Funder as Supplicant

As a program officer at The San Francisco Foundation, I say “No” to artists and arts organizations daily. I try to soften the blow, detailing the reality of limited resources and an overabundance of projects, seldom discussing quality or appropriateness, thinking I am kinder in vagueness.

I'm also on the other side; I write personal essays and make films. Last year, a dream project, three years in the making, was realized when I produced and co-directed a concert documentary, Janis Ian: Live From Grand Center, with KETC/PBS in St. Louis. The program features the legendary Grammy Award-winning artist performing fifteen songs from her forty-year career—augmented with archival footage, including Leonard Bernstein introducing her at age fifteen to a national audience singing “Society's Child” and a 1975 performance of “At Seventeen.”

To date, the program has been broadcast in 38 PBS U.S. markets.

A great deal of sweat equity went into this project; thankfully I have a day job. It was sobering to experience how independent content providers are continually discounted. I earn nothing from the broadcasts around the country. Janis Ian earns zero. My presenting station KETC earns zilch. NETA, providing the national feed for its affiliates, does not earn anything since each station is not charged a broadcast fee.

In real dollars, the program cost $110,000, with additional in-kind assistance from Grand Center and KETC/ Channel 9 staff. Direct funding came from Missouri Film Commission tax credits, Anheuser-Busch, Grand Center, Whitaker Foundation, and a few friends. Employee matching even had The San Francisco Foundation supporting.

Along the crowded and bumpy fundraising thoroughfare, there were many lessons. I was stymied that many foundations only invest in post-production expenses, given that the core of my documentary was filming a live concert. Why couldn't work samples from twelve previous films and videos be sufficient to judge my artistry?

Twice rejected from the National Endowment for the Arts Media Arts program for this project, I was bewildered to hear that panel members critiqued the project as being too PBS-like when I clearly stated my producing partner was St. Louis' PBS station—a strength, not a weakness. A social justice funder who had previously supported my work, told me the program promised to be “too entertaining.”

And maybe Janis Ian wasn't lesbian enough for one lesbian foundation, although she has long been a queer rights' stalwart. I will never know the real reason for this turndown; I got my oft-used refrain “limited resources/overabundance of projects” as the rationale.

The most useful rejection came from Independent Television Service (ITVS). Every applicant was given a 15-minute phone appointment with senior programming manager Richard Saiz, who is very direct. From his honesty I learned much about how to improve future applications. I flinched from his criticism, but knew he was right.

Rebuffs along my fundraising journey have informed my own grantmaking practices. Now I try to be very specific as to why a project was declined with any applicant who asks for feedback. Artists and arts organizations are owed the respect from funders to be treated professionally as peers. With candor and directness, I find these conversations to be substantive and informative as potential grantee and grantor learn more about each other's work.

Frustrated with the lack of opportunities for early support, I asked The San Francisco Foundation's trustees to set aside $100,000 for documentaries in early production phases by experienced regional filmmakers. When I explained how film and video could serve our broader programmatic goals, their only response was, “Why didn't we do this before?” Bay Area documentarians Helen De Michiel, Christian Bruno, Yoav Potash, Abby Ginzberg, David Weismann, and Bill Weber were awarded grants ranging from $10,000 to $22,500.

I also worked with philanthropic colleagues and Northern California Grantmakers on a daylong symposium learning how foundations use media to not only further arts and humanities program goals, but also social entrepreneurship, environmental, educational, and health policy reform. Unleashing the Power of Film: A 21st Century Tool for Effective Philanthropy brought together funders, makers, festival organizers, media organizations, and academics.

Presentations, panels, and dialogue with amplifying clips were shared by colleagues from the Skoll, Hewlett, and Fleishhacker Foundations, California Council on the Humanities, Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media, Active Voice, National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, ITVS, and Bay Area Video Coalition. The convening culminated with actor/producer Danny Glover illustrating how social documentaries can be effective for community engagement as he introduced a screening of Trouble the Water. Glover produced this New Orleans post-Katrina documentary.

Despite the positive turn reflected both in the Foundation's program and in the symposium, I do worry that in these recessive financial times, support for projects that take years to gestate will be diverted as we attend to more immediate crises. This will prove shortsighted and have long-term consequences for alternative media in the nonprofit sector.

I am proud of my Janis Ian program and am also grateful that as a result I may have become a better grantmaker.

John Killacky is program officer, The San Francisco Foundation, and also a writer and independent filmmaker. This article originally appeared in SF360.org published by San Francisco Film Society.