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Fiscal Examination: Investigating Funding Opportunities at Nonprofits

By Tracie Lewis

Have you ever thought, "I have an interesting story for a film; I just need the money to make it?" Fiscal sponsorship could be the answer.

Having a film or project fiscally sponsored gives a filmmaker access to nonprofit funding. Many foundations will only issue grant money to 501(c)(3) organizations. Filmmakers can set up their own nonprofit status, but that's a lengthy and expensive process. Most filmmakers enter into a fiscal sponsorship agreement with a nonprofit organization to receive tax-deductible donations from businesses and individuals to fund projects.

The benefits of being fiscally sponsored are numerous. First, it demonstrates that a film has additional support beyond the production team. There's now an organization attached that shares the same vision and allows the opportunity for monetary contributions to aid in completing the film. According to Michele Turnure-Salleo, director of filmmaker services at the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS), "San Francisco Film Society offers a full suite of filmmaker-service programs and activities designed to foster creativity and further the careers of independent filmmakers, and fiscal sponsorship is a great point into the organization. As a result of working so closely with filmmakers, we are able to determine how we can help them in a multitude of ways with the various programs we offer--such as education, grants and residencies." 

Second, the filmmaker, nonprofit organization and funding sources are all on board and share a vision for the film or project. Amy Halpin, program manager of fiscal sponsorship and grants at the International Documentary Association (IDA), says, "Having fiscal sponsorship means that individual donors who want to see your film get made can get an immediate tax deduction, as well as the added peace of mind that the project is being monitored by an organization with a 28-year track-record."  

Third, the filmmaker has more time to spend on the project. "Fiscal sponsorship allows the filmmaker time to focus on the creation of the work, rather than on the administration of running a 501(c)(3) organization," says Dianne Debicella, program director of fiscal sponsorship at the New York-based Fractured Atlas.

Fourth, the opportunity to have experienced filmmakers evaluate proposals and budgets before sending them out to funders is priceless. Proposals and budgets are required in practically every case when applying for funding. A great place to start when preparing a documentary budget is by reading An Introduction to Documentary Budgeting by Robert Bahar. Don't be shy about calling around and asking for real numbers when doing a budget.

The filmmaker should also have clear information of what is expected during the relationship with the organization and the funding sources. Understanding the legal obligations before entering into an agreement with the nonprofit can prevent frustration later down the line. Do your homework and research several organizations first. Talk to others who have gone through the program. Consult with a lawyer or tax consultant before embarking on any agreements and before receiving any money. Beware of investors who want to give money to your film and expect a monetary reward as the outcome. In fact, according to Debicella, "Fiscally sponsored projects can't actively seek investors, or have investors involved with the project while sponsored by Fractured Atlas."   

Ultimately, the success of a project depends on the clear vision and hard work of the filmmaker. From a fiscal sponsorship point-of-view, there are several ways to have a successful project. Turnure-Salleo's list includes: an excellent engaging synopsis, a clear sense of the film's progression of how the story will be told or how the information will be conveyed, emotionally engaging characters, a proposal that builds on the readers' knowledge rather than repeating the same information, a multi-faceted fundraising strategy, an intriguing and impressive bio that shows that the filmmaker is committed and capable and has a unique relationship to the subject, a well-conceived distribution/marketing and outreach strategy, a solid artistic and management team, a realistic budget, and a clean looking, spell-checked proposal without too many different fonts, or fancy paper or binders.

Regarding common mistakes filmmakers make as they struggle to get their films made, Turnure-Salleo observes, "They partner with individuals who don't really share their vision. They are reluctant to hear constructive criticism or feedback. They try to rush the project for a festival deadline when really it needs a few months more with an editor." Three documentary projects that have successfully attracted funding through the fiscal sponsorship program at SFFS are Traces of the Trade by Katrina Browne, Beyond the Call by Adrian Belic and Connected by Tiffany Shlain.

"Successful projects often have diverse income streams, including earned revenue, individual contributions [cash and in-kind], government and foundation grants, and some corporate support, including in-kind, grants, matching gifts and sponsorship," Dibicella stresses. "Set up a fundraising plan and decide when, how and from whom you are going to ask for money. That will help to stay focused and ensure success."  According to Dibicella, successful documentaries funded through Fractured Atlas' program include Sex Positive by Daryl Wein, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe by Emily and Sarah Kunstler and The Tijuana Project by John Sheedy. 

"Most filmmakers are good at telling you the story and not necessarily good at telling about the film they are going to make," Halpin says. "In addition to telling us what the story is, we want you to tell us how you are going to tell it. What kind of access do you have? Who are the key players? Documentaries are visual, obviously, so what is the project going to look like? What are we going to see, hear and feel while we watch this film? What is the structure? What type of music will we hear? What type of images will we see?

"Funders like to know that the project that they are helping to fund is going to get made and get seen," Halpin continues. "If they don't see that you have a strategy to raise the money to make your film, they are not going to want to give you even a little bit of money for a film that isn't going to get finished." Having a great relationship with a foundation has been very beneficial for filmmaker and former IDA board member Michael King. According to Halpin, King's project, entitled The Rescuers, is one of IDA's biggest fundraisers to date, with more than $2 million secured. "The foundation and I have had a long-term relationship since I won an Emmy 15 years ago for Bangin', a documentary on youth violence," says King, who declined to disclose his foundation.

Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, producers/directors of the 2009 Academy Award-nominated feature documentary Trouble the Water, raised approximately $90,000 of grant support through IDA's fiscal sponsorship program. Lessin notes, "The most effective ways we raised money for our film was from formal grant proposals, informal meetings, letters and updates, invitations to screenings, and relationship-building with grantors."

Even though there are several success stories about generous grant donors, other methods of fundraising are becoming increasingly popular. In the social networking age, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogging can cultivate audiences by providing updates on projects. Audience-building will get people interested and therefore increase the pool of potential donors. Other popular dedicated websites for fundraising such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are being explored by filmmakers.

"Grant support in the US is declining each year, while individuals continue to give steadily to the arts," Dibicella points out. "It's a common misconception that there is a ton of grant money out there and that it is easy to obtain. I try to encourage our projects to focus more of their attention on individual support rather than grant support." 

Fundraising for a project takes time and hard work. However, here is a plan that most everyone agrees with: Never give up!


Here is some basic information about each of the three fiscal sponsorship programs cited in this article.

Fractured Atlas

  • The project must be artistic and not for a commercial profit.
  • Any ongoing or temporary project in the arts is eligible for sponsorship.
  • About 99 percent of the applications received are approved.
  • Applications are accepted on an ongoing basis and the monthly deadline is the last day of each month. The board reviews applications at the beginning of the following month and issues approvals no later than the 15th of the following month for the pending applications.
  • Following approval of your application, you can expect to be up and running within two to three weeks.
  • Fractured Atlas charges a 6 percent administrative fee.
  • Online donations by credit card (up to $5,000 per transaction) are accepted, with no additional fee for credit card processing.
  • Donors may make automatic recurring monthly donations.
  • Fractured Atlas can accept and process non-cash donations of equipment and materials.
  • Fund-release checks are issued weekly at the sponsored artist's request.
  • Fractured Atlas provides a complete set of online tools for managing sponsored funds (i.e., checking the fund balance, viewing donation and fund-release history, looking up donor contact information, processing new donations, etc.)
  • Fractured Atlas maintains an online profile for each fiscally sponsored project, as well as a link to the project's website.
  • The program is structured to ensure that you should never owe any taxes on money Fractured Atlas disburses.


International Documentary Association (IDA)

  • IDA works exclusively with documentary filmmakers or projects that have a substantial documentary component.
  • IDA has a committee of experienced filmmakers that evaluates every proposal.
  • In most cases, the review process takes about a month.
  • The fiscal sponsorship program has a rolling application deadline, so you can apply any time. IDA accepts about 10 to 15 new projects into the program each month.
  • IDA charges a 5 percent administrative fee.
  • IDA accepts donations by check, credit card, PayPal, wire transfer or donation of stock.  
  • Projects can accept online donations through IDA's website or on Facebook. 
  • IDA recently began accepting non-cash donations of tangible goods such as camera and editing equipment and office supplies.
  • IDA will sponsor applications for government grants when eligible. 
  • IDA can now accept tax-deductible donations from Canada.
  • IDA has sponsored over 700 films since the program began formally in 1998.
  • Documentary projects collectively raised over $3 million in 2009.
  • Special fiscal sponsorship discounts are available to some IDA programs.
  • IDA works with all genres of documentaries in all stages of production.
  • Project directors can put in requests to withdraw funds when they are ready to spend them. The requests are made online, and IDA issues checks about once a week.


San Francisco Film Society (SFFS)

  • Submit a $40 application fee online.
  • All projects must be non-commercial and represent an imaginative, even transformative, contribution to film/video and to the society at large.
  • SFFS charges a 7 percent administrative fee.
  • Checks are deposited in SFFS' bank account. Once they clear the accounting department, a check will be issued to the filmmaker, usually the following week.
  • Checks are sent out to filmmakers, along with copies of donor checks or credit card transactions.
  • SFFS will send a letter for donations of $250 or more, in accordance with IRS regulations, stating that the tax-deductible donation was received.
  • Only monetary donations processed through SFFS are eligible for a tax receipt, which the film society will provide directly. SFFS cannot provide tax receipts for non-monetary items, which also means that you cannot provide receipts for these items in the film society's name or with its tax ID.
  • The receipts you provide are an acknowledgment of the receipt of goods or services to your project; this is not a tax receipt, since these contributions cannot be processed through the film society as your fiscal sponsor.
  • If someone makes a monetary donation to your project that you accept directly without going through the film society, you can issue them a receipt yourself. This is not a tax receipt.


Tracie J. Lewis is a writer and producer, as well as a programmer at Film Independent. She has previously applied for fiscal sponsorship.