Finding funds: Oakland's Pamela Harris and Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media are connecting media makers with financial resources.

Pamela Harris, GFEM, and Filmmaker Funding

Michael Fox December 22, 2008

Here’s a bolt of good news for filmmakers and media arts groups reeling from the spiraling economic reports. This month, Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media ( launched the GFEM Media Database. This key component of the membership organization’s Web site is designed to provide foundations and government funders with an easy-to-navigate inventory of high-level projects in their spheres of interest and influence. It’s not open to every filmmaker, however. I got the big picture from Oakland-based program director Pamela Harris via email.

SF360: What is your relationship with the media world?

Pamela Harris: I have been involved in the documentary community in the S.F. Bay Area since 2000. I’ve worked on other people’s films and my own. I’ve always been involved in public-interest projects, whether in media or social services. My work with GFEM is definitely a natural progression of my personal and professional experiences.

[Per the bio she attached, Harris most recently produced and directed the short documentary Land of Promise: The Story of Allensworth, about a historically black California town threatened with encroaching agribusiness. She co-directed the PBS documentary Waging a Living and oversaw educational outreach and engagement for the Oscar nominee Long Night’s Journey into Day. Before she segued to filmmaking, Harris was an administrator, development professional, program director, and counselor in the non-profit sector; her work encompassed physically and developmentally disabled adults, affordable housing, low-income artists, and rape survivors. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism with a focus in documentary film from U.C. Berkeley.]

SF360: How did you arrive at the idea for the database? Was there a moment of inspiration?

Harris: The idea for the database came from our board chair David Haas. He is a long-time, passionate advocate of public-interest media. He saw that there are funders out there who want to fund media but aren’t set up to do it—for instance, just finding projects is a big job. They may be funding a particular program area, such as children’s health care or conflict resolution or any of a number of pressing social concerns. And they know that media has the power to move their issue, to inspire and to inform in potent ways, but they don’t have the resources on hand to find media projects. This is where the GFEM Media Database comes in. It helps funders find projects that fit their program areas. We want to involve all kinds of funders in media funding, including those who don’t traditionally see themselves as media funders. We want to expand the field and enrich the offerings.

I want to add that the database is designed to accept a broad array of project types—films, radio, interactive content, media policy, and media infrastructure projects. This is in keeping with our mission to support the entire media field, from content creation to ensuring broad access to that content.

SF360: GFEM is located in Baltimore, according to the Web site, but you’re based here.

Harris: GFEM is a ‘virtual shop’ and our staff is based throughout the country. My colleague Jeff Perlstein and I are based here in Oakland. Our executive director, Alyce Myatt, is in Baltimore and our colleague Joy N. Moore is in Washington, D.C.

SF360: I see that the database only accepts projects that have a foundation or government funder already attached. Rather than operate as a clearinghouse of every potential work out there, it seems designed to cull the wheat from the chaff. This might be viewed as exclusionary or elitist, or is it simply realistic if funders are to be interested?

Harris: The GFEM Media Database is a bridge between media projects and funders. We want the site to be a valuable service to funders, a destination where they will find great projects. In order to get funders to come, we need to have quality projects. We are a tiny staff and just don’t have the resources to go through a deep or lengthy review process with each proposal that comes in.

The one-funder rule is designed to convey to potential funders that one of their peers in the grantmaking community has already vetted a project and deemed it worthy of support. This is a peer-to-peer communication that has a particular value. In essence, we are partnering with the larger foundation community to help us make the determination about the quality of a project. We certainly recognize that many wonderful media projects may not yet have foundation or government funding; nevertheless, these guidelines are essential to making this project both effective and sustainable.

The one-funder rule also helps funders partner with one another—to leverage their grant funds. Let’s say I’m a funder and I give money to you for your short documentary on climate change. I would then encourage you to submit the project to the GFEM Media Database to help attract other funders to the project.

SF360: How does the GFEM staff approve projects? Are there other criteria than having one foundation or government entity in place?

Harris: We want to ensure that grantmakers can come to our site and find quality projects. All projects submitted to the GFEM Media Database are reviewed to ensure basic clarity and a public-interest element.

SF360: What do you say to producers or directors who haven’t met the key criterion, say, younger makers without a track record?

Harris: Take a look at the projects that have been approved. Read them over. Look at the work samples. As filmmakers we can learn a great deal from other filmmakers and how they present their projects. I’m a filmmaker and have worked in the documentary field for more than eight years. I have also worked extensively with community-based arts organizations in Miami and Los Angeles. Our ability to survive as artists, advocates, and independent media makers has to do in part with our ability to improve our craft, turn adversity into fuel and recognize the different roles that tools like this one can play in different stages of our careers.

I see the database as an opportunity for the field — media makers, advocates and funders — to share information and get to know ourselves as a field. There is rich opportunity here in that regard. Of course, this depends on participation on all sides. We have built it, but will they come?

SF360: Shifting to the other side of the equation, what’s your strategy for encouraging funders to use the database?

Harris: We have dedicated staff know-how and resources to the GFEM Media Database project and will continue to educate the field about it. GFEM attends funder events throughout the year. We will be on the ground at these events, promoting the database to funders. We also have a website and newsletter that we will engage in our awareness campaign. We have a contact list of over 1,000 funders worldwide. As the only funder affinity group that is specifically concerned with media, we are well positioned to help the philanthropic sector make use of this tool.

SF360: I suppose we should make your financial interest transparent. There’s no fee to post a project. Will GFEM be taking a fee from funds a project receives as a result of being in the database? Will you be charging foundations to access the database? And if it’s none of the above, what would you like engraved on the back of your Nobel Prize?

Harris: There is no charge for foundations to use the database. There is no charge for media makers or advocates to use the database. We do not take a fee for any funds raised as a result of inclusion in the database. We do ask that when the database succeeds in helping secure funding, that project managers let us know, so that we can assess the impact of the site.

Media helps shape thinking. It reflects and shapes experiences. Our democracy depends on a free and diverse media sphere. The real prize will be to get new funders into the field, shorten the length of arduous and costly fundraising campaigns, and ultimately help garner support for a more robust and diverse public-interest media landscape.

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