Here’s the catch-22 for any foundation offering free money to filmmakers: On one hand, there is the unequivocal mandate to fulfill the organization’s lofty goals through the significant educational reach that film and television productions can offer. On the other… well, there sure are a lot of documentary-making applicants looking for a handout, aren’t there?
Take, for example, the Ford Foundation in New York, which has a long history of supporting doc filmmakers, yet is reluctant to supply information about how and why the foundation does what it does. The program officers are busy with their existing case loads, program criteria are often mutable, and articles that increase the profile for the foundation only help to increase the backlog.
According to official foundation statements, however, the Ford Foundation’s current areas of interest are broken into three broad categories: asset building and community development; education, media, arts, and culture; and peace and social justice. ‘Through the media department of the Ford Foundation,’ states the organization in background material, ‘the goal is to foster documentaries that advance understanding about cultural identity and community.’ That means the foundation can support projects which deal with democratic values, poverty and injustice and international cooperation as topics.
Recent grants to filmmakers include US$455,000 to Blackside of Boston for the I’ll Make Me a World documentary, a survey of African-American arts in the twentieth century; $100,000 to Upstream Productions in Seattle for a documentary on Native-American fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest; $175,000 to the Center for Educational Telecommunications in San Francisco for a project about the creation of Asian-American communities in the U.S.; $400,000 to the Oregon Public Broadcasting Foundation for a piece that explores Native American issues through the experiences of a girl’s basketball team; and $100,000 to producers Snitow/Kaufman of Berkeley for a doc about relations between African-American and Jewish communities.
Other documentary projects funded by the foundation include a video documentary on agro-forestry and micro-enterprise development for indigenous women by the Brazilian Agroforestry Network Institute ($150,000); Cadillac Desert by KTEH TV in San Jose ($60,000), which explores water scarcity in the U.S. and worldwide; a film by Kenya’s Development Through Media about the governance debate in East Africa ($75,000); and a film by Clarity Educational Productions in Berkeley on the history of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa ($250,000).
The Ford Foundation was established in 1936 with gifts and bequests of Ford Motor Company stock by Henry and Edsel Ford. In the years since, the Ford Foundation has grown into an international organization of good works and has paid out $8 billion in grants and loans. It has also divested its holdings in Ford Motor Company and has created a diversified portfolio that feeds cash flow and pays for program officers in New York, Africa, Asia, Latin America and Russia who explore opportunities to pursue the Foundation’s goals.
For doc filmmakers wanting to utilize the Ford Foundation, there is no formal grant application or deadline. Prospective applicants should send a letter of inquiry to determine whether the Foundation might consider their project. Initial letters should include a description of the project and issues it addresses, along with budget estimates, time lines and credentials of the project principals.
With the go-ahead to the next level of approval, applicants might be asked to submit a formal proposal that sets out in more detail the project and how it will be completed.