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Philanthropy's Moving Vision Looking at the past, present and future

By Pat Aufderheide, curator, 2002 Film & Video Festival Director, Center for Social Media, American University and
David Haas, GFEM Steering Committee

Over the past 35 years, Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media (GFEM) has partnered with the Council on Foundations to organize the annual Film & Video Festival. Based on examples from the festival's 36 years, explore 10 reasons why foundations fund media - to carry out program goals or deepen understanding of issues.

The festival has showcased some of the most important independent filmmakers of our generation. It has explored innovative approaches to using media to affect society. It has given voice to unheard voices in society and illuminated important issues. And it has demonstrated how foundations can leverage their resources through media.

Looking back at the many exceptional projects showcased over the years in the Film and Video Festival, we see enduring themes and an invigorating variety of practices and strategies. And we've seen...


1) To Support Creative Talent and Promote the Arts

Private funders are critically important patrons of this art form, especially for artists working in unfamiliar terrain. Celebrated film and video artists such as Fred Wiseman (Titicut Follies, COF 1968), Stan Brakhage (Dog Star Man, COF 1970), Jill Godmilow (Antonia, COF 1978), Ayoka Chenzira (Hair Piece: A Film for Nappy-Headed People, COF 1985), Ross McElwee (Ordinary People, COF 1988), Julia Loktev (Moment of Impact, COF, 2001) and Alan Berliner (Nobody's Business, COF 2002) have all benefited from foundation support. So have projects that support the arts, such as KCET's filming of The Spotlight Awards honoring young artists in Los Angeles (COF 2001).

2) To Create Durable, Flexible Tools for Practitioners and Programs

Many funders appreciate the power of video and film to contribute to the effectiveness of a project, often for use in educational, training, conference, or other face-to-face settings. For instance, Faces of Microcredit (COF 1998) provided short success stories to international bankers, community activists and aid agencies. Take This Heart (COF 1998), an inspiring chronicle of one foster parent's challenges, was produced at several lengths, including one for small-group discussion among potential foster parents and supporters of foster parenting. A St. Paul-based group that advocates with and for mentally disabled produced My Choice, Your Decision (COF 2001) as a training film; it is so popular that it produces revenue for the organization. The Power of Our Relationships (COF 2001), produced in a three-module set, teaches caregivers of children who live in violent situations how to provide a nurturing learning environment for them. Produced for Pennsylvania caregivers, it has been widely adopted there and used in other states.

3) To Bring Unheard Voices and Communities into Public View

Film and video makers have often brought new characters and stories before American viewers because private funders helped. The stories of striking miners in Harlan County, USA (COF 1978); of gays asserting pride in public in Word Is Out (COF 1981); of a courageous and creative teacher working with poor Chicano kids, in Stand and Deliver (COF 1989); of African-American kids' American dreams, Hoop Dreams (COF 1994); of a disabled man's struggle for dignity, If I Can't Do It (COF 1999); and the drama of a family divided by their approaches to deafness, Sound and Fury (COF 2002) are all stories that have reached broad American audiences on television or in theaters.

4) To Use the Power of Mass Media to Promote a Message Widely

Funders have also strategized with producers on ways to use the power of mainstream media to carry their message. The venerable public service announcement, such as one on Proposition 188 (no smoking in restaurants, COF 1996), is one familiar way; funders have also pursued other creative strategies. Henry Horner Mothers' Guild (COF 1992), a tape showing horrendous conditions in a housing project with interviews, was given to local news stations as supporting material for news stories on the Mother's Guild's protests; once it was used, the city fixed the conditions. Following ER (COF 1998) is a series of short news stories on health issues related to the week's theme of the popular TV series ER, given to NBC affiliates to insert into evening news. Blood Lines (COF 2000), made by HIV-positive teens about their lives, was shown on MTV. Yellow Card (COF 2001), a feature film about a teen single father, has been shown throughout southern Africa in theaters and on television.

5) To Support News, Public Affairs, and Investigative Journalism

Independent film and video makers who pursue important, but under-reported topics often find crucial early resources from private funders. Innovative journalism such as Export Only: Pesticides and Pills (COF 1982); Dark Circle (COF 1983), on long-term health effects of nuclear radiation; Witness to Apartheid (COF 1987); SA-Life: Tales from Bosnia (COF 1994), featuring work by courageous Bosnian artists and journalists; and It's Elementary: Talking about Gay Issues in School (COF, 1997) all raised important issues and encouraged later coverage. Bill Moyers (On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Death and Dying (COF, 2001), and Roger Weisberg (Can't Afford to Grow Old, COF 1989; Our Children at Risk, COF 1992), have dedicated their careers to bringing the nation's attention to critically important issues, and have been consistently supported by private funders.

6) To Tell and Teach Our History Right

Film and video producers have profoundly changed popular understanding of history-and therefore of ourselves--and created important curriculum tools as well, with the help of funders. The work of Henry Hampton's Blackside Productions (Eyes on the Prize, COF 1987, 1988, 1990; The Great Depression, COF 1994; America's War on Poverty, COF 1995) was a powerful, important example. The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (COF 1983); Indians, Outlaws and Angie Debo (COF 1988); Heaven Protect the Working Girl: Immigrant Women in the Turn of the Century City (COF, 1995); and Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers' Struggle (COF 1998) are all much-needed contributions to the popular understanding of American history.

7) To Create Inspirational and Organizing Tools for Community Activists

Funders support videos that advance the work of building organizations and campaigns. For instance, Holding Ground: The Rebirth of Dudley Street (COF 1998) not only recorded the efforts of a successful urban community development group, but it was used and studied by many other groups. The Chicago Video Project regularly uses video, such as The South Loop Campaign (COF 1996), as a tool to build activism as well as to educate policymakers. In the campaign to promote rural community development corporations, The Local Initiatives Support Corporation Rural Program used Rural America: Communities Creating Opportunity (COF 2001) to showcase the range of and enthusiasm for the Community Development Corporation (CDC) idea.

8) To Seed New Media

Some funders target their funds to the startup, planning phase, in which producers can develop a new idea. Such grants might be a small portion of the budget, but they are essential investments in pioneering work. Such important work as Chemical Valley (COF 1991), about a tragic gas spill in West Virginia; Absolutely Positive (COF 1992), about living with HIV; Family Gathering (COF 1992), about remembering Japanese-American internment; and Family Name (COF 1997), about the legacy of slavery, obtained crucial startup grants from foundations.

9) To Give Successful Programs a Life beyond Broadcast

Some funders contribute to an existing media program, in order to reach out to new or target audiences when it's broadcast, or to enhance its use in non-broadcast settings-in religious organizations, community groups, and schools. The story of a Chicago African-American family's struggle for independence and education, Legacy (COF 2001), became part of the local activities of national organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs and the Interdenominational Theological Center; Generations United even used it to promote pro-family legislation. A Healthy Baby Girl (COF 1998), the story of one DES daughter's cancer and recovery, has become a staple of women's health education, as well as an organizing tool around the dangers of environmental toxins.

10) To Promote Expression and Identity within Communities and Cultures

Making media can be an act of empowerment, both because it is a form of self-expression and because it makes an immediate connection with other people. Funders have backed people and organizations that promote empowerment through media expression and communication. Educational Video Center in New York helps at-risk teens to make work such as Unequal Education: Failing Our Children (COF 1993). Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia puts tools, training and expertise in the hands of residents to tell their stories, such as From Victim to Survivor (COF, 1994) and Todo el mundo, dance! (COF 2002). The Bay Area Video Coalition connects aspiring makers with community organizations, in projects such as public service announcements (COF, 1997). Projects like a.k.a. Don Bonus (COF 1997) and Scenarios USA (COF 2002) team professionals with teens. Oral history projects such as Black Georgetown Remembered (COF 1998) turn memories into history. Appalshop, a media arts center that has produced regional media for 30 years, has been regularly honored by COF since 1984, including its exploration of rural poverty, Rough Side of the Mountain, 1998. The work of Chicago-based production house Kartemquin has also been showcased by COF, from The Last Pullman Car in 1984 to Five Girls in 2002. This kind of work creates not only traditions but expectations too.


Clearly, grantmakers fund media for much more than the 10 reasons described above, which at best give an introduction to the subject. Strategic funding of media continues to evolve, more so now in the digital age than ever before. To provide you with relevant background information, the Council on Foundations and Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media have worked closely to develop some new resources.

A new web site,, has a searchable database of relevant information on the winners of the film and video festivals these past 35 years. There are clips and descriptions of the 14 winners of this year's festival. And there are lots of useful and up-to-date information on funding media, case studies of "cutting-edge" programs that worked, the range of funding patterns, assessing proposed budgets, and resources that help both grantmakers and grantseekers. The web site will be updated on a regular basis.

A new publication, "Why Fund Media: Stories from the field" is available to complement the web site, providing useful tools and examples for funding media.

And the Council on Foundations and Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media welcome you to join in the on-going forum for learning about and becoming more effective in funding media. Send us a message through our web site,, or via e-mail or by phone, 202/467-0471

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