Where to Start When You Start Thinking About Impact
The impact producing space has grown dramatically in the last few years. People are catching on to the power that film has in affecting change around social issues. And as that awareness builds, issue-based funders have taken an increasing interest in using film to advance their goals. This has meant that the demand for strategic plans and clear measures of impact for film campaigns has also grown. But not all filmmakers want to be - or are equipped to be - advocates and strategists. And not all nonprofit or movement leaders know how to use film to strategically advance their goals. That's where the impact producer, media/engagement strategist, and/or impact evaluator types come in. As the impact space grows, I find myself speaking to newcomers more often: filmmakers, first-time film funders, new impact producers, movement leaders... There already exist a number of valuable resources to help people navigate this work (a few are listed below). So in this post, I plan to simply offer a few key considerations to help orient people to the space.
I prepared these reflections for a panel I was recently invited to speak on - about the sustainability of the impact production space - at NAMAC's Alliance 2016 Conference in Oakland, CA. I shared the panel with experts: Elise McCave of BRITDOC, Michael Premo of Sandy Storyline (see his newest project, Water Warriors), and Eliza Licht of POV. Emily Verellen Strom of The Fledgling Fund moderated the discussion.
What does “impact” (and “strategy” and “engagement”) mean to you? If you look "impact" up in the dictionary, you’ll find a definition like: “the strong effect or influence that something has on a situation or person.” So by common use of the term, lots of things count as impact. If your film moves a person emotionally, then DVD sales, butts in seats, anything that gets a film "out there" and in front of people count as impact. However, when we are talking about meaningful social change, what counts as "impact" necessarily differs. Sometimes, for example, the most important audiences are already aware of the problems, so raising awareness among them will not necessarily help advance the issues. Similarly, engagement is not necessarily an end in-and-of-itself (though I have seen it treated that way). What is the intent? Towards which ends? What is the quality of engagement you're looking for? Will it help you achieve your social change objectives? So, impact - and therefore an impact strategy - can often mean different things to different people. Be sure to explore what you mean by the terms. Start with these questions:
- What are the film's strengths? (This resource can help you.)
- How can those strengths support the movement for change?
- What changes in the issue landscape do you expect to see?
- Are those changes realistic over the course of a 1-2 year campaign?
Consider your needs because not all “Impact Producers” are built alike. They each have different and valuable strengths. They may have different objectives or definitions of "impact." They may also each understand their role in a campaign somewhat differently. For example:
- Some Impact Producers spend the bulk of their time producing events.
- Some Impact Producers focus on research and building a campaign strategy.
- Some excel at online engagement and action campaigns.
- Some care more about building partner capacity and relationships.
- Some oversee all a campaign’s moving parts, others focus on specific pieces.
- Some see their role as supervisory, others are much more hands-on.
There are many new and emerging models for funding film campaigns, so much so that it increasingly seems there is no longer a clear standard. Some film campaigns are fully funded - start to finish - by major philanthropic institutions. Some film campaigns are partially funded, implying for example that:
- Strategy development is covered but implementation is not, requiring further fundraising and often the filmmaker stepping into coordination.
- Filmmakers need to charge for screening licenses to recoup costs, shaping the screening host relationship as more client than partner.
- Campaign leadership may shift over a campaign, requiring added attention to smooth hand-offs and consistent communication.
So partners, impact producers, and other key players are often having a variety of different experiences with filmmakers and their campaigns. Be sensitive to this when entering into these new relationships. Take a potential partner’s experience, for example:
- In some cases they are responding to an RFP or announcement from a national issue organization that is spearheading the campaign’s implementation.
- In other cases, they are responding to RFPs that are put out directly by the philanthropic institution (and thus working directly for that funder).
- In some cases they are responding to targeted partner outreach from the filmmakers and/or their impact teams.
- In other cases they are responding to “impact distribution” companies.
These varied relationships and roles mean that sometimes we're talking past each other. They require sensitivity, and clarity around expectations and power dynamics between the key players. Take a look at the Active Voice Lab resources at the bottom of this page, which can help you.
Be generous to grassroots and national organizations; campaigns lean heavily on them to advance the work. We ask partners to provide us with access to their networks. We often rely on them to plan events. We draw on their knowledge and expertise heavily. They deserve as much support as we can offer them for a campaign to be successful. Even when a film is perfect for an organization, there can be barriers to successful events. Some of the most effective organizations are working on a number of intersecting issues at any given time; their work is focused and intensive. Often this means they are over capacity and under-resourced. So while putting on a simple screening event can be easy - when it’s a plug-and-play kind of deal - if you want an event that is deliberate and strategic, it often requires more resources, planning, and relationship building. And this means more resources and support to help the partner make it happen.
I have been focused on film as my means of choice for supporting social change for over a dozen years because I believe it is one of the most powerful tools we have. Whether we’re tracking the impact or not - whether it’s even possible to track the impact or not - I see it as my job to be very deliberate about the intent of our activities and the results we hope to see - and to make recommendations accordingly. So from my perspective and by that definition a small but strategic campaign with realistic objectives, the right partners, and the right audiences can be just as influential in advancing change as bigger, broader campaigns (depending on the issues). It’s really about leveraging resources in the most strategic ways.
As promised, here are a few valuable resources to help guide your next steps:
- BRITDOC's The Impact Field Guide, see here
- The Fledgling Fund's Case Studies & Papers, see here
- The Center for Media and Social Impact at American University's Assessing the Social Impact of Issue-focused Documentaries, see here
- Hot Docs Documentary Impact Report, see here
- Take a look at NAMAC's more complete list of resources, here
I also want to call out two resources that can be useful in getting these complicated conversations off on the right foot. They are both from the Active Voice Lab.
- The Prenups: What Funders and Filmmakers Should Talk about Before Tying the Knot. It was developed 8 years ago to help funders and media maker develop stronger and clearer relationships.
- Prenups for Partners (coming soon). AV Lab discovered that partnerships among and between other sectors are equally complex and also benefit from more transparency and clear articulation of expectations. They will soon distribute this set of issues to discuss early in a film’s planning phase.