Party Like a Doc Star
Tips on coordinating a successful fundraising partyAugust 1st, 2008 | Erica Ginsberg
Filmmakers increasingly need to seek funds from as many sources as possible. A fundraising party may seem like a fun way to raise much-needed dough, but they are a lot of work. Still, securing the right host, making a personal connection to the guests, and laying the groundwork for future "asks" can have pay-offs far beyond the money raised at the event. Parties can build the community your film needs to get to the next step.
I recently talked to fundraising expert Morrie Warshawski, whose book The Fundraising Houseparty: How to Party With a Purpose and Raise Money for Your Cause, is now out in its second edition and includes new sample invitations, new tips on making use of the Internet for the party, and a brainstorming worksheet to help filmmakers identify potential new partners and hosts. Warshawski is also the author of Shaking The Money Tree: How To Get Grants And Donations For Film And Video -- 2nd Edition and speaks regularly about fundraising and career issues for independent filmmakers.
I also spoke with filmmakers Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar who successfully raised funds through parties for their 2007 film, Made in L.A. about the labor struggles of immigrant garment workers in Los Angeles. The film screened on the PBS series P.O.V., is continuing to play festival and community screenings around the world, and has been nominated for an Emmy. Also providing insights fresh from the experience of his first fundraising houseparty is first-time producer/director Christopher Wong. He is in the process of raising funds for his film Whatever It Takes about a year in the life of an urban high school whose staff is determined to protect their kids from falling through the cracks.
At what point in the process of making a film should one consider holding fundraising parties? Do you need to already have a trailer? A fiscal sponsor? Money raised from other sources?
Morrie Warshawski: I would consider it as soon as I have an idea for a film. You can throw a party at any point along the process from idea, through production, post-production, and even during the distribution phase.
Almudena Carracedo: You almost definitely need a respected fiscal sponsor. People prefer to be able to make tax-deductible donations, and they will feel more secure donating to a fiscal sponsor that guarantees that the funds will be spent in the project in a professional manner. We were honored to be able to work with Women Make Movies on Made in L.A.
Morrie Warshawski: You don’t absolutely need to have a trailer, but these parties work much better if you can show a strong, engaging trailer that is a portion of the film you plan to make.
Robert Bahar: I suppose some filmmakers might be able to hold an event without a trailer, but we always felt that a trailer was essential. Screening and discussing the trailer gives the event a focal point; it helps the audience connect emotionally to the film, and it demonstrates that you really are doing what you say you are doing.
Morrie Warshawski: If you’re throwing the party early in your process, you might be trying to raise enough funds to shoot your trailer. In this case, you’ll need to be creative and present something else -- slides, clips from previous work, subjects of the film who come in to give personal testimonials, or do a script reading.
Almudena Carracedo: Even though it always helps to have previously raised some funds, it is probably not a necessity in a fundraiser. People are going to support you because they believe in your cause, that you're making something valuable, and that you have the capacity to finish it. The more you can use the event to make the case that "this film needs to be made" and "this film is important, urgent, and new" the more persuasive you'll be.
Morrie Warshawski: It always helps to be able to say that other people have already given you some support, but this is not a requirement. Remember that some people want to be known as the risk-takers who jumped on the wagon first. But it does help a party if you can have someone commit to matching gifts that night.
How would you compare fundraising through parties to fundraising through grants? Are the potential rewards worth the effort?
Morrie Warshawski: Oh my -- this is a big question! There is a world of difference between these two avenues of fundraising -- in fact, they are two opposite ends of the fundraising spectrum. Fundraising through grants involves an intensive period of research, followed by making contact with a funder, then the creation of an extensive written proposal that might be supplemented with ancillary materials. The whole process of researching, applying for and then hearing about a grant can take many months. And, because the competition for grant dollars is so intense, the odds are stacked against you, so you receive many more rejections than awards. When you do get a grant, however, you’re likely to land something in the mid to high five-figure range of support.
Robert Bahar: In comparison to applying for a comparably sized grant, in this case you have control of how much money you'll raise, and there is virtually zero chance that you'll end up empty handed. With a grant, the odds are probably 80 or 90 percent that you'll be rejected. Of course, sometimes small grants open doors to bigger grants from the same funder, and there's no one right choice. Most projects will use a number of fundraising methods across their lifespan.
Christopher Wong: Raising money through a houseparty is such a different feel from going through a foundation or a film organization. The level of personal interaction is so much more crucial with a houseparty. In addition, the appeal one makes is much more raw, and less reasoned that with a written proposal. The other major difference is that one gets the money immediately at a fundraiser, instead of having to go through four to six months of deliberation.
Morrie Warshawski: With a houseparty, everything is much faster. You only need about six weeks lead time. It’s much more personal. You work with a group of people. There is little research involved. You don’t have to write a proposal. And, if you do it right, you can pretty much guarantee you will get money that night, though the amounts will be more modest. Whether the rewards are worth the effort depends very much on the nature of the project, how fast and how much money is needed, and the personality of the filmmaker.
So take me a little bit through the process. Let’s say I wanted to have a fundraising party for my film. Should I put together a big public soiree or can I really raise funds with just a small home-based event?
Almudena Carracedo: We've had several fundraisers. One was a concert. The other ones were houseparties. All of our events brought in the same level of donors, but they were in different communities, either geographically, or in different networks around Los Angeles. I think you want to create an event where people feel that have been invited to something special. Even if 100 people show up, you don't want it to feel "public" per se. Rather, you want people to feel that they received a special invitation and that the event is being hosted by people that they respect in their community.
Morrie Warshawski: I am a big fan of the smaller houseparty as opposed to the large, public fundraising special event. With a large special event, it is possible to make some money, but it is highly likely that you might actually lose money in one of two ways. One obvious way is that the event actually costs you more than you paid for it. But a more insidious and invisible way you lose money is that you don’t get as much from each person as you could or should. For instance, if you charge a $50 admission to a benefit screening, the donor feels they’ve made their contribution and you can’t ask them for more money that evening (unless you’re conducting an auction where they feel they are “buying” something). But if that same donor was worth and could afford a $500 donation, you just lost $450! The beauty of the houseparty is that when people make a donation it’s at the level they’re most comfortable with, and that’s usually quite a bit more than the price of a special event admission fee.
Is it typical to have only one party for a film or to hold several parties at different stages of production or with different types of funders (such as one for people who could afford to donate $50 or $100 separate from one for people who could afford to donate in the four- or five- figures)?
Morrie Warshawski: It is very unusual to hold only one party for a film. Usually you are holding a number of parties, sometimes in a number of different cities. Part of the strategy for a houseparty is to keep the invitees homogeneous and not heterogeneous -- you want to invite donors of modest means to one party, major donors to a separate party and not mix the two up. This makes a big difference in how much you will ask for and get at each event. Talk to the host and set a goal that is reasonable -- or a slight stretch -- for the worth of the people being invited and for the number you hope will attend. This means your realistic goal will be different for every party you throw. It’s pretty common for modest parties to bring in $3,000-$7,000. I’ve received notes from filmmakers in the past six months that said their parties netted anywhere from $12,000-$23,000 in one night. I also know of parties that have brought in as much as $120,000 and as little as a few hundred dollars.
Christopher Wong: I just had my first fundraising party in New York and plan to have at least two other fundraising parties in the near future -- one in Los Angeles and one in Boston.
So what is a realistic goal for most films to make from a fundraising party?
Robert Bahar: A houseparty is worthwhile if you set a fundraising goal that you are happy with, and if you really put in the forethought and effort to achieve that goal. In our experience, successful events yielded at least $8,000-$10,000, given the audience that we were fundraising from. It really depends on the community that you're reaching out to. Since Made in L.A. is about immigrant labor issues in Los Angeles, it was natural for us to reach out to labor, social justice and activist communities in L.A. And in reality, we were already working with those communities in the making of the film so it wasn't hard to find them!
Christopher Wong: I thought I would be able to raise $10,000 at the New York fundraiser. That night we only raised $4,000. But there were some potential donors who couldn’t make it at the last minute. I stayed in New York for a few additional days and met with some who had been invited, but couldn’t make it that night. Since these were people with whom I had a prior friendship or acquaintance, I took advantage of the opportunity to invite them to lunch or coffee. Because they had already received the invitation, most people were open to just meeting one-on-one. I managed to raise another $4,000-$5,000 from these follow-up meetings.
You bring up an important point about people already receiving the invitation, so there were no surprises that you would be asking them to donate. But for the party itself, what is the most diplomatic but direct way of conveying this in a written invitation, so guests are not surprised when they are being hit up for money?
Morrie Warshawski: You have to make it very clear that people are going to be asked for money at the houseparty. This is very important. You never ever want to blindside invitees who think they are coming to a “party” and then find out they are being asked for money. Your invitation will always include an RSVP card, and that card allows people to make a donation even if they can’t come, so that is signal enough that the event is about fundraising. You could say things like “You are invited to a celebration and fundraising event….” or “Please join us for a benefit for….” I even saw an invite once that said “… and don’t forget to bring your checkbook and/or credit card!” My book has other examples.
Realize that being upfront about the fundraising purpose of the party is going to discourage lots of people from attending, which is why you must invite three or four times as many people as you would like to show up. But, that is one of the wonderful “self correcting” aspects of the houseparty. Many people will say “no thanks,” but the rest that do show up know what they are in for and come to the party ready to be asked and to make a donation.
Almudena Carracedo: It's very important that the invitation be clear that the event is a fundraiser. We suggest including phrases like these in the invitation:
You are invited to a garden party to introduce you to the film...
All proceeds will benefit the completion of this film.
Your support is crucial to bring this story to light.
Suggested donation: XX No one will be turned away for lack of funds!
Your donation is tax deductible.
Christopher Wong: For the New York fundraiser, I made a list of everyone whom I knew in the city. Then I mentally calculated what each person could potentially give. Next, I determined if the individuals would mesh well in a group setting (or if some of the individuals would best be approached separately). Once I had a good list, I sent an invitation to each guest, clearly stating that this party was for fundraising purposes. The invitation was sent one month in advance, with a reminder sent one week previous.
If going with the model of having the party hosted at a home, how does a filmmaker approach a potential host if it's not already someone with whom you have an existing relationship?
Morrie Warshawski: First, let me say that I would always have the party at someone’s home -- never in any other venue. The ideal host is someone who already knows you and your project and who has already made a donation, or will guarantee to make a donation at the party. Never work with a host who will not make a cash donation. Generally you can find new hosts for more parties every time you throw a party. It’s very difficult to “cold call” and nab a host. Better to work within the circle of people you know personally and their connections, people who have already made a contribution, or people/organizations that you are fairly certain will want to be involved once you meet with them. I would always make the houseparty one of many options for involvement with your project (in your written materials, on your website, and in conversations).
Christopher Wong: I picked the host based on two factors: 1) who
had a place that was both big enough and nice enough; and 2) who had other
friends that they could invite (in addition to my own invites).
I arranged for someone who was really passionate about the project to give
an intro for the evening.
And the actual “ask” for money. Who should do that? The filmmaker(s) or someone else?
Morrie Warshawski: Never the filmmakers! -- which is one more lovely aspect of the houseparty that filmmakers should appreciate. My rule is that the person who makes the ask is a “peer” -- someone who is personally known and respected by most attendees, and is from the same social circle. This could be the host, if the host wants to make the ask, or more usually someone else that you and the host will identify before the party.
Robert Bahar: An “ask” actually happens at three points in the process. First you invite people to be hosts, sponsors, co-sponsors, etc., and to be listed in the invitation. This would entail a commitment to "give or raise" a certain amount, for example $500, $250, $100 respectively. These invitations to host, sponsor, etc., might come from the filmmaker, or they might come from the person who is hosting the party. They might also come from an influential person in the community. Then you might ask for donations at the door. We normally asked for $35 with lower amounts suggested for students and couples. Usually a volunteer can handle a table positioned near the entrance. Then you can do a direct "ask" after screening the trailer, when people have a deeper understanding of who you are and what you're doing. It's better if someone else can do this on the filmmaker's behalf, as they can be more of a cheerleader for the project. Again, if this person is a respected figure in the community, that helps give people confidence, especially if they're not familiar with the filmmaker or with the filmmaker's previous work.
Christopher Wong: I have one friend in New York who is a really large donor, and I asked him if he would do the “ask.” However, this person wanted to remain anonymous, so I ended up doing the “ask” myself. Not the ideal situation because I still am finding it hard to get used to requesting money from friends. But I try to convince myself that there is no reason to apologize for asking for money, since I really believe that my project deserves their support.
If the host is someone who has not done something similar before, what are some recommendations a filmmaker might make to him/her to do the "ask"?
Morrie Warshawski: Of course, my first recommendation would be to give the host a copy of my book and tell them to read it cover-to-cover to get comfortable with the whole process. I would say to the host, that you hope they will want to make the “ask,” but if they’re not comfortable with that, it’s okay and you two will just have to find another “peer” to do the job. With either scenario, I would definitely role-play the ask before the event. In my book, I have a sample script that can be used for the “ask.” You might help create one for your host or peer. Basically, tell them to speak from the heart, make a very direct ask to everyone to give that night, mention how much you want to raise that night and what the money will go for, and thank everyone for coming.
Almudena Carracedo: Above all, the asker needs to be bold and direct in asking for funds. Of course they should be polite and diplomatic, but they can't afford to be shy. We had one person who took a wonderful comical approach. He very directly encouraged the audience "Filmmaking is expensive! These filmmakers need money! Who can give these filmmakers money?" He then asked us to explain all the things that filmmakers have to spend money on! That approach wouldn't work in every setting, but it can certainly break the ice for the right group.
Should donors be given something in return for giving at a certain level?
Morrie Warshawski: The rule is, if the donor typically likes to get something in return for their donation, give them something! That means you need to know something about your potential donors before you make the “ask.” Some donors want nothing, they like to remain “anonymous.” For others there are a whole range of options that are only limited by your imagination (and budget), including: credits large and small on-screen (btw, I would give everyone who donates, no matter the size of the contribution, an onscreen credit of some size -- there is no downside to doing this); invites to preview screenings and cast parties; opportunity to watch production and meet the crew; “tchochkie” items like t-shirts, hats, posters, copies of the DVD. It’s so important that you say “thank you” to everyone who gives support, and that you keep them informed regularly on the progress of the project.
Almudena Carracedo: First and foremost, the event itself should be a great experience for everyone and it should bring together a community of people who are looking for an opportunity to come together or who like to come together anyway. People should engage in a discussion, and if you can have a special guest speaker or if one of the characters in the film can be there, that will make everyone happy.
Robert Bahar: We offered credits to people who donated more than a certain amount, but of course ultimately crediting may be governed by a particular broadcaster's crediting regulations, so you need to be careful not to promise something that you can't deliver. We steered away from offering anything concrete, although t-shirts and hats might be a good idea. Do give people postcards that they can take with them and that include your website. We've heard of some people pre-selling the DVD. The only caveats are, again, to be careful not to promise something that might not happen, and be careful because there are specific IRS rules about charitable donations: generally if you receive something in exchange for a donation, your donation may not be fully tax-deductible. A good fiscal sponsor can help guide filmmakers through this process. You also want to be sure to add people to your email list and to send them occasional updates, so they feel that you remember them, and that they are part of a community around the film.
Almudena Carracedo: This is an important point. The ideal event will have several objectives beyond simply fundraising. You are truly building your audience and a houseparty is a beautiful way to connect to your core audience and to "get out of the filmmaking cave." In our case, there was a time when we were not yet getting much funding from grants or foundations, and these events helped us tremendously emotionally. When someone comes to you crying and hugs you, and says: "You must complete this film," that really pushes you forward and reminds you of why you started the process in the first place, of the bigger picture of why the film is important, and of why your struggle is worthwhile.
While social issue films may seem to be the easiest to do this kind of fundraising (since you can identify people who are already committed to the cause), how would a filmmaker approach things differently for a film which is not about a social issue? A personal film or an experimental documentary, for example.
Robert Bahar: We think that this might be harder, but the key issue is finding a core audience -- people who are deeply committed to the film being completed. In the case of an issue, that is likely to mean people who are already passionately involved with the issue or with related issues. In the case of a personal film you might need to reach out to people who really are committed to that filmmaker as a person, to that filmmaker's story, or to themes that might be brought out through that story.
Morrie Warshawski: What makes social issue films easier to fundraise for is not the fact that you can readily identify their supporters, but rather that their cause is much easier to articulate in a compelling way that moves people emotionally and intellectually. If you’re asking for donations (as opposed to investments) for a documentary about saving the environment as opposed to a short personal narrative about your relationship with your first pet dog -- well you can see the difference. You can do houseparties for quirky, personal work but the range of potential supporters will be smaller than for a social issue doc. Typically, you’ll have hosts who are close friends or relatives. Invitees will already be known to you, or will be attracted to the subject matter of the film, to the locale where you are shooting, or to its format. These parties can work well if you can present a clip that really moves people and gets them excited about the project.
It seems that, no matter the film, the key to effective houseparty fundraising is to build on existing relationships...
Almudena Carracedo: Yes, very much so. Our relationships with our donors were built up over many years. We made a big effort to make everyone feel that they were an essential part of our process and that we were building and maintaining a community around the film. The events themselves were beautiful and provided the opportunity for everyone to meet us -- "the filmmakers" -- and to meet characters in the film. As a result, the events were really special, and we still remember how beautiful they were! The discussions after screening the trailer were also really illuminating, and we actually listened to people's feedback and got a lot of good ideas that helped us to improve the film! I think that's the trick. You follow through and you make it a two-way, symbiotic relationship. This requires building real trust, asking real questions, and being open to hearing responses that might not be what you were expecting.
Robert Bahar: This also, of course, means that you are actually seeking out potential donors who really are deeply invested and interested in seeing your film completed. You might impress them with your subject, your characters or story, your art, your passion, or even your personality. But the bottom line is that you are looking to create a long term relationship and that you hope that people will want to follow the project along its whole journey. Ideally, they'll be so happy that they'll be ready to host a houseparty when you start your next project!
This article originally appeared in the Docs In Progress newsletter and has been reprinted by permission of the author. Docs In Progress™ is a 501(c)3 non-profit arts organization dedicated to empowering independent documentary filmmakers to make better films by giving them the tools to foster an improve their storytelling skills in all stages of the filmmaking process.