Steve Penny Speaking AFI
Steve Penny speaking on HOW TO GET GRANTS TO MAKE FILMS & VIDEO at The American Film Institute

There are basically two ways you can apply for a grant – as an organization or as an individual. While some foundations accept individual applicants, most only give to non-profit tax-exempt organizations.

There are several funding sources that specialize in funding film and video projects. However, any funding source which considers applications from individuals generally has a very high ratio of applicants to recipients.

Generally speaking, it’s usually much easier to acquire grant funding through a non-profit organization (such as a museum, school or non-profit community media organization) who serves as the recipient for funds and disburses the money to the filmmaker as the project director.


Getting a Non-Profit Organization to Sponsor Your Project

Getting an organization to sponsor your project and be the recipient for grant funds is not as difficult as many independent media artists believe. Provided that you can assure the sponsoring organization that you will execute the project as proposed, your sponsor will benefit from the relationship in several ways.

Part of your proposed film’s budget should include what are referred to as “Indirect costs.” Indirect costs are the expenses incurred in doing the administrative and accounting tasks involved in executing the project.

The figure is commonly arrived at as a percentage of the project’s total budget, usually five to thirty-five percent. So, the sponsoring organization gets cash in the hand if your project is funded, and most non-profit organizations are interested in attracting capital.

Your film will bring recognition to the sponsoring organization with good mention in the credits – and a good film or video can reach a wide audience. What’s more, each time a non-profit organization receives a grant, it usually enhances their chances of acquiring more funding in the future. Getting a non-profit organization to sponsor your project is usually one of the simpler steps involved in obtaining a grant.


Clouds SunsetHow Foundations Work

It is important to understand something of how a foundation operates to understand how to work with one. Grant administrators have the job of giving away large sums of money on the equitable basis possible. They are mostly warm, humanistically oriented people who go to work each day and are faced with piles of applications. Dedicated humanitarians dealing with an inhumane amount of paper work!

Almost every funding source receives far more worthwhile projects than it could ever hope to fund. Grant administrators often comment how one of the most difficult parts of their jobs is dealing with the people who are not funded. Feelings can run from disappointment to antagonism.

Your application must supply the necessary persuasion to convince the foundation staff worker reviewing your proposal that it should be recommended to the board of directors, and in the event it is funded the foundation must be able to defend this decision to those who are not funded.


Clouds SunsetDo the Essential Background Research on the Funding Source

Its essential that you perform the background research on a foundation before any funding sources are contacted. A successful grant blends the mutual needs of the donor with those of the recipient, and you are not in a position to evaluate the needs of a foundation until you do this necessary research.

Focus your efforts on the seven or eight funding sources that appear to be your best prospects. The shotgun approach is not the proper method of working with foundations. It has been estimated that 80% of all correspondence with funding agencies is misdirected.

This wastes the time of the foundation staff as well as the applicant’s. Carefully research the needs and interests of the foundations that appear to be your best prospects and tailor your approach to speak to those needs.


Clouds SunsetIntroductory Cover Letter

Part of your research will reveal how the funding source prefers to be contacted, and at what time of year. Frequently, your first contact takes the form of a brief, one-page introductory cover letter – not to be confused with a formal proposal.

This one-page letter should be on the stationary of your sponsoring organization and tell the funding source who you are and what you would like to do. You should point out what is unique or innovative about your film and why it is needed.

Mention anything special about your sponsoring organization’s accomplishments. Let the foundation know how much you need, and ask if you may send more detailed information. A sample cover letter is included at the end of this chapter.

Its usually a good practice to include with your introductory cover letter a copy of the sponsoring organization’s nonprofit determination letter issued by the Internal Revenue Service. This assures the funding source of your tax-exempt status.

Because this letter is your first contact with the funding source it is sometimes the most important. Keep it short and simple! You must be prepared to communicate concisely on paper to survive the elimination process.

Many people find it difficult to distill their project down to a one paragraph abstract, but one must be considerate of the foundation staff worker’s time and remember yours is only one of hundreds of letters which are being reviewed.

Since you are seeking funds for a motion picture project you must inspire confidence in your communicative ability. If you are long-winded in your presentation, they may rightfully conclude you’ll make a boring film.

Funding sources vary tremendously since they reflect the personalities of the people who run them. There is nothing very standard about how the application process will proceed from there.


Chumash Rock ArtSuccessful Sample Cover Letter




Mrs. Doris Jones
The James Irvine Foundation
500 Newport Center Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660

Dear Mrs. Jones,

Over the course of the last few years the major television networks have carried programs that have dealt specifically with pre-historic art or have included this material in broadcasts on closely related subjects. Several excellent films have been made on the rock art of Europe, Africa and Australia. Yet there is a conspicuous absence of any significant documentary work on the rock paintings of our Native Americans.

Dr. Jamie Green of the Santa Barbara Community Trust suggested I contact the James Irvine Foundation regarding the possible funding of a proposed documentary film entitled THE CAVE PAINTINGS OF THE CHUMASH INDIANS. This project is sponsored by the Southwest Museum, the oldest anthropological museum in California. The Museum will be the recipient for funds and will oversee the film’s production.

The Chumash once lived in an area that is now part of Southern California and left hundreds of unusual rock paintings in the caves of their homeland. This film will include: An historical background of the Chumash Indians, the attempts made by experts to decipher the true meaning of these remarkable paintings, investigative field work conducted by archaeologists to locate rock art sites and their methods of dating Chumash Art, common styles and motifs found in Chumash paintings, and the senseless vandalism that is rapidly destroying this legacy of prehistoric art.

The film concludes with an appeal to Government agencies to take the necessary steps to preserve these exceptional examples of American Rock Art and provide for public access with adequate supervision. Measures such as these are standard practice in Europe and other parts of the world where native rock art enjoys widespread appreciation. In this country however, the absence of documentary work on Native American Rock Art has prevented the recognition these works deserve, and require if their existence is to continue.

This proposed film has received endorsements from the foremost authorities on Chumash Rock Art including Campbell Grant as well as support from the television media.

Is this a project the James Irvine Foundation would like to support? The estimated cost of this production is $17,500. May we send you more detailed information, including a copy of THE CAVE PAINTINGS OF THE CHUMASH INDIANS script?

We hope to hear from you in the near future.

With Warm Regards,

Steve Penny

Steve Penny, Project Director


Chumash Boat WomanThis letter was the first contact with the James Irvine Foundation that successfully funded THE CAVE PAINTINGS OF THE CHUMASH INDIANS.  It went on to become one of the most seen films in the  schools of the Chumash homeland being viewed by millions of students as the primary introduction to Southern California Native American heritage and led to various measures to help protect the paintings and spread appreciation for them without revealing their location.


Clouds SunsetPreparing and Submitting Your Proposal

Only 5% of the foundations have a full-time staff, so what happens next after you send your introductory cover letter can vary greatly between funding sources. Your letter may sit on the floor of a foundation suite for a few months waiting for someone to answer the mail. You may receive a response graciously declining your offer to send more detailed information, so don’t apply to only one foundation at a time.

If you are on target the funding source will ask for a detailed proposal. This is generally the time to get on the telephone and begin establishing a personal rapport with the foundation staff.

You want to be sure you are supplying the funding agency with exactly what they need to evaluate your proposal. An inability to supply the foundation with the needed information tells them you probably don’t have the organizational capability to execute the project.

If you are applying to a federal agency your proposal will generally be on a standard application form with blank spaces and categories to be completed. Some federal agencies like to work with the applicant in the development of the proposal and will ask you to submit a preliminary proposal before a formal application is submitted.

Private foundations on the other hand, vary tremendously in the information required from their applicants. Although your proposal will vary with different funding sources it will inevitably contain certain elements.

Perhaps the single most important section is the project summary or abstract which is usually the first paragraph of your proposal. Several people will review different sections of your proposal during the application process.

Certain staff members will be responsible for checking the budget, others will scrutinize the content of your script or treatment. But the abstract is the one section of your proposal that will be read by everyone. It summarizes the essential aspects of your project and is a crucial element of a successful proposal.


Clouds SunsetCrucial Questions Your Proposal Must Answer

Your application will be evaluated on its ability to answer the following questions:

1) What is the purpose of your film?
2) Why is it needed?
3) Who is the intended audience?
4) How will the completed work reach that audience?
5) How successfully does the script or treatment address the film’s communicative objective?
6) What non-profit organization sponsors this project and will serve as the recipient for funds?
7) What is the nature and reputation of your sponsoring organization?
8) How is the project director qualified to undertake this project?
9) What important individuals have endorsed this project?
10) How much will the film or video cost?
11) Has the budget been prepared accurately and realistically?
12) What type of support has the project received to date, both in the form of financial contributions and contributions of time and services?
13) What is the likelihood of the film receiving support from other funding sources in the future?

Good grantsmanship to a great extent is good salesmanship. It’s essential to understand the needs and goals of your prospective funding source if your application is to have a truly effective statement of need.

Keep in mind that the foundation staff are experienced proposal readers. Don’t exaggerate the benefits of your project or you’ll appear to be intellectually dishonest.

No film or video is of any value unless it reaches its intended audience. The more specific you can be in defining your film’s audience and how the completed work will reach that audience, the stronger your proposal will be. If you can get a letter from your distributor or a television station stating an interest in your project, it will help demonstrate that the film will be viewed by a wide audience.

Generally, a script or treatment will accompany your proposal. Scripts take many forms in the film and video industry. Remember the foundation staff reviewer will not be a professional cinematographer so keep the script simple enough to be easily understood by the average layman. For example, most filmmakers know that a POV shot stands for point-of-view shot but this is not an abbreviation used by the general public and so should be avoided as jargon.


Sunset cloudsYour Sponsoring Organization’s Reputation Can Make or Break a Project

It is not unusual for a project to be funded on the basis of the sponsoring organization’s name and reputation rather than on the merits of a particular project. As was mentioned earlier, foundations are constantly having to justify their funding decisions to the majority of their applicants who are not funded.

For this reason, many granting agencies tend to make non-controversial funding decisions, supporting established organizations whose accomplishments are widely recognized in the field. Whether or not you receive grant support will often hinge on the reputation and past activities of your sponsoring organization.

What establishes the credibility of a non-profit organization in the eyes of a funding source? This varies tremendously with different foundations.

Generally, the sponsoring organization will be scrutinized in terms of how long it has been in existence, what its total operating budget is, what types of services and community outreach programs it offers, and how effectively it has used grant funds in the past. It’s important to research the types of organizations your prospective funding source has supported to see if these organizations share similar activities and goals as your own.

Some foundations tend to support newly formed organizations but this is the exception rather than the rule. Establishing a non-profit organization for the specific purpose of executing a film project is sometimes a successful funding strategy for family foundations but generally not for private foundations giving on a national level or federal agencies.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) stipulates that no organization is eligible for support which has been in existence for less than one year. It further stipulates that if the total amount requested from NEA represents a substantial portion of the organization’s total fiscal activity, the request will not be granted.

The project director’s resume as well as the resumes of any other key individuals working on the project should be included in the proposal. In most instances you will be asked to submit examples of previous motion picture work. A few production stills along with your resume will help the reviewer visualize your work as they read your printed material.

Endorsements from experts in the field can be a great asset. They will make or break an application to a funding source such as the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) which stipulates applicants must show the involvement of scholars in the development of the project.

Every proposal submitted to NEH must be approved by a committee of film experts as well as a committee of humanities scholars. It’s not unusual for an application to be approved by the film experts but fail to win the support of the academic panel due to the lack of endorsement of a particular scholar in the field. Because many funding sources shy away from making controversial decisions, letters of endorsement help assure the funding source of your credibility.

While some foundations give personal interviews, in many instances cold print alone must sell your project. Make your words your best!


Clouds SunsetBegin Preparation Well in Advance of Grant Deadline

Begin writing your proposal well in advance of the application deadline so you’ll have time to remove yourself from what you’ve written. Put it aside for a couple weeks to see if what you thought you wrote was actually communicated. Have your friends read your proposal and be prepared to rewrite it. You must be prepared to communicate effectively on paper to survive the grant selection process. If you are not a strong writer get the help of someone who is.

The importance of establishing a personal rapport with the foundation staff while you are preparing your proposal cannot be over emphasized. They can usually give you a great deal of assistance in making sure all of the important elements are in order. Frequently you can submit your proposal a couple of months before the deadline and ask that it be reviewed to see if anything is missing or if certain sections should be rewritten.

There is another more subtle advantage to getting your proposal in well in advance of the application deadline. Proposals are often assigned a review number by the foundation staff with the proposals received earliest being reviewed first. Probably ninety percent of all grant applicants wait until the last minute and prepare their proposals in a desperate effort just before the application deadline. Foundation staff are humans too, and it’s not unusual for the proposals to be reviewed the night before the foundation board meets to make the final funding decisions. If you get your application in early, it stands a better chance of being read first while the staff reviewer is still fresh!

Although the ratio of applicants to recipients for many foundations is very high, a surprisingly high number of applicants disqualify themselves. Many grant applicants spend a great deal of time concentrating on their own needs in their in their proposals and fail to fully understand the needs and interests of the funding sources. Never forget that a good grantsman will make communication with the funding source as simple for the foundation staff as possible.


This is Part 2 of a 3 part series on How to Get Grants to Make Films & Video

Click here for Part 1 on Researching Funding Sources
Click here for Part 3 on Budgeting Grant Funded Films

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