How to Make a Doc: Fiscal Sponsors

Kim Dryden of The Filipino Street Art Project on their current documentary venture.

Documentary filmmaking isn’t all about traveling to exotic locations, running around and meeting interesting people, getting the clutch shot, celebrating with beers after… For every hour of shooting, there’s about 50 more of researching granting organizations, sending emails, writing treatments, and other, less… “exciting” tasks to be done. But it’s important work, work that makes the rest of it possible. I’m sure you can tell which one of us is not in Manila making friends with street artists. Not yet, anyways. Yes, I’m a little jealous, and yes, I’m over it. Mostly. So, in an effort to shed some light on the under-appreciated art of documentary producing and record some of our lessons learned along the way, we’ll be doing a semi-regular BTS (behind the scenes) posts. Instead of trying to take some logical course through a maze of interrelated and inseparable issues, I’ve opted instead to choose a topic of my fancy every post. This week’s will be… fiscal sponsors. I’ve just decided. What? Why? Fiscal sponsors are the best! They’re crucial for successful fundraising, unless you have a rich uncle that bankrolls your entire project. And, if that’s the case, see our website where your uncle can make a tax-deductible donation to our project, too. This is thanks to our fiscal sponsor, IFP (www.ifp.org), a film-specific organization that’s taken on Unstable Mutations as one of its sponsored projects. Please note that all of the info in this post is based on my own research and my experiences working with IFP and one other fiscal sponsor. A fiscal sponsor is a nonprofit 501c3 organization that lends it’s legal and tax-exempt status to projects it choose to sponsor. In practice, this means that you or your production house can accept tax deductible donations, an attractive choice for individual donors and a necessity for most grants, awards, and other donations from foundations. Once they’ve accepted your project, most fiscal sponsors - at least film-specific ones - offer guidance on grants, treatments, fundraising strategies, and other big-picture issues. If awarded a grant, they will also produce annual reports showing how the money was spent - a requirement of most funding organizations. If I’m a donor, where does my money go? When you want to make a tax deductible, you actually make it to the fiscal sponsor with an indication that you want your money to support a certain project. In our case, this means making the check out to IFP with Unstable Mutations or The Filipino Street Art Project in the memo line. While this might seem dubious, it is in fact standard practice. Because fiscal sponsors are legally responsible for the money they handle, they therefore are able to exercise a degree of discretion as to where the money is ultimately rewarded. While there are horror stories of sketchy fiscal sponsors pocketing donors’ money and cutting off all contact, those are few and far between. Do your research, choose a reputable sponsor, and all will be well so long as your books are in order. Once the funds are processed through the sponsor, they are deposited in your project’s account and you’re notified of your new balance. Usually you must request funds, which can take several business days to process. It’s certainly not a quick turn around, but, for many, the benefits are worth it. What does the sponsor get out of it? On their end, a fiscal sponsor benefits in several ways:
  • Money! Fiscal sponsors charge an administrative fee, generally between 4-8%. This covers their costs as it relates to processing, vetting, and bringing on board projects, providing bookkeeping services, processing grants and other donations, and generating reports. In most - but not all - cases, a sponsor’s rate will decrease as your total donations increase. For example, your first $50k might incur a 7% fee, the next $50k a 6% fee, and anything beyond that a 5% fee.
  • They’re fulfilling their mission. Most sponsors are bound by a mission statement that requires them to “support independent filmmakers” or other such noble goals, and this is one way of doing that. Most sponsors are organizations that also compete for grants, and so sponsoring quality projects makes them more competitive, too.
  • They get to be connected with an awesome film like yours. If you do well, they do well. Most sponsors require you to acknowledge them on all credits and marketing materials, so your successes give them greater recognition, too.
We get that you like IFP. Who else offers fiscal sponsorship? There’s a lot. Film-specific fiscal sponsors include Independent Documentary Association (IDA), Southern Documentary Fund, Center for Independent Documentary (CID), Documentary Educational Resources (DER), Fractured Atlas, Women Make Movies, San Francisco Film Society, and more. These sponsors all vary in their application requirements, their fees, the kind of support they offer, and the types of projects they support. You can also pursue a fiscal sponsor whose associate with a specific issue, especially if you’re undertaking a social justice project. Just make sure you do your due diligence in researching what they want and who they are to determine if they’re the best fit for your project and your team. What’s the application process like? Similar to a grant application, most sponsors want to know the following:
  • What’s your story about? Is there a compelling narrative? What larger issues does it address? Does it fit with our mission?
  • Is this project feasible? Do you have the access you need to make it happen? A realistic timeline?
  • What’s your budget like? Have you done your due diligence budgeting for all the elements you need to convey the story you propose? Do you have a realistic fundraising strategy?
  • Who are you? Do you have the experience needed to pull this off? For issue-based films, are you familiar with the community at hand or have the connections to make it happen? What crew members have you solidified to date, and what’s their experience?
  • Who is your audience and how will you reach them? Do you have an outreach plan?
  • What are your larger goals - social change, raising awareness of an issue, shedding light on an underserved community? How will you reach those goals? How will you measure success?
If you can answer these questions with concrete answers and specific examples, you probably have a strong application. When do you want to start thinking about getting a fiscal sponsor? If you know you’ll apply for grants or want to accept tax-deductible donations, then… yesterday. As you can see from the general questions above, these applications are intensive and take a significant amount of time. After you turn them in, there’s usually at least a few weeks of waiting before you get a response, and there’s no guarantee you’re project will be picked up. If you fail, you’ll have to start over with another organization and, while many elements can be retooled for another application, every sponsor is unique in their requirements. You don’t want to be in a position where there’s a grant for which you feel your project is competitive but requires a fiscal sponsor to apply and you haven’t even started thinking about that yet. It’s frustrating, stressful, and can cause you to miss out on a promising opportunity, so start researching early. Gotcha. Anything else? Beyond the facts that a.) most grants will only distribute funds to a fiscal sponsor, and b.) allow you to accept tax-deductible donations from individuals, there are several other, less tangible benefits.
  • Credibility. Being sponsored by IFP elevates us to a new level. We have a public profile on their website and a tried and true donation process. You must go through a vetting process to be accepted, and so your project, by default, must’ve met the industry standards. It’s also a nice, professional touch when a donor no longer has to make checks out to you, hand it to you, and watch you pocket it, grinning.
  • Resources. As mentioned above, most sponsorships come with access to a range of mentorship. If you’re with a good sponsor, this means that there will be someone to answer your questions and point you in the direction of further help. Because they have a vested interest in you succeeding, you now have a major player and their institutional knowledge on your side. Many sponsorships also include memberships that give access to exclusive workshops, in-depth case studies, contact lists, and other valuable resources.
  • Motivation. Non-filmmakers, be prepared, this is gonna get geeky: I remember exactly where I was when I found out IFP had picked us up. Austin and I were at our favorite Wilmington Restaurant, a Jamaican place that plays the Bob Marley doc on repeat and has killer oxtail. We were there on the pretense of celebrating the completion of a grant, but really were just reeling from the exertion of it all. When Austin checked our email, though, we suddenly had a very real reason to rejoice. Up to that point, we could have gotten tired and given up with little repercussion, but now it was “real.” While our support from family and friends was and continues to be wonderful, having an institution like IFP, one with a track record for supporting amazingly creative and successful documentary projects, was incredibly affirming. It was exactly what we needed after weeks of hard work and helped stoked the fire that keeps us moving forward.
So, thanks for humoring me and allowing me to believe that, somewhere out there, a few people might be interested in the nitty gritty details of filmmaking. For next time, please feel free to suggest a topic or ask a question about filmmaking and I’ll try my best to address it. - Kim Dryden, co-director of the Filipino Street Art Project