Empowering Media That Matters
Home >> Blog >> General >> What Documentary & Social Change Funders Want: Inside Scoop from the Investigative Film Festival

What Documentary & Social Change Funders Want: Inside Scoop from the Investigative Film Festival

The importance of risk, storytelling and truth took center stage at the inaugural Investigative Film Festival: Double Exposure in Washington D.C. on October 1 and 2, 2015. In addition to screenings of acclaimed films, the festival featured a two-day symposium that convened filmmakers, journalists, funders, students and commissioning editors to exchange ideas, resources and best practices.

(From Left): Caty Borum Chattoo, John Cardellino, Lauren Pabst, Richard Logan

A particularly important issue for documentary filmmakers, investigative journalists and non-profit organizations alike is funding from the philanthropic community – major foundations, family foundations and other support organizations. CMSI Co-Director Caty Borum Chattoo led a conversation with panelists representing the Sundance Documentary Film Program, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Reva and David Logan Foundation as they discussed their funding strategies and insights for potential applicants.

A common throughline in the projects typically funded by these organizations is that they transcend the norm, presenting new and interesting stories.  In his discussion of their funded film projects, Richard Logan of the Logan Foundation commented that they support proposals of “great stories, well told. Films that tell us who we are, they way it is, and who we might become… proposals that are on the bleeding edge don’t scare us.” Lauren Pabst of the MacArthur Foundation highlighted that the foundation’s historical commitment to independent media and documentary films stems from the need to bring forth new voices and perspectives to the shared media and information ecosystem. A principle component in the MacArthur funding structure is its support of training and mentoring programs, typified in their support of the Producer’s Lab at Firelight Media. John Cardellino, a senior consultant for the Sundance Documentary Film program, highlighted the organization’s mandate to present human rights and social justice through compelling cinematic documentary storytelling. Cardellino pointed out that a number of films and filmmakers present at the festival previously received funding support from Sundance. Not surprisingly, each panelist also commented that the work their respective organizations fund tend to speak to the cultural issues currently at play (either purposefully or inadvertently), as they all take pains to support work that provides a platform for unheard voices and underreported issues. In reflecting on the Logan Foundation’s commitment to the protection of freedom and democracy, Richard Logan said “Our goal is not to set an agenda but to move the bow of the ship of life by one degree.”

Some major themes emerged from the conversation:

These are business decisions, so know your business.

Moderator Chattoo highlighted that potential grantees are not only telling an interesting story in their work, but they also must tell a business story in their grant requests. Funders aren’t funding projects just because they like them, but because they believe in the business acumen, established track records and ability of the potential grantee to complete the work successfully.  Attention to logistics, clearly-stated objectives, established need, target audiences, distribution strategy and proper budgeting were all mentioned as important components to an application package, alongside a proven track record. The organizations in question very rarely provide funds for first-time or early-career directors/producers or organizations. Additionally, each panelist emphasized that a crucial component to a successful application is an organizational infrastructure with established leaders and a track record for doing the work. Using acclaimed filmmaker John Pilger as an example, Logan remarked that “he understands the process from end to end,” noting that Pilger accounts for both the actualities and possibilities in the process, thus eliminating a last-minute funding need to complete his films. Lauren Pabst, program officer in the MacArthur Foundation’s media program, emphasized how important it is for grantees to articulate their business plan for each project, including a strong understanding of target audience and a sense of how they will collaborate. Demonstrating reach and full plans for success is key, not just explaining the project’s content. 

 On social issues, business as usual probably won’t cut it.

Projects that simply reflect a social issue where it is, or that seem predictable and pro forma, likely won’t get funded. Pabst referenced this idea directly, saying her colleagues consider questions like whether or not the proposal includes a focus on an urgent issue told in a new way, or a policy issue, or new people coming together in a meaningful way, or perhaps a nascent social issue that might be emerging in a crucial moment.  The same is true of particular approaches to work that might be funded – from conferences to projects to films.

Funding is about relationships.

All three funders emphasized the importance of knowing the specific criteria of foundations and other grant-giving organizations for social-change and documentary work. From a business perspective, funding relationships are a matter of shared objectives and values, so that’s the first step toward alignment between a foundation and a grantee. But beyond shared objectives, funders have precise guidelines, and grantees who don’t heed them might be wasting their time. As an example, Pabst mentioned that they receive many proposals for historical documentaries, but even when the proposals are excellent, the MacArthur Foundation won’t fund them because they do not fund this kind of film work.

IFF will be making available the videos of each symposium session on its website.