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Making it Private: The Importance of Foundation Grants

By Sarah Keenlyside

To grasp the importance of private foundation support for documentary film, one has only to read the long lists of funders in the final credits of many docs. With thousands of foundations in existence, seeking grants from these organizations can be a daunting task. According to The Foundation Center Online—a gateway for philanthropy information on the Web—there are over 63,000 private and community foundations in the United States alone. Getting to know which foundations are relevant to your project is the first step toward narrowing your search.

A good place to start looking for information about foundations is on the Internet. A quick hunt on a search engine can unearth numerous portals offering general information about foundations, including The Foundation Center Online (, the Council On Foundations ( a nonprofit association of grantmaking foundations and corporations; Foundations On-Line (, a directory of charitable grantmakers; and The Chronicle of Philanthropy Online (, the website of the "newspaper of the non-profit world." Also, most private foundations have their own websites, which should answer most, if not all, queries a grant seeker might have before applying.

One of the most important things to know about foundations is that each one is unique in terms of mandate and application process, organizational structure, programs, resources and geographic scope. Since the competition for foundation funds is fierce, the grant seeker should learn as much as possible about a foundation prospect prior to approaching it for funding.


Focusing on Outreach: Annie E. Casey Foundation

The Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation's stated goal is to "help build better futures for disadvantaged children who are at risk of poor educational, economic, social, and health outcomes." Grants are given to initiatives that "demonstrate innovative policy, service delivery and community supports for children and families."

The first documentary to receive funding from the foundation was Our Families, Our Future (1993, Public Policy Productions), and Casey ( has since continued to support doc projects because of their outreach potential to communities. Joy Moore, manager of grantee relations and media projects, explains: "We have started to see the documentary as a real tool in the work that we do. We're a lot about systemic reform and large change agendas in areas like education and child el fare. Watching a documentary can give a large number of people a glimpse of what the possibilities are for change. So the documentary form is increasingly becoming a part of our agenda." In cooperation with California-based consulting firm Outreach Extensions, the foundation is involved with the "Making Connections Media Outreach Initiative," a comprehensive campaign that links public television stations with community and faith-based organizations, schools, and youth and civic groups.

Past documentaries supported by the foundation include Hoop Dreams (1993, Kartemquin Films), and Legacy (2000, Nomadic Pictures), which Moore cites as an example of how multiple outreach programs can be derived from a single film.

"The outreach potential is endless if you've got the kind of production that elicits it," she explains. "You can do a piece on welfare, a piece on drugs, a piece on young people—you can get all this fiom one production, which is why [documentary] is so great. All you have to do is pick the right one."

Curently, Casey is helping fund several projects, including This Far By Faith (Blackside lnc.), The New Americans (Kartemquin Films) and Redemption (Nomadic Pictures), which will follow a group of inmates fiom a couple of months prior to their release from prison to a few years after their release.

"Redemption is a fit for us in the work that we do in communities," says Moore. "You have 600,000 men coming out of prison every year-and they're going back into communities that haven't forgiven them, that have taken away their right to vote, and are still not trusting enough to give themjobs."

Annie E. Casey's level of financial support for a documentary ranges from $ 10,000 to $20,000 per project on the lower end to as high as $1 million (over several years, as in the unique case of This Far By Faith). Applications are generally accepted by invitation only. There are no set deadlines, however, and projects for the following year are reviewed once annually in the fall. Says Moore, "We have a little bit of flexibility in terms of unallocated monies for the occasional blockbuster that comes in the door, but by November or December, I generally know 95 percent of what I'm going to give money to the following year."

When reviewing applications for funding, subject matter is the first thing Moore notices. "I have applications and videos coming in every day," she says. "If it doesn't fit into the work we're doing, then it's not something I could get past our board." Moore's advice for producers? "Presenting a clear and coherent idea in a couple of pages is really important, since foundations get hundreds of inquiries every year. Chances are, a long, complicated proposal will not get read in a timely manner."


Educating through PBS: The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations

Another important thing to examine closely is the foundation's application process. Does the foundation have specific application deadlines or does it accept entries at any time? What items should you include in your application (i.e., a tape of previous work)? At what stage in a film's production will the foundation step in with support: the conceptual stage? Mid-production? Post-production? Does the foundation have an open application process or are projects considered by invitation only? The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations (, based in Jacksonville, Florida, has an open application policy, but will generally only fund projects that are destined for American public television. Executive director Jonathan Howe explains, "Basically, our guidelines say our preference is for series that will be shown in prime time on public television." He adds, "We do work with some independent producers, but a lot of our program solicitations come from the major PBS producing stations who then work with independent producers." The Foundations were created to provide financial assistance to educational, cultural, scientific and religious institutions. Howe explains that there are five programs within the Foundations, one of which is public television, which receives about $1.5 million to $2 million per year to support both documentary and animation projects.

There are no deadlines for proposals. The foundation staff reviews the proposals as they come in, and all final decisions are made by the board of trustees, which meets three times a year. Documentary projects are generally granted funds at the cap stone phase, meaning that the rest of the money for the production has been raised and additional funds are required to complete the budget. Howe says the amount allocated per project varies, but his rule of thumb is usually about 10 percent of the total budget.

As for what to include in the application package, 'An elaborate initial project presentation is unnecessary." according to the guidelines. "A simple statement describing the proposed project is preferred. A budget should also be included." Says Howe, " What I really am looking for in a proposal is: what's the theme? WHat's the subject? What are they trying to accomplish? What's the educational value of this? What is the outreach program that's being contemplated?"

Howe says that sending a sample of work along with the initial proposal is unnecessary, but later on in the process, a tape might be useful if the foundation has no prior relationship with the producer. "When we don't know people, then clearly we would be interested in looking at what they've done before, [to seel the quality of their work... but it isn't necessary for the first shot through. If they're not on target for what we're looking for, then we can tell them pretty quickly that our board is not going to approve something on that particular subject... so we'll steer them away."

Arthur Vinrng Davis favors projects that have "lasting educational value, as well as strong outreach programs that support education," says Howe. "We would evaluate something on whether it can be used in schools, colleges or community educational activities. And is it lasting? If it's on a passing phenomenon—what I would call a topical issue—we usually will avoid it."

Among the many projects currently being supported by the Foundations is Benjamin Franklin (working title), a three-part series produced by New York-based Middlemarch Films and Twin Cities Public Television in St. Paul, Minnesota. 'Another thing we're doing this year that's a little unusual is that we are funding with Ken Burns and WETA (Washington, DC) something called 'Projects for the New Century,"' says Howe. "We are supporting, as is General Motors, and to some extent several other foundations, Burns' work for the next ten years. We've just made the first grant in a series that we will make."


Sarah Keenlyside is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, Canada. She is a frequent contributor to RealScreen Magazine and has also written for indieWIRE, The Independent and Playback Magazine.