Lightening Your Fundraising Load

Holly Million February 13, 2009

When Tennessee Ernie Ford sang, "You load 16 tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt," he may have been referring to coalminers’ back-breaking labor. Or, he may have been singing about the life of an indie filmmaker. How much did those grant proposals weigh?

If you’ve followed my columns lately, you may have noticed that in this economic nosedive, I’ve been pushing the idea of asking individual donors you might be able to sway with a personal pitch over trying to get the attention of foundations feeling the financial pinch. Here are five fairly sure-fire ways to make approaching individual donors for funding that much easier.

Form a posse
Fundraising is better as a group effort. Create a fundraising team of people who are passionate about your film and committed to its success. Divvy up the total money to be raised, and ask each person to commit to raising $x. Coordinate who goes to which people for funds and watch how much lighter that heavy-lifting feels.

Land a big fish

When you set a dollar goal for individual gifts, back up that goal with a list of prospects by name. These are the people you’ll ask for contributions. Study the list, and ID the people capable of writing the big checks. From that subgroup select the person likely to give the biggest gift of all. This is your Big Kahuna. Put the majority of your effort into cultivating and then asking this person for that gift. Once you land the big fish, the rest will seem like guppies.

Make like Obama

A filmmaker client recently asked me if it was okay to put a donation form on his film website. "Will asking for little gifts make us look desperate or amateurish?" he said. To which I replied, "No." Take a page from Obama’s campaign playbook and use your website, house parties, email, text-messaging, and every other small-donor tool that exists. Obama raised a shocking portion of his $750 million total fundraising from gifts under $100.

Share and share alike

Want to make it crystal clear to individuals what they get in return for their support? Sell shares in your film. This works if you’re setting out to make a commercial film, or if you have completed your fiscal-sponsorship relationship through production and are now working on distribution. Create an LLC to manage the legal aspects of selling shares. Identify the amount you need to raise, carve it into shares, half-shares, quarter-shares, and sell those shares at a set price with an established protocol for paying back the investors.

Take a wingman

Ready to go face-to-face with a prospect to ask for $50,000 for your film? Ready to crawl under your bed and not ever come out? Believe me, this going-it-alone crap has had its day. Take a wingman. One of you takes the job of presenting your case. The other takes the job of asking for the specific amount of money and negotiating to a close. Is the prospect your intimidating Uncle Donald? Then you paint the picture and have your partner do the ask. Teamwork trumps all.

I hope you’ll put these ideas to work today. Now, excuse me while I shovel some foundation rejection letters into this furnace.

Holly Million is a consultant, author, and filmmaker with nearly two decades’ worth of experience in fundraising. In addition to securing funding for A Story of Healing, which won a 1997 Academy Award, Million has raised money for documentary and dramatic films that have aired on PBS, HBO, and other broadcast outlets. She is the author of
Fear-Free Fundraising: How to Ask People for Money, _available on Visit Million’s fundraising blog at

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