Documentary Funding: The Fundraising Secret That Will Take You From Zero to $50,000 (and Beyond)

Let's be real. Fundraising is tough. No matter how good or bad the economy, no matter how wealthy the individual or how big the documentary funding pool for grants, individuals, foundations and organizations do not part with their money easily.
So how do you inspire people to give up their cold hard cash? Ah, the million dollar question!
Here's the secret that inspires giving and gets people to take action.
Ask for the amount you need, state when you need it.. and create urgency!
Filmmakers often have the fantasy that one big wealthy donor or a big foundation will write one big fat check to cover the full budget of the film. Don't get me wrong. It can happen. And it certainly doesn't hurt to ask, however here's the strategy that will most likely work best for you, especially if you are a new filmmaker.
  1. Ask for small, specific amounts of money from a lot of different people and set deadlines for when the money is needed. Even if your documentary funding budget is $250,000, don't ask for that full amount all at once. It's a daunting number that will intimidate most people.
  2. Raise money in manageable chunks based on how much you need at that particular moment and how much you think your donor can give. Say you need $5,000 in documentary funding at the very beginning to film your first 10 interviews. Tell people that's what you're doing and that you are raising money for that particular purpose.
  3. Build trust and confidence. This is KEY to fundraising. Make sure to report back to your donors when you've raised the money and done what you said you were going to do. They may be willing to give again or at the very least be willing to fundraise on your behalf!
  4. Use crowd funding. If you are a first time filmmaker with no track record, you are going to need to embark on a grassroots fundraising campaign among people you know. A great place to start is with online fundraising hubs such as KickStarter or IndyGoGo.
  5. It is absolutely essential when fundraising for a documentary to create the best trailer possible. People need to see what you're trying to accomplish and they need to feel inspired to help you. You must convince people you have the passion and the determination to pull off your project.
  6. Remember that success follows success. If you can raise the first $5,000 - $10,000, it gives you more credibility (especially with larger donors) when asking for the next $10,000, $20,000 or $50,000.
  7. There is no substitute for picking up the phone, pitching your idea and making the ask for a specific amount of money for a specific purpose. Filling out forms for a grant can take days, sometimes weeks and you are competing with who knows how many other projects. A passionate 10-minute personal plea to an individual who is already pre-sold on your documentary idea will often yield better and faster results.
  8. As a general rule, cold calling does not work with fundraising. For a brand new contact, where there is no prior relationship or credibility established, send a letter of introduction first (hopefully along with your trailer) and THEN call and follow-up as needed.
  9. Do your research and approach people at their level. Before asking someone for money, make sure your project is a natural fit for them and that you have a general idea of what they might be capable of giving. Your college buddy might be able to pitch in $20 whereas your businessman uncle might be able to pitch in $1,000.
  10. Last but definitely not least, communicate excitement and urgency. Making a genuine person-to-person ask is one of the hardest things you'll ever do, but it's one of the most powerful and effective ways to get documentary funding.

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