Best practices: Fundraising

Business tips from the pros.
January 1, 2011

By Chris Palmer & Peter Kimball

Fundraising can be one of the most daunting and intimidating parts of the filmmaking process. Filmmakers tend to be passionate, creative people who want to express their stories or shed light on important issues, but they may have no experience in sales and no desire to become slick salesmen. The good news is that it is that same creativity and passion - not deceptive sales techniques - that will make you successful at fundraising. Raising money depends on building relationships based on integrity, sincerity, high standards, entrepreneurial zest, unflagging enthusiasm, and a passionate commitment to your film.

The first step in fundraising is finding and identifying potential donors. In some ways, this first step can seem the most difficult. However, if you start with friends, family, and business contacts, and then are always on the lookout for potential donors, you will find them. Be alert at all times; constantly seek out potential donors. Ask your existing donors to introduce you to their friends who might want to donate to your cause or project.

It is absolutely essential that you not only believe in your project but that you are able to express what makes it compelling. Donors do not respond to neediness – you are not begging for charity. Instead, you must present an exciting, challenging vision and invite them to join you. How will your film make a difference in the world? Why are you uniquely qualified to undertake this film? If you think about fundraising in these terms, you will not only feel more comfortable with the process of appealing for money but you will also be more successful at it.

Just as important as the value and importance of your film is your ability to connect with the donor. Listen to them, learn about what is most important to them, and let them get to know you. Having a strong relationship will make it much easier when it comes time to actually ask for money. You will already know the person’s interests, their priorities, and what an appropriate amount to ask for is.

Always ask for a specific amount (rather than a range) for a specific project. The most important part of asking is simply having the courage to ask, but then you must also be patient and listen to the donor. Even if the donor cannot make a gift at this time, remain positive and understanding. Keep the door open for the future.

Once a donor does agree to support your project, your job is just beginning. It is critical that you stay in close contact. Call immediately to reassure them that you appreciate their generosity and then write a warm, thoughtful thank you note. As time goes on, keep in contact by sending updates, scripts, articles or whatever you have to keep them involved.

When you can build a compelling case for the importance of your film and develop real relationships with donors you will be successful at fundraising. If you do it right, everyone feels like they’ve won and like they are part of something great. You were drawn to filmmaking because you wanted to make a difference and now you’re giving someone else the chance to join in.

Chris Palmer is the director of American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking and author of the new Sierra Club book Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom. Peter Kimball is an independent filmmaker and graduate student at American University.

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.