maintains a network of over 450 Cooperating Collections that have to meet the center's standards and provide someone to help you use their extensive online resources, according to Leeanne G-Bowley, manager of national training at the center.

This vast trove began to be assembled in response to the McCarthy era in the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy sought to uncover evidence of Communist sympathizers working in US corporations. Corporations and private foundations looking for a way to demonstrate their transparency started the center. "There's nothing to hide if you have ‘glass pockets,'" notes G-Bowley.

Today, the Foundation Center is a tremendous tool for anyone who wants to uncover who gets funding. There are a number of different ways to research who might be a funding source for your dream project. "You can search ‘film' or ‘arts' to see who supports documentaries," explains G-Bowley. "Or, you can go to look up related topics--the issues you're focusing on and who funds those subjects."

Once you've compiled a printout of possible supporters, you can do deeper research. Foundations must submit 990 Forms to the IRS, which track their record of giving; these are available at the center.

One longtime supporter of the media arts is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which helps fund such programs PBS' POV, Thirteen/WNET's Wide Angle and the International Media Development Fund of the Independent Television Service (ITVS). The foundation also supports the Sundance Documentary Fund as well as news producers like National Public Radio (NPR), PBS News Hour, FRONTLINE, the Center for Investigative Reporting and LinkTV. In addition, the foundation supports nonprofit media organizations like Kartemquin Films, the production company behind Hoop Dreams.

"To reach the broadest possible audience, the foundation supports programs intended for national public television and radio broadcast," says Kathy Im, director of general programs at the foundation. "The funding range is generally between $50,000 and $350,000 for documentary films, and higher for series and programs."

What might not be readily apparent is at what stage the foundation likes to come into a project. "We primarily provide support when a documentary film project is in production, preferring not to invest in the research and development phase so that we may base our review on a full and detailed treatment of the film," says Im. "Sometimes we provide support for post-production, when a film is in the editing stage and we are able to see some representative clips from the film."

Government agencies are also a major source of support for documentary films.  In fact, these grants are among the most generous--and this is one important area the Foundation Center doesn't track. The top three US government funders for documentaries-the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)--award millions of dollars to filmmakers every year. A large portion of the PBS schedule is underwritten by this troika. And the agencies increasingly fund programs that appear on other outlets such as the Smithsonian and National Geographic Channels.

Not only do these agencies fund individual programs but they also support tent-pole series like American Masters, POV and Great Performances. The agencies also fund numerous film festivals. "We support the ecology," explains Ted Libbey of the NEA, when describing why it support programmers and well as program producers.

The three government funders have supported documentaries that tackle subject matter ranging from Wild Bill Hickok and Annie Oakley to the Buddha, from dinosaurs to Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange. For more information about grantees, areas of interest and the process and deadlines for submitting a grant proposal, check the agencies' respective websites.

While each agency requires an applicant to submit a rather substantial proposal, assemble a knowledgeable group of advisers and work out a distribution and evaluation plan, "the upside is that they'll give you six figures and they're easy to research," says Warshawski. The downside is that the process will seem slow to any filmmaker full of burning passion to get underway on an idea. There are set funding cycles and the decision-making can take months--and you shouldn't be surprised if the answer is "No."

"It's very competitive and not for the faint of heart," admits Valentine Kass, program officer at the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings of the National Science Foundation. "Competitiveness for our dollars is even greater than it was before. We're getting more proposals, and budgets are increasing, so we can't fund as many projects."

Being rejected doesn't mean you won't eventually get funded, or that you had a bad idea. When she was just starting out as a program officer at NSF, Kass once reviewed a proposal that she thought was "excellent"--but it was rejected by the decision-making panel. She read the panel's notes and agreed that the proposal needed work. When the disheartened producer called, Kass told him, "Here are ten things I think you should do." After the producer thought about it, he reworked his proposal and called her back and said, "I've done nine; is that enough?" She responded, "My advice is to do ten." He resubmitted the proposal, and it received the highest approval rating from the panel-and the project was awarded a grant. "He'd done 9.5," adds Kass.

"Some come back two or three times," she continues. But if you can't do it in three times, she encourages applicants to find another project.

The NEA gives out smaller grants than the NEH or NSF, but a filmmaker can come back again to get funding for successive stages of a project, explains Libbey. It's possible to be funded for research and development, come back for production, again for post-production and again for distribution--which is one reason the NEA gives out "a larger number of grants, but in smaller amounts than the NEH," says Libbey.

It's also possible to apply to both the NEH and NEA. "If you use the NEH and NEA, it has to be for different aspects, for different parts of a project," Libbey advises. To make your application to the NEH stand out, be clear about "what the story is, what the message is and what is the viewing public going to learn," says Thomas Phelps, director of the Division of Public Programs at the NEH.

Common mistakes Phelps sees are that the media team (producer, writer, director) is not ready, the proposal is not well written, or the story in the narrative treatment and proposed shooting script "don't match." Libbey sees proposals with missing elements such as rights clearances for music and film clips, as well as unrealistic schedules and budgets that don't hold up to scrutiny. Having a complete application is critical, he maintains.

While pursuing and securing a grant from one of these government agencies is an arduous and lengthy process, it can open doors to other foundations. The program officers talk to their counterparts in the private foundation world, many of whom see this as a vetting.

Several of these foundations have turned to the Sundance Institute to manage the funding process for them. The Soros-funded Open Society Institute "came to Sundance [in 2002] because they didn't want to reproduce a film organization," says Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. The success of this collaboration led to partnering with the Skoll Foundation for its social entrepreneur efforts and to a short-film initiative with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

These alliances have helped Sundance nurture stories others might overlook.  Mertes looks for "the most important, relevant, creative, most under-heard stories." Her program attracts approximately 2,000 proposals annually, of which 40 to 50 eventually receive funding. She thinks three times that number merit funding, but her budget won't allow that yet. "We're seeing a lot more really great projects," she notes. "We're living in an incredibly visual culture and the production quality of the projects is always improving." The increase in production values is combined with a growing interest in documentaries. "There is a great willingness to share these stories--a hunger to understand, to find commonalities," Mertes maintains.

Other media arts organizations like Sundance have been supporting documentaries. On the East Coast, the Tribeca Film Institute has partnered with Gucci to form the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, which, according to its website, "provides finishing funds to feature-length documentaries which highlight and humanize issues of social importance from around the world." Cinereach is a New York City-based nonprofit film production company and foundation. Its grant program supports both documentary and fiction features that "possess an independent spirit, depict underrepresented perspectives, and resonate across international boundaries."

On the West Coast, the San Francisco Film Society, through its SFFS/Film Arts Foundation Documentary Grant program, provides post-production support for projects by San Francisco Bay Area filmmakers.

In the end, "Filmmaking is hard, finding money is hard, and you have to keep the momentum up," says Warshawski. "That's how you separate the people who are serious."


Michael Rose is a writer and documentary filmmaker.