Pony Up or Else! Fundraise Like a Wolverine

Most people think filmmaking is creative, but fundraising is a chore. In fact, the latter pursuit is full of opportunities to be innovative, as I’ve learned during my 17 years as a professional fundraiser. I have raised money for narrative and documentary films for the majority of my career and for the last ten years have been a filmmaker myself. I have submitted hundreds of grant applications, made scores of face-to-face major donor requests, and have applied to most major government funding sources.

Over the years, I have learned techniques for improving my batting average. Let me tell you what resources are out there and give you some general tips for increasing your chances of fundraising success. Of course, it also helps to have the determination of a rabid wolverine.

You’re the one that I want
The universe of foundations that support films rarely changes, except that it is shrinking. At the same time, new filmmakers are minted every day, and all of them are applying to exactly the same places. That’s why I urge you to do individual fundraising. Individual fundraising gives you more control, easier access, and more solid long-term relationships that keep paying off in the future. Potential individual donors include your family, friends, classmates, teachers, work colleagues, and everyone else you know. Yes, literally, everyone else you know. You say you’re afraid to ask people for money? You’re not afraid of money are you? Money makes films. Contributing to films is a way for closeted artists to participate in your creative process. Films with ideals and a vision for changing the world are inspiring. Please give people a chance to experience that thrill by giving you money to make it happen.

Who do I ask for money? Who don’t I ask for money? My personal database contains contact information for 3,000 people, and I constantly keep it updated. I put everybody in there: my hairstylist, my doctor, the guy I met on the Super Shuttle (a consistent donor, by the way). Last year my sewer line blew up, and I paid my plumber $8,000 to put in a new one. Think my plumber is on my list? Hell, yes! And guess what, he sent a donation for $500 when I asked.

Every time I make a film, I send appeal letters to my list of past and potential donors. I tell them what kind of film I am making, creating a strong emotional case for why the film is vital. I tell them how much money I need to raise, and I give them a range of amounts for contributions. I also tell them to mail a check in the enclosed envelope or to go on the web to make an online contribution. I tell them the contribution is tax deductible because the nonprofit organization Film Arts Foundation is my fiscal sponsor. I often reward donors who give at a specific level, say $500 or above, by listing them in the film’s credits or giving them a copy of the trailer. I usually combine an email version of the appeal with the mailed version, and I often pair a benefit event with the letter. When a potential donor is capable of making a large gift, I set up time to meet with him or her in person and ask for $5,000, $10,000, or more. These relationships require time to develop, and they need to be maintained diligently over time. By cultivating these donors, I can continue to ask them for hefty support in the future.

Coming up next…raising money from foundations.