Funding Documentaries to Drive Policy Change

Ethan McCoy

If you watched the Oscars on Sunday night — or if you have been on the internet since — you’ve likely by now seen or heard about Lady Gaga’s striking performance of “Til It Happens to You,” her Oscar-nominated song from the film, The Hunting Ground. The performance of the song, which speaks out about the trauma of sexual assault, was powerful, memorable, and brave — Gaga herself is a survivor. Prior to the performance, Gaga was introduced by Vice President Joe Biden, who recited and implored the audience to join the “It’s On Us” pledge to stop sexual assault. Toward the end of the song, Gaga was joined on stage by survivors of sexual assault with messages written on their forearms. All joined hands before receiving a standing ovation from the Dolby Theatre.

The Hunting Ground is a documentary from filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick that investigates sexual assault on college campuses. It premiered at Sundance last year and was recently broadcast for the first time on a large national platform on CNN’s Sunday night lineup. The film, which CEP showed at our 2015 conference in San Francisco, has been screened on campuses around the country, and already we are beginning to see actions taken by those in power in response. Senators Kirsten Gillebrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri cosponsored a campus sexual assault bill, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo hosted a screening and cited the film in his legislative push to curb sexual assault in his state. And now, the VP and one of the world’s most influential entertainers took the issue to the main stage in front of more than 30 million viewers.

The Hunting Ground is just one of several examples of the capacity of documentary film to effectively bring important — and too often overlooked — issues to the fore. A few weeks ago, my CEP colleague Ellie Buteau and I hopped on the phone with Vince Stehle, a member of CEP’s Board of Directors and executive director of Media Impact Funders, an affinity group for grantmakers working with and funding media and technology initiatives to create positive social change. Ellie and I are both fans of documentaries, and can point to ones that have moved us, educated us, and changed the ways we look at the world. Knowing about Vince’s work, we were interested in learning more about how documentaries can influence and bring about real change, and what foundations are doing — and can do more of — to be involved in this field. From our conversation with Vince, I came away with a far deeper understanding of the ways that film can lead to impact — and the role that funders are increasingly playing in spurring that impact on.

Funding for a film’s production and promotion comes from a mix of media companies, individuals, and — increasingly — institutional grantmaking. According to grantmaking data compiled by Media Impact Funders and the Foundation Center, from 2009-2013 nearly 1,500 U.S. funders made 7,985 grants totaling $535.8 million to more than 2,000 grantees working on film and video initiatives. Of that, grants made to documentary films totaled more than $95 million.

Largely, funders choose not to support film solely for artistic sake, but rather have an interest in engaging with specific projects addressing the important social issues they work on through their grantmaking. On the surface, financial support for a film may not appear to be as directly connected to impact as grants to programs on the ground. But film is a uniquely powerful medium through which to engage and motivate an audience, and there is a growing body of work about finding ways to demonstrate the impact of media. (There is no gold standard yet, but Media Impact Funders has a helpful page of resources on this area on its website.)

Films are uniquely effective in that they can reach people in the head and the heart in ways that, say, a report cannot. This of course seems obvious, but it bears repeating. When a filmmaker expertly tells a story and brings a message to life, the result can be emotionally forceful, educational, and inspiring.

And as film becomes a more multi-platform experience, documentaries are becoming even more powerful vessels for change in new ways. Take When I Walk, for example, a film from Jason DaSilva which conveys the challenges of his life living with Multiple Sclerosis, while also spreading awareness about a technological tool he developed that maps and rates handicap-accessible locations around the world. Following the release of the film, which received foundation funding, DaSilva has been involved in policy discussions about using this technology to make communities more accessible.

Perhaps the most powerful example of the ways in which documentary film can influence policy debate and lead to real change is Ziering’s and Dick’s previous film, 2012’s The Invisible War. The film investigates the sexual assault epidemic in the military, uncovering the sobering extent of an entrenched issue of which too many Americans are unaware. Through interviews with victims, advocates, and mental health experts, the film uncovers a widespread and systematic problem in which perpetrators are under-prosecuted and victims are neither provided justice nor the support systems necessary given their emotional and physical trauma.

Ziering and Dick created the film with the specific goal of changing policy, and as such explicitly identified policymakers as a target audience. Working with the networks of the film’s funders, they were able to arrange targeted advanced screenings of the film with various policymakers within Congress, the Pentagon, and the Department of Defense.

This approach led immediately to action. Within two days of viewing the film, then Secretary of Defense Leon Pannetta announced he was issuing a direct administrative order to change the military’s policies on dealing with cases of sexual assault. After that, the House Armed Services Committee held its first hearing on the issue in two decades, Senator Gillibrand held a hearing in the Senate and later introduced legislation, and President Obama spoke out about the issue. Additionally, Ziering and Dick have licensed the film to be used as a training tool at military bases both domestically and abroad.

In cases like The Invisible War, The Hunting Ground, and When I Walk, documentaries are not only educating and entertaining audiences, but are reaching and engaging policymakers to make real change to improve lives. Looking at examples like these should inspire funders to consider more opportunities to become involved with film projects dealing with the important social issues they are working on through other avenues.

And meaningful support for a film doesn’t necessarily have to come from scratch. Philanthropic funding for film predominantly goes to production, but there is significant space for funders to support projects that are already underway so as to assist with the important dissemination work required to help films realize their potential. Funding for outreach activities can be pivotal to a film’s ability to create impact, and this is an area in which foundations’ capital and networks could be vital.

Perhaps on no one issue could this type of support be more needed than with climate change. In a fantastic column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy last year, David Fenton pointed out how many in philanthropy have identified climate change as the largest issue the world faces. Yet, funding is going predominantly toward narrow policy solutions and not toward shaping a debate that will create the necessary pressures for change, while at the same time powerful and skilled marketers at fossil fuel companies obfuscate the realities we face and mainstream media focuses its attention elsewhere.

“Foundations are not helpless when it comes to tackling these problems,” Fenton writes. “But they need to start making the modern use of communications a priority in their philanthropic support. Foundations and nonprofits have spent enough on developing public policy. It is time to create policy demand by convincing target audiences of the truth: We face a crisis, and time is running out.”

One of the best media for communicating persuasively the grave realities of the danger climate change poses is documentary film. And many filmmakers in this space are doing incredible work. Racing Extinction, a film by Louie Psihoyos, the Oscar-winning director of The Cove, premiered at Sundance last year, and Discovery Channel and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions partnered for a creative release tactic last December during the Paris Climate Accords (Read more about this in this great Philanthropy column from Vince). And at this year’s Sundance in January, filmmaker Josh Fox debuted How to Let Go of the World, which builds off his previous Gasland films about fracking to take on the broader global challenge of climate change. Using the film as an organizing platform, Fox is currently “on tour,” traveling to more than 100 towns with connections to the fossil fuel industry to screen the film and engage communities in discussions about their environmental health.

After listening to Vince and looking at the powerful messages of all these documentaries — and the ways in which those behind them are working to ensure that those messages are actionable — the singular ability of film to inspire social change cannot be overlooked.  From performances at the Oscars to screenings with Cabinet members, film is playing an important role in taking on some of the toughest problems society faces — the same problems toward which foundations are working tirelessly to find solutions.

 Ethan McCoy is writer – development and communications at CEP. Contact him at

communications, grantmaking
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