DocLit: How to build an effective social impact campaign

6 mins read

Story Money Impact: Funding Media for Social Change
by Tracey Friesen
(A Focal Press Book, Routledge, 2016)


After spending five years engaged in a global campaign with The Ghosts In Our Machine (the campaign was funded via Indiegogo, American foundations, the LUSH Charity Pot, the Bertha BRITDOC Connect Fund, supported by Women Make Movies, and deployed by dozens of international animal advocacy groups), I am deeply interested in how the documentary community is embracing the viability of social change through impact initiatives.

There are doc makers who look upon the growing impact arena with cynicism. They see it as marketing hyperbole and resent the imposed “Impact Producer” line item in some funding proposals. I am a filmmaker, not a campaigner. Fair enough—it is absurd to impose an impact agenda on all documentaries. It is equally absurd to impose a cookiecutter formula onto a film’s impact campaign. That said, I think the more common perspective among filmmakers is one of curiosity coupled with genuine confusion. How can one build an effective social impact campaign around a documentary without going into debt?

Enter Tracey Friesen’s timely new book Story Money Impact: Funding Media for Social Change, a go-to chock-a-block volume of practical strategies and inspirational case studies and research for filmmakers, producers, advocates and funders. This useful guide avoids glossy marketing speak, which is part of the language of the current impact space, and instead offers a personable inside view of interlocking opportunities within a growing ecosystem. There is a grassroots feel to Friesen’s approach, spanning the creative, strategic and business dimensions, as evidenced as early as its introduction: “The world contains highly talented storytellers, highly principled financiers and highly motivated activists. The goal here is to bring them together, to better understand each other, to spark alliances. What are the practical needs, professional stakes, and personal motivations of each?”

Vancouver-based veteran producer Friesen uses West Coast idiom and nature’s elements as metaphors to fuse the organic connection between powerful storytelling, successful partnerships and social change. The terms “Story [is fuel]; Money [is the wind]; and Impact [is the fire]” are at the core of this motivational 256-page book, which is divided into four sections—the previously stated trio, plus “Allies.” Friesen engages in a series of campfire-style conversations with experts in the field, and includes worksheets to underscore the need for each filmmaker to take a carefully considered approach to creating their campaigns.

“Impact” has become a buzz term at documentary gatherings in recent years. Some understand its meaning by way of application, and some think of it as a game of numbers—measuring ‘bums-in-seats’—for example. But, it is deeper than quantifiable metrics; “impact” is about a meaningful outcome. This is why Tracey Friesen’s book is a roadmap: she moves beyond the mania for metrics, to guide participants towards the change (impact) they want to see.

Of the films cited in the book, linear full-length documentaries are Friesen’s primary focus. While there are some strong examples of popular and lesser-known impact films in Friesen’s text, I don’t consider some of the selections to be top shelf picks. There are some obvious local and international omissions. I asked Friesen about her methodology in choosing the films, experts and references and she replied: “The interviewees were selected mostly because I had met and admired them and their work. Some are local and have long since been a part of my community. Others I may have connected with briefly at Good Pitch or a Media Impact Funders event or at other conferences. Many came to my attention while doing the research papers for DOC and Inspirit Foundation or even back when I was at the NFB. It was of course a bit chicken-and-egg (like a documentary itself ), because I had to react and adapt based on who and what I was able to secure.”

The US, the UK, and Australia are among the first to lead in the impact zone. And now, thanks to some home-grown innovation and a bubbling eclectic community of movers and shakers, Canada is catching up.

I suspect Story Money Impact: Funding Media for Social Change will be a welcome companion for the curious and confused but also for those already steeped in impact culture.

Story Money Impact: Funding Media for Social Change is available through Routledge/Focal Press, Amazon, Indigo, and Google Books.

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