Docs and Philanthropists: Do We Have a Match?

30 mins read

When DOC (Documentary Organization of Canada) published Philanthropic Funding for Documentaries in Canada: Towards an Industry-wide Strategy, POV was on hand for the industry launch at TIFF’s Documentary conference. Presented by consultant Dr. Marilyn Burgess, the co-author of the report (with Maria de Rosa), in conversation with Simon Kilmurry, the executive director of U.S.’s IDA (International Documentary Association) this unique launch offered some insights into the issue of what philanthropic funding might mean for individual docs and docmakers in Canada.

The report goes much further into the fundraising opportunities being explored by documentary organisations and filmmakers in many countries across the globe. It was clearly a good idea for DOC to commission the report; now we need to consider the implications.

Documentary films are hard to finance. Typically, broadcasters and government funders supply the bulk of the money in Canada, parts of Asia and Europe; in all of those places, there is immense competition for these scarce resources. At the same time, filmmakers in many countries, and particularly in the United States, have been finding that there are untapped funds that are controlled by private individuals and foundations.

Philanthropists have their own objectives: they may support research into a particular disease or they may be dedicated to the protection of an endangered species. There are many opportunities for philanthropists and foundations to invest their funds—and a documentary film is unlikely to be on the top of their minds. Indeed, according to Terry Smith of Philanthropic Partnerships Inc., the impact that many sponsors would seek would be financial contributions from audiences to the donor’s favourite charity! Her advice to donors is that they should give to charities or projects that have personal meaning.

The authors of the new report for DOC found that the philanthropic sector in this country isn’t aware that documentaries can have an impressive impact on public awareness and should be supported by them as well as the public sector. DOC acknowledges that not all documentaries are likely to find support among philanthropists. Only ones involving social and political issues are likely to be interesting to philanthropic institutions.


But who are the philanthropists? How can individual filmmakers find the people who would be interested in backing their efforts? And is finding willing philanthropists more efficient and effective than other sources of funding?

While filmmakers wrestle with such questions, what’s in it for the philanthropists? The structure of tax laws means that there are restrictions on the spending of foundations. The simple provision of a tax receipt can be difficult for the typical filmmaker since they’re unlikely to have a company that is a registered charitable institution.

The report recommends a set of actions that build on each other to bring philanthropists and documentarians together, from creating awareness in the philanthropic sector about the benefits of supporting documentary films to developing impact-producing skills of filmmakers and strong tools to measure impact campaigns. The authors also recommend flexibility in the funding model for social issue documentaries.

There are signs of activity among filmmakers and philanthropic institutions—and positive movement in Canada. The report acknowledges that “the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival (Hot Docs) and the Inspirit Foundation are building inroads with the philanthropic sector. Industry associations such as DOC and the Canadian Media Production Association can support this work with their own initiatives to raise awareness of how documentaries effect social change.”

Indeed, Hot Docs is working hard to bring philanthropic money into the funding mix. According to Elizabeth Radshaw, Hot Docs’ industry program director, “Our existing three funds, a combined six million dollars—the Shaw Media Hot Docs Fund, Hot Docs Blue Ice Fund and CrossCurrents Fund—comes from a combination of benefits money, individual and organisational philanthropic support. Over the past few years, Hot Docs has explored the Canadian foundation, NGO and philanthropic sector by sharing stories of the power and impact of documentary film. For many years we have invited foundations to observe/participate in the HDF [Hot Docs Trade Forum]. It has been a long process of exposure and education to show the value of documentaries in alignment of their mission fulfillment.”

Whereas a previous generation of Canadian philanthropists might have given to institutions or large campaigns, there has been a shift toward funding specific projects and from there to funding outcomes, or the impact of projects. Funders are organising themselves in creative ways to leverage their resources to increase their potential impact. The report cites giving circles and affinity groups as examples of ways that people can organise around a particular affinity (ethnicity or community, for example) and that can lead to better-informed, more connected donors. The report provides a great deal of information on how the flow of funds from foundations or individual donors to filmmakers can work. We recommend looking at the full report for detailed information.


Internationally, there are three outstanding examples—from Britain, the United States and Australia—of how funds can be channeled from philanthropists to filmmakers. BRITDOC works in partnership with foundations and philanthropists to administer four funds aimed at feature-length docs. They created the Green Pitch initiative, which has been replicated internationally (including at Hot Docs), as well as other tools for building the capacity and impact of the documentary sector. There are about 50 foundations from around the world, including the Ford Foundation, working in partnership with BRITDOC.

The model in Australia is quite different. The Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF) pitches documentaries directly to potential donors. Part of their work over the last 10 years has been to persuade foundations to include films as eligible projects. Now DAF is an intermediary, or re-granter, channeling funds from donor foundations to specific films. Filmmakers typically must find the donors themselves, but DAF occasionally acts as executive producer. According to their mission statement, “The Documentary Australia Foundation increases the ability of documentary filmmakers to make films that matter and that may otherwise not be made.” One consideration is whether DAF should become more proactive and hands-on, supporting fewer films to ensure that they deliver the impact anticipated by donors and investors.

There are many funders—some fiscal sponsors, some giving circles and so on—in the United States. The Ford Foundation has been a significant supporter of social issue filmmaking, having helped a number of films including How to Survive a Plague, an Oscar nominee. Another approach has been taken by the Fledgling Fund, which formed to support Born Into Brothels by Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman, an Oscar winner. The Fledgling Fund “primarily supports the design and execution of outreach and audience engagement campaigns for social issue documentary films, including connecting these with organizations that can use film to advance their own work.” The emphasis of the donation is therefore not on getting the film made, but on getting it seen and used as a tool of social change.


For Canadian filmmakers, there are four basic issues. First, where would funds come from? Second, how would philanthropic contributions affect existing film funding models? How does such funding conform with Canada’s Income Tax Act? And finally, what is impact and how can it be measured to satisfy the objectives of the funders?

Wealthy individuals set up foundations to reduce their tax burden and to channel their resources to causes that are meaningful to them. Another set of foundations exists to support specific causes, and receive funding from wealthy individuals. Experts such as Terry Smith caution that without a direct connection to the social purpose or to the donors, it is hard to connect with potential funders. That is probably why well-known entities with charitable status, such as Hot Docs in Canada and Women Make Movies in the US, are acting as intermediaries. People with an interest in a certain type of documentary can have their contributions managed through an expert organisation that has the ability to invest the funds, identify suitable projects and give out the appropriate tax receipt.

There are at least two approaches filmmakers can take in order to access philanthropic donations. One is through fiscal sponsorship, in which the donor flows a significant amount of money through a charitable entity to a specific filmmaker or project. The other more closely resembles a grant or contribution: funds are managed by the charity, which issues calls for proposals, reviews submissions, and works with the selected filmmaker(s) on their project.

With this report and its charitable status as a national arts service organization (NASO), DOC may also enter this field. It still remains that someone—whether the sponsoring organization or more likely the individual filmmaker—has to identify a donor with an interest and the resources to contribute to a documentary film project.


Pepita Ferrari, acting executive director of DOC, which sponsored the report, tells POV: “The fact that five of Canada’s main public funding agencies— OMDC, Telefilm, CMF, OAC and NFB —were partners on the financing for this report speaks for itself.”

She says, “Doc producers are having to think in new ways about how to finance their projects because the vast majority will not be successful in obtaining that essential broadcast licence which will allow them to access other significant funds such as the CMF (Canadian Media Fund). Crowdfunding has offered some relief in this area, but to reap meaningful returns requires considerable investment of time and effort and does not come close to replacing the old funding model. Fostering and facilitating strong philanthropic support for documentary in Canada can provide another critical piece of the financing gap facing today’s documentary producer.”

DOC’s leadership is optimistic. “There is a sense from both our membership as well as other stakeholders that the report represents an important first step in an area that merits much further exploration that can hopefully lead to the building of a mutually beneficial relationship between the documentary and philanthropic sectors in this country. Put in the global context, Canada is lagging far behind other countries where this relationship has been acknowledged as a very real and significant one and there is no logical sense to it continuing that way.”

Others are less certain about the report and the prospects for philanthropic funding of documentary. David Craig, Site Media producer, former funder at the OAC, longtime analyst at Telefilm Canada and POV Magazine board member, says, “the scepticism that is part of the reception for this report may be due to a number of issues which in neat alliterative terms can be summarized as: capacity, control, compatibility.” Philanthropists will not fund the number nor diversity of films that a public funder might. “Programs such as the Rogers Documentary Fund or the Shaw Hot Docs funds allow for a broad range of documentary projects and have a clear mechanism for dealing with proposals. Philanthropic funding by nature would be more specific in interests,” says Craig.

There is concern about the power balance—or control over the message—between a philanthropist and a filmmaker, and that concern could well affect a filmmaker’s ability to attract public funding and even to qualify for tax credits. According to Craig, “Whether it comes from a broadcaster or a foundation or elsewhere, funding is seldom neutral but brokering the expectations of a philanthropic funder and a filmmaker’s independence will still be part of the exercise in growing this avenue of film financing. Control is also a big issue when it comes to CRA categorization, tax credit calculations and CRTC eligibility.”

Craig also points out that the current industry model does not have a place for the kind of donation that philanthropists might make. He says, “If it is considered investment, then it can put the project offside for tax credits. The biggest challenge to growing foundation funding may in fact be changing the status of this type of funding with the CRA and all the attendant federal policies that define eligible financing and eligible productions within this highly regulated industry.”

One cannot emphasize this final point enough: if philanthropic funding grinds down the credits already in place for filmmakers, what’s the point in working with the private sector? If the support of the foundation is of sufficient size to go beyond that of credits, then filmmakers should pursue such institutions. Otherwise, a reform of the tax credit system must occur before philanthropic support will be of real use in Canada.


Perhaps the most exciting example of foundation support for a documentary filmmaker came about through the timely request from Greenpeace to veteran cinematographer and filmmaker Peter Mettler. POV interviewed Mettler shortly after his avant-garde tar sands doc Petropolis was completed. The possible impact on other funding sources was not an issue, because Greenpeace was offering access and equipment, not cash, and the film came about as a happy coincidence. The initial collaboration was a simple trade-off: Mettler would shoot footage of the tar sands for Greenpeace if he could use some of the footage in his own work.

Once the shoot was over, Mettler says, “I proposed to Greenpeace, ‘If you would like me to make a film out of this material in the way that I work, I’d be happy to do it.’ They said ‘yes,’ pretty well immediately. I was unsure if they understood what I meant, so I kept referring to my other work, like Picture of Light. I told them, ‘What I see is actually quite visceral and lyrical and musical. Are you sure you want this? Will this work for you?’ Their own work tends to be information based and work like propaganda. They said ‘yes, yes, yes.’ So we proceeded, and the film (Petropolis) came out of it.”

The Greenpeace-Mettler collaboration demonstrates the rare circumstances in which the charitable contribution covers a significant portion of the costs of the film. According to DOC’s research, published in Getting Real 2015, “The average budgets for English language documentary productions in 2010/11 varied from lower per-hour budgets of approximately $240,000 for mini-series to a high of $421,000 for single-episode productions.” The Good Pitch model, in which pre-selected films are presented to a panel of potential donors, has been successful in raising significant amounts of money. (In Australia, $2.3 million was raised to fund 7 films in just one day.) But The Fledgling Fund in the US has distributed $12 million to over 330 projects over 10 years, or under $40,000 per film, on average.


What is impact? It depends on what the filmmaker—or the philanthropist—is trying to achieve. It could be awareness of an issue, it could be a change in social behaviour, it could be an increase in financial donations to the philanthropist’s favourite cause. Whatever the impact might be, donors will expect to be able to measure it. The report recommends that tools be developed for that purpose, and DOC is interested in taking that on. Ferrari says, “This will provide everyone—from the filmmakers, to the funding agencies to the foundations— with a common understanding of how documentary is a powerful tool for change.”

Terry Smith advises her philanthropic clients to pay attention to the impact their money will have. Her website advises donors to “Make sure the charity (or film) does indeed make a difference. You have a right to know how your money was spent and if the charity (or filmmaker) actually did what they said they were going to do. If they are not willing to let you know how your funds will be spent then find another charity who will.” She says that some donors will only want to see their funds spent on equipment or services that provide direct benefits to clients. Only a few will be willing to put money into something that will build awareness. Her perspective confirms the finding of the report’s authors, that “Most foundations are established by people with a passion for a particular cause. These donors shape the focus of their foundation’s work.”


According to Ferrari, there are a very few Canadian documentary filmmakers working with philanthropic institutions to fund their films and for the most part they are working with foundation support originating from outside Canada.

Philanthropy can work if you have the right project (subject, purpose) and the right donors.

Private funding is not for everyone and can get in the way of other funding and licences.

Documentary filmmakers will continue to rely on the entire spectrum of funders to make social impact films. DOC and others will work to build awareness among philanthropists. Filmmakers will learn how to incorporate relationships with donors into their financing phase and extensive distribution and community development plans into their marketing plans. And more research will be done to find ways to make the connection meaningful, financially and in terms of the outcomes produced.

Hot Docs’ Radshaw believes that, “There is money for documentary across the world—and it is certainly not easy to track down. Aligning the objectives of foundations to support documentary films is something Hot Docs is committed to doing. We want to expose audiences including foundations and philanthropic groups to the contagious empathy and power of documentary film. Those organisations that can see alignments between their special interest areas and documentary film could create fantastic partnerships and relationships, which would help them to engage audiences.”

DOC’s Ferrari suggests that what’s needed for filmmakers is information or training on “how to approach foundations; how to find the ones whose mandates and goals align with the subject of your film; how to build the sense of mutual trust and confidence with a collaborating foundation—these are all areas that the majority of filmmakers have no experience in. Looking at the situation from the philanthropic institutions’ point of view, it’s a question of demystifying the production process so that they can understand the documentary filmmaking process and help them to understand what an important tool the right documentary can be for them when it comes to reaching their community and creating awareness about their particular issue.”

Ferrari concludes with the hope that “this report—including the information presented and the actions proposed—can act as a rallying point for all interested parties to join us in working towards a new paradigm that makes philanthropic support for documentary in Canada, not only a possibility, but a given.”

Filmmaker Questions and Concerns

What kind of film are you making?
Social impact films have the best chance of finding support from foundations or individuals.

What kind of impact are you hoping to have?
Some donors will seek measurable results, such as an increase in donations to a cause, while others might hope for a change in individual behaviour, or a change in a corporation’s or government’s policies. Look for a philanthropist who shares your goals. (The recent changes at Seaworld are attributed to the impact of Blackfish, for example.)

Your funding partner may be able to help you with audience identification and engagement.
You’ll need to have some ideas about the audience and where you will find them. Think about what you are hoping they will do after they see your film. Some films will find a mass audience, while the point of some other films is to get information on an issue into the hands of a particular decision-maker.

Who also cares about your issue?
Do you know them? Do you have a personal connection, even two or three degrees away? If you have a passion about an issue, you undoubtedly belong to a group or circle of friends, or read about your issue in current media. If you aren’t connected yet, it’s a good idea to start meeting and building relationships with people who will speak well about you and your film to their contacts.

Why a (feature) doc? Why not a PSA?
Some funders will ask why you need to make a feature documentary to have an impact. Consider whether a short film, or even a public service announcement could have the same effect. You’ll need to describe how your documentary will make its point, and why the experience of watching a feature documentary is the best way to deliver the information or the lesson.

Are you concerned that your work will be compromised by working with a philanthropic institution?
Hot Docs’ Elizabeth Radshaw advises: “When engaging in a partnership from any institution—philanthropic, broadcast, film fund or even a brand—maintaining editorial control is paramount. The integrity of the film and the social contract that filmmakers engage with the audience must be transparent. There may be times when as filmmakers, you are commissioned to make a PSA or advertisement; that is perfectly fine as long as the audience is aware what the film is doing. If you are making an auteur-driven creative film with an independent POV, your audience deserves dedication to an independent editorial stance.”

What is the timing?
How does it line up with what’s happening in the world (around your issue)? For example, if your doc will take two years to make and another year to be distributed, does that align with a major international event? Or will the world have moved on from your issue by then? Is there already a campaign underway? How does your doc fit in with the campaign?

What is the philanthropist’s intent?
The philanthropist wants to make a difference, and may want to do that directly, by funding services or supporting a building. And if you are receiving funding from multiple philanthropists or foundations, are you in control? Do you have to manage their differing expectations?

Can you take advantage of existing organisations to handle the funds and the relationships for you?
Are you a member of a group that can receive charitable donations? Foundations are limited by tax law to funding a) their own project or b) another charity. If you have a connection to a charity already, they might help you to fund your doc.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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