Steve Penny Speaking
Steve Penny Speaking at The American Film Institute

It has been one of the greatest honors of my life to have been asked to speak on HOW TO GET GRANTS TO MAKE FILMS & VIDEO nationwide for The American Film Institute at many of the leading film schools in the country.

The Directors of The National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities Media Programs were my guest speakers when I spoke at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC which has been the greatest validation of this content that it could receive.

Over a period of fifteen years I presented these fundraising techniques to tens of thousands of independent media producers all across America. Their contributions from each of their own personal experiences enabled me to distill the information in this 3 part article far beyond what any single producer could have ever known individually on; 1) Researching funding sources, 2) Applying to foundations, and 3) Budgeting grant funded films and video.

I first became involved in grantsmanship in college when I was selected by my student peers to do a speaking tour for the US State Department in the Middle East and Pakistan. The basis of the funding was that Pakistan had received a lot of foreign aid which had to be paid back – but could be paid in the currency of their country.

Because Pakistan produced very little that America wanted in trade, it was felt that this money may best be spent on cultural exchange programs that makes it harder for extremist groups to stir up blind hatred of Americans if you could meet and talk to US students on a first-hand basis.

This first grant I received essentially gave me a free trip around the world at 21 years of age to speak on Pakistani college campuses, TV and radio. I returned determined to learn film production to be able to make a living traveling with a camera – which at the time was very expensive 16 mm film.

My first grant funded film fresh out of college was THE CAVE PAINTINGS OF THE CHUMASH INDIANS that was funded by the James Irvine Foundation. The film recreates scenes of life 1,000 years ago in California to tell the story of the people who made some of the richest rock art in North America. It was selected for broadcast on PBS, and for decades was one of the most viewed films seen by millions of students in the local Southern California school districts.

I spent a year in Bali shooting THE TRANCE MASKS OF BALI that looks at the link between art and mysticism and the making of the sacred masks used in the trance dances on one of the world’s most exotic islands.

For years the information contained in this article on media fund raising enabled me to be a full-time traveler – which was exactly what I wanted to be doing in my twenties and thirties. Traveling abroad to shoot films. Traveling around the United States teaching at film schools and putting on Ethnographic Film Exhibitions in which I would showcase my own and other producer’s work.

These experiences gave me a very clear view of what the life of an independent film or video producer can be – which can feel like a high wire act going from being hopelessly busy trying to wrap up the last production to wondering where your next job may be coming from!

Remember, it’s never been easier to make compelling film or video productions. But also keep in mind good ideas are a dime a dozen!

It’s the passion and nitty gritty perseverance of taking a good idea and making it real that is what drives most successful producers. And is what separates successful producers from those who may be big on ideas – but weak on the follow through and the marketing knowledge needed for getting their project funded, produced and reaching its audience.

HOW TO GET GRANTS TO MAKE FILMS & VIDEO is intended to give you practical nuts and bolts methods and techniques to keep you on track for successful fundraising to enable you to keep doing what you want to do most – taking your best ideas and making them real!



CloudsResearching Film and Video Funding Sources

There are over 86,000 private foundations registered in the United States. No single online resource or reference book covers the entire field of philanthropy.

Grant programs can often change quickly, making it essential for a film or video grant seeker to do a substantial amount of research; 1) To locate foundations giving in your particular area of interest, 2) To discover everything you can about any foundation that appears to be a good funding prospect, and 3) To follow current trends in philanthropy.

Film and video fund raising research can be done online or by visiting the reference section of a good public library or college grants office.

One of the easiest first steps is to simply do a Google search for: Film Video Grants

Read and study the top results that list many of the most up to date funding sources and deadlines that will give you plenty of leads to begin your search and give you an idea of the breadth of the field.

For decades The Foundation Center has been the leading organization providing information on philanthropy with libraries across the country. In 2019 The Foundation Center joined with GuideStar to become Candid where you can pay a monthly fee to use the online Foundation Directory  that is one of the best single sources of information on the internet. But it costs.

Remember, over 90% of foundations don’t have websites that come up in Google searches. So you usually have to rely on finding information about them from online research sources like the Foundation Directory or the reference books found in a good public library.

For many, the choice may come down to whether you can afford to pay a fee to be able to access the Foundation Directory Online for more background research on the funding sources you identify, or if you have more time than money chose to use the reference books for free in a good public library or grants office of a university.


Clouds SunsetFundraising Reference Books

The following is a list of some of the principal reference books for researching funding sources for film and video projects:

Compiled by The Foundation Center.
Published annually and is valuable for listing recent grants awarded by the larger private foundations. This gives a clear sense of the type of actual grants awarded.

Published by Information Today.
A Guide to Federal, private, business and professional organizations offering ¬grant support

US Superintendent of Documents
Comprehensive listing of the Federal support, eligibility requirements, how to apply, deadlines and legal basis for funds. Published at the beginning each year.

Compiled by Taft Information System.
Known throughout the philanthropy community for the depth of its information it lists information on hundreds of the largest private foundations in the United States, including names and addresses of foundations staff, their background and present activities, and lists of recent grants.

Several guides have been compiled listing foundations and grant programs in an individual state. These are useful for locating regional funding sources.

Many of the larger foundations publish annual reports which can usually be obtained by writing or calling the funding source. When available, an annual report is the best single source of information about a particular foundation, listing recent grants, officers, guidelines, preferred method of contacting the foundation and time of year to apply.


Clouds SunsetHow to Use These Reference Books and Online Resources

Most of these guides have a “How to Use This Book” section. Find it and read it before you dive in!

Your search will usually begin by combing the “Subject” or “Key Words and Phrases” index. Draw up a list of all the subjects your film touches upon. Then find the foundations giving in your particular area of interest.

Learn everything you can about funding sources that look like good prospects. Important items to note include the funding source’s eligibility requirements. Note the size of the foundation, what their high, low and average size grant awarded in a recent year has been.

Are the foundation’s fields of interest broad or narrowly defined? Who has it given money to in the past, and do these organizations share similar goals as your own sponsoring organization? Have they awarded film or video grants in the past?

What is the ratio of applicants to recipients? How does the foundation prefer to receive applicants and at what time of year? Does your film or video project fit into a pattern you can discern from the foundation’s past giving?

Each of these reference books takes a slightly different approach to philanthropy. It’s important to realize that no single guide lists all of the potential funding sources for your project. Even though 90% of the same funding sources may keep turning up over and over again as you go through these different reference books, you will undoubtedly uncover a few new ones or new information about funding sources in each book.

Each of these guides present different information about the foundations or grant programs. For instance, THE FOUNDATION GRANTS INDEX has a listing of grants by recipient. This information can be quite valuable as it permits you to locate organizations that share similar goals as your own sponsoring organization (or are working in an area related to the subject of your film or video) and tells you what foundations have given support for this activity in the past.


Clouds SunsetCompile Files on Any Promising Funding Source

Whenever you find a funding source that looks like a particularly good prospect, start compiling a file by copying all of the pertinent information on that foundation from each source. This will enable you to have at your fingertips all of the printed material available regarding an individual funding source – information that will be quite valuable when it comes time to apply.

As you comb these online services and reference guides you’ll find entries that will make you pause and speculate. A $70,000 grant was given to study the odor given off in perspiration by Australian aborigines, together with an award of $12,000 to build a device to measure that odor.

The Pentagon gave a $500,000 research grant to explore military adaptation of the frisbee. The National Institute of Health gave a $19,000 grant to find out why children fall off tricycles, and a $6,000 grant to study Polish bisexual frogs.

Situations do sometimes occur in grant programs where there is more money to be given away than there are qualified recipients, but generally film and video grants are quite competitive.

Most foundations receive far more worthy projects than they could ever fund. Favorable ratios of applicants to recipients run four or five to one. Large private foundations, such as the Ford Foundation, sometimes have ratios of thirty or forty to one.

It’s important to realize however, that many applicants eliminate themselves by failing to adequately research a funding source before they apply. This prevents them from fully understanding the activities of the granting organization and supplying a proposal that fully meets the foundation’s needs and goals.


Clouds SunsetFoundation IRS Filings

It’s important to remember than many foundations do not appear in any of these published reference books, yet every foundation is required by law to submit Internal Revenue Service Forms 990-AR and 990-PF. These forms are on file at the Foundation Center’s libraries and are sometimes your only source of information on many of the smaller funding sources such as family foundations.

IRS Form 990-AR lists the addresses of foundation mangers, total assets, and a list of grants. On IRS Form 990-PF you will find the address of the foundation, a complete list of grants made that year, gifts received, and a record of financial transactions.

Another good source of information on granting agencies supporting motion picture projects is the credits at the end of educational films and videos. It’s a sad fact of life that the majority of educational films and videos are not money makers. The capital required for their production often comes from non-commercial sources, such as foundations and grant programs. Watch for the credits that read “Made Possible Through a Grant From _________”

Remember that the large Federal Endowments such as NEA ( and NEH ( also have regional and state based organizations which give grants within a specific geographical area.


Clouds SunsetFamily Foundations

There are over 40,000 family foundations in the United States, making grants totaling more than $21.3 billion a year whose activities are largely a matter of the preference of individual family members. One method of researching wealthy individuals supporting activities in your area is to obtain the lists of contributors to local political candidates.

Another way of researching family foundations is by studying large contributors to local charities. Sometimes the only published material available on the activities of family foundations is Internal Revenue Service Forms 990-AR and 990-PF.

Public Broadcasting Stations often list their film and video underwriters in their program guides, which can be another helpful lead for discovering organizations supporting motion picture projects, particularly for corporate donors. The funding activities of corporate funds may be learned by contacting the corporation’s public relations office.

While this article is intended to save you a substantial amount of time by getting you started in the right direction, researching potential funding sources is a lot of hard work. There’s really no easy way around this fact!

What’s more, this type of research is a proverbial bottomless pit. Every time you think you’ve just about covered the field, a little more research will show you how many more funding sources you’ve yet to uncover.

But doing this research is an essential part of good grantsmanship for winning film and video grants. It’s important to know your funding options, and to learn as much as you can about a good funding prospect before you apply. Many applicants disqualify themselves by not doing this essential research. The time you put into research will be reflected in the quality of your film or video proposal and will directly influence your eventual success or failure.


This is part 1 of a 3 part series on How to Get Grants to Make Films & Video

Click here for Part 2 on Applying to Foundations
Click here for Part 3 on Budgeting Grant Funded Films & Video

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