Give and Take

No doc-maker needs to be reminded that competitive capitalism is a cornerstone of the American way of life. Less well known is the spirit of philanthropy in the U.S., a potential alternative avenue of financial support for documentary filmmakers.
September 1, 2002

No doc-maker needs to be reminded that competitive capitalism is a cornerstone of the American way of life. Less well known is the spirit of philanthropy in the U.S., a potential alternative avenue of financial support for documentary filmmakers.

The ebb and flow of giving by endowments and charitable foundations is directly tied to the rise and fall of the U.S. economy: when economic indicators show that companies and people are financially secure, then giving to non-profit foundations – which in turn give to doc-makers, among others – is popular. Yet even when economic times grow uncertain, like now, non-profit institutions remain a viable source of funding. As fewer and fewer broadcast dollars reach docs, non-fiction filmmakers are finding it necessary to familiarize themselves with the facts about foundations.

According to figures released in April by the Foundation Center – a New York-based philanthropy think-tank, set up in 1956, that crunches numbers from nearly 56,600 grantmaking foundations – non-profits gave an estimated total of US$29 billion in 2001, up 5.1% (or 2.1% factoring in inflation) from $27.6 billion in 2000.

It was a record amount – more than double what was given six years ago – influenced in part by the events of September 11. Even when contributions related to the terrorist attacks are factored out, grants by foundations and endowments for 2001 were stronger than anticipated. Forecasters had predicted a drop due to the fall in U.S. GDP, employment and corporate profits, all of which essentially peaked by late 2000. The Foundation Center theorizes that giving was robust, because charitable and non-profit funding organizations proliferated in the boom of the late 1990s; follow-through payouts on multi-year grant commitments also helped.

Nevertheless, a drop in grant giving is underway. Corporate foundations especially are suffering as a result of the fall in profits and confidence of their big business parents. While corporate grant giving increased by an estimated $78 million, bringing the total to $3.1 billion in 2001, ‘this represents the smallest annual increase in grant dollars reported since 1994,’ the Foundation Center states (it labels these figures as estimates because they are based on data from 1,800 groups versus its full pool).

In addition, the Foundation Center says payouts by corporate foundations exceeded pay-ins by about $82 million, or 2.8%, last year. A July 25 report by Washington, D.C.-based newspaper Chronicle of Philanthropy revealed that two thirds of the 99 biggest corporations in the U.S. (as ranked by Forbes magazine) this year intend to donate to charitable foundations ‘about the same amount or less this year than they did in 2001.’ The drop in pre-tax profits by these companies was a median 43%. Just as corporate fortunes generally peaked in 2000 and 2001, so did the fortunes of their non-profit relatives.

Factual philanthropy

Somewhere in these numbers is the trail of how much money went to doc projects in this period, but nowhere is it made plain – you will seldom find ‘Documentary Film’ grants in a table alongside ‘Historic Preservation’ and ‘Hospitals and Medical Care.’ However, it is a safe bet that doc grants fall under the creative categories.

That said, another Foundation Center chart, focusing on grants for arts, culture, media and the humanities in 2000 (the most recent year for which complete data is available), pegged contributions to that sector at $3.7 billion, or roughly 12% of all giving that year. More specifically, ‘arts/humanities’ organizations received $441.1 million, up considerably from $407.5 million in 1999. Media organizations got $224.8 million in 2000; they received $174.6 million the previous year.

A closer look reveals ‘film, video and radio programs’ were supported with an estimated $103.3 million in 2000, up slightly from $100 million a year earlier. (But, down a bit to 0.7% from 0.9%. Ah, math.)

The Arts Funding Update, a Foundation Center report released in June, notes that arts organizations overall gained a larger share of total contributions in the second half of the 1990s, while giving to other fields slipped. It was a slim gain, however. And, on a down note, the Foundation Center says that grants for the arts by the U.S.’s largest institutions slipped to an average 12% share of funding over the last five years compared to a 15% share in the late 1980s. Smaller players have taken up the slack, accounting for the net share increase.

One of the greatest champions of the arts, media and communications in the U.S. is the Ford Foundation; it gave $98.1 million in 2000 ($68.3 million in 1999), the most of any group according to the Foundation Center, and a considerable increase from the $19.4 million it gave in the mid-1990s. Specifically regarding docs, the Ford Foundation has kept funding steady: $3.4 million this year, roughly $3.4 million in 2001 and $3.5 million in 2000.

With a mandate to advance ‘the development of civil society through the use of media as a resource for civic dialog,’ the N.Y.-based foundation also supports projects overseas through 13 regional offices, explains assistant programming officer Kathleen Fountain. For instance, the Santiago, Chile-based Woman’s Development Corporation, La Morada, received $100,000 to produce a doc on the closing of the Chuquicamata mining camp in northern Chile last year. The Ford Foundation’s individual doc grants have ranged from $48,000 to $1 million.

Another stable source of philanthropic support for docs comes from the U.S. government, mainly through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Both based in Washington, D.C. and created in 1965, their goal is to enhance domestic culture – projects must be U.S.-centric and U.S.-based. The NEA and NEH are independent agencies that benefit from the U.S.’s huge tax base: the budgets for each break down on a per capita basis to less than 40 cents a year.

Both the NEA and NEH survived the political lurch to the right with the changeover to President George W. Bush from Bill Clinton in 2000; in fact, the NEA issued $3.8 million in grants for arts and TV productions in 2001, an increase from $3 million a year earlier. For its part, the NEH injected $7.4 million into 50 doc projects in 2001, a large increase from the $4.7 million it put into 41 works in 2000.

While filmmakers might assume that tougher economic times mean tightened purse strings, the outlook for funding from foundations and endowments is far from bleak. And, at least for some of the larger and more specialized doc supporters, giving will continue to be strong.


facts & figures

Amount given by U.S. foundations:

2001: US$29 billion (estimate)

2000: $27.6 billion

Amount given by corporate foundations

2001: $3.1 billion (estimate)

2000: $3 billion

Amount received by ‘arts/humanities’ organizations

2000: $441.1 million

1999: $407.5 million

Amount received by media organizations

2000: $224.8 million

1999: $174.6 million

Amount granted for film, video and radio programs

2000: $103.3 million

1999: $100 million

(Above figures from Foundation Center)

Ford Foundation support for arts, media and communications

2000: $98.1 million

1999: $68.3 million

(source: Ford Foundation)

Ford Foundation grants for docs

2002: $3.4 million

2001: $3.4 million

(source: Ford Foundation)

NEA grants issued to arts and television productions

2001: $3.8 million

2000: $3 million

(source: NEA)

NEH grants issued to doc productions

2001: $7.4 million

2000: $4.7 million

(source: NEH)

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.