By Jacki Zehner, Chief Engagement Officer and Trustee, Women Moving Millions

I love the movies. A night at the cinema with a bag of popcorn is a good night out as far as I’m concerned, but my love of film goes further than that. It is a key component of my philanthropic strategy through my support of independent documentary filmmakers. At first glance, supporting documentary films may seem like an unconventional approach to philanthropy, but it can be a highly effective way to influence millions and create positive social change. Over the years, independent documentaries have become a crucial vehicle for informing our understanding of the world and inspiring solutions for the challenges we face. Without the vital support that philanthropy can provide, documentary filmmakers would not be able to produce and distribute their important work. To this end, I serve as the co-chair of the Women Moving Millions Film Circle, am a trustee of the Sundance Institute, have financially supported dozens of films and served as the executive producer on two award-winning films: “The Hunting Ground” and “Hot Girls Wanted.”

To know if supporting documentary films is the right approach, donors must first develop their own personal philanthropic strategy before looking at the role documentary films could play in helping shape the kind of change they would like to see in the world.

Developing a Philanthropic Strategy

A philanthropic strategy not only provides the decision-making framework for efficient giving, but also allows donors the opportunity to target their particular areas of interest and concern. An effective philanthropic strategy guides their giving based on their goals and values. A donor’s mission, vision and passion should be at the strategy’s core. The next step is to identify the organizations to partner with and support, doing so because their goals align with yours. It is very important to both understand the theory of change behind the desired outcome and how that outcome will be measured over time. This is what one might call traditional philanthropy, but increasingly, high-impact donors are looking to do more.

My life’s mission is the advancement of women and girls, and I am passionate about achieving greater gender equity across a wide array of issue areas. This passion informs every aspect of my philanthropic strategy. The issues facing our world today are diverse, complex and rarely have easy solutions – this is especially true when negative outcomes are associated with deeply held social norms. Before you can hope to change behaviors, you have to understand the dominant belief systems that drive them. So while I fund a number of organizations that work to directly change policies and practices, I also look for opportunities to move massive numbers of people to engage around issues they may never have connected with before.

Documentary Films as Change Agents

Throughout history, storytelling has served as a catalyst for change, even shaping the course of history itself. Documentary films are a modern storytelling tool that have a powerful ability to spark social change. They engage and motivate people through their unique blend of journalistic reporting, artistic execution and emotional resonance, and they give people a deeper understanding of the world around them while building a sense of shared humanity.

In today’s digital era of media oversaturation, audiences place a high value on entertainment. Documentaries not only satisfy that craving, but do so while raising awareness of social issues and delivering actionable messages. Whether they inspire, inform, propagandize or infuriate, these stories can change hearts and minds. By changing hearts and minds, you can change behavior.

Furthermore, documentary films have a proven track record of telling stories that raise awareness about issues such as war, climate change and inequality – and then inciting activism. Consider examples like: “An Inconvenient Truth,” which served as a wake-up call for climate change; “The Invisible War,” which shed light on sexual assault in the U.S. military; or “Food, Inc.,” which showed the reality of the U.S. food industry and continues to inspire vegetarian and vegan activism. During the past two decades, powerful documentaries by women filmmakers have illuminated problems such as human trafficking (“Born into Brothels”), domestic violence (“Private Violence”), sexual assault (“Audrie & Daisy”) and inequality (“Freeheld”). These films have given a voice to marginalized groups and silenced individuals.

Providing financial assistance to documentary films by women supports both the labor of women who are creating these projects and the causes they are bringing to light.

How to Fund a Documentary

There are many ways to offer financial support for a documentary.

Grants: One of the simplest and most common ways to fund documentaries, grants are typically tax deductible because most documentaries have nonprofit sponsors. They can support filmmakers through various stages, from production to distribution and promotion.

A grant is the ideal methodology when the film has limited commercial potential – which, sadly, most do. The reason why is that most people do not see documentaries in theaters, which is the main driver of commercial success. The process is simple: Checks typically go to the fiscal sponsor, which distributes the funds after deducting a small fee. Substantial donations include the opportunity to receive credit as executive or co-executive producer. Make sure to discuss credit expectations beforehand. Do not expect to have creative input on the film. That should be left to the talent of the filmmaker. Budgets can range dramatically depending on the needs of the film, and early money is highly valued to get initial filming completed in order to raise the rest of the budget. Your decision to put in money is related to your comfort with risk that the film will end up being a great one.

Equity investment: Equity investments are an increasingly common funding source for documentary films, but when employed, should almost always be only a small percentage of the overall budget. This is a more complicated way to support a film and requires consultation with an attorney or financial advisor on how to structure an investment. Terms are subject to negotiation with the filmmaker and vary considerably.

Crowdfunding: Many films, both narrative and documentary, would not have been created without the growing online trend of crowdfunding. A crowdfunding campaign has several funding tiers, and many projects offer tier-based rewards. Each campaign typically has a stated fundraising goal, and some platforms will not fund the project – and will return the money to donors – if the goal is not reached. Others will disburse the funds but may charge a higher fee for projects that did not reach the goal. Three popular crowdfunding platforms for creative projects are Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Seed&Spark.

Institutional support: Since the process of choosing documentaries can quickly become overwhelming, supporting organizations may be a good option for those who are still learning the ropes of film funding. Numerous organizations are dedicated to supporting documentary filmmaking through grants, technical support and other assistance. Donating to grant-making institutions is an accessible way to support documentary filmmakers. Organizations that welcome financial support include the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Fund; the Tribeca Film Institute; Chicken & Egg Pictures, which supports nonfiction filmmakers who create artistic and innovative films that catalyze social change; and Women Making Movies, which supports powerful documentaries and has a special emphasis on bringing forth the voices of women of color. If you are just getting started, this is a perfect way to get involved.

There are film-focused investor networks that are great resources for those who want to learn more about this funding space. They include Influence Film Club and Impact Partners, both of which help connect funders with film funding opportunities.

Ten Questions to Ask Before Funding a Documentary Film

In “Women + Film = Impact,” a guide to investing in documentary film for social change from Women Moving Millions, we recommend that potential funders ask the following questions before funding a documentary film.

1. Is this film about a subject matter I care about deeply?

If it is, you may also want to find out if the project will break ground on the new subject. If there are already other films about this issue, does the film advance the conversation in a meaningful way?

2. How do I want to interact with the filmmaker?

Are you looking to learn about the filmmaking process and be actively engaged with the filmmaker, or do you simply want to help fund the work?

3. How much risk do I want to take?

Filmmakers need support throughout the entire project, and funding is valuable at all stages. Funding the film in its early stage is riskier but is also the most valuable to the filmmaker.

4. Is recouping my funding a consideration?

If you have the dual goal of supporting a cause and recouping your investment, or perhaps even making a profit, an equity investment is your best option.

5. Has the filmmaker I am considering supporting made a previous film that demonstrates his or her skills as a storyteller?

While it is less risky to fund a filmmaker with established skills, talented first-time filmmakers can also produce acclaimed, powerful films. Supporting a first-time filmmaker can also help with diversifying the industry and cultivating a fresh, new voice in the documentary space. If you are interested in funding a new filmmaker, ask if he or she has other projects that can speak to his or her skills.

6. Do I believe in this filmmaker as a person?

Documentary filmmaking is almost always a labor of love, and it can be easy to become discouraged. It is important to work with individuals who will persevere through the challenges – and will also use your money well.

7. Do I want to receive a credit on the film, or do I want to remain an anonymous supporter?

Many films acknowledge their largest sponsors, and major funders may also receive producer credit. Be clear about your requirements and expectations upfront, especially if you are giving a substantial amount.

8. Have I communicated all my goals, expectations and interests to the filmmaker clearly?

Funding films allows for a direct level of engagement that many other forms of giving do not. Use this opportunity to ensure the filmmaker understands your vision of your participation. That said, you are investing in the filmmaker. Trust him or her.

9. Are there other funders involved who I know and respect?

Will you be supporting the entire film on your own, or are you part of a coalition? Having a strong group of supporters behind the project will increase the film’s chances of success.

10. Are there other ways beyond funding that I can support the film and filmmakers?

There are many other ways to be involved in the film’s outcome. You may know other potential funders or people who may be good resources for telling the story. You can also help support the film once it is finished – the documentary’s impact will be limited if it does not get in front of an audience. You can host a screening, promote the film on social media and be an engaged audience member.

Ready to Get Started?

Documentary films focus on many of the same problems as nonprofits and foundations; however, as a creative medium that holds immense storytelling power, documentary filmmaking reaches people and promotes causes in new and powerful ways. If you are not yet convinced, spend some time watching award-winning social issue documentaries. Better yet, attend a film festival, such as the Sundance Film Festival, and watch them in an environment where you can engage with the audience, the filmmaker and quite often the documentary subjects themselves.

I have been supporting documentary filmmaking for almost a decade now, and I am immensely proud of the projects I have helped come into fruition. It is difficult to describe what it feels like to be in the audience, in a darkened theater, when the story you have helped to tell is shown for the first time. Most often, the subjects of the film – the brave ones who chose to share their most personal, and so often tragic, stories – are seeing it for the first time too. It is such a profound perspective into our common humanity. As my friend and colleague from the Sundance Institute, Tabitha Jackson, so beautifully says, “The documentary camera acts as an empathy machine.”

One of my favorite quotes of all time is “The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in” by Harold Clarke Goddard. See the role that excellent storytelling can play in your philanthropic strategy, and help make it happen.

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