Nuts, bolts, hot tips, and road-tested information from Holly Million for indie filmmakers raising money

Tag Archives: general fundraising

Overcoming the Fear of Fundraising

I recently delivered a fundraising training workshop for the board of directors of a start-up nonprofit organization called San Francisco Village. I’ve done plenty of fundraising trainings in the past, so I’m a veteran of how to present this information to those who are not familiar with fundraising.

What I find each time I deliver the workshop is that there is an unmistakable pattern. Each time, everybody in the room starts off grim, tense. Their lips are pressed tightly together and their shoulders hover somewhere near their ears. I’m talking about fundraising, people! Wouldn’t you be tense, too?

But what I find each time is that, although everyone starts off tense and fearful because they are about to enter a world that they do not understand and which makes them scared, by the time the workshop is over, they are energized, excited, and raring to go.

So what happens? Well, that’s the unmistakable pattern I was talking about. They start off tense. I introduce them to the basic concepts of individual donor fundraising. They stay tense. I start talking about why they are involved in this organization. They seem to open up a crack. And then we go through an exercise where we collect “message points” for why this organization is worth supporting, and then we break into groups and role play actual fundraising. And by the time we are done with this, they are levitating out of their seats and on fire. It happens every time.

So why is this so? Because there are some key things you can do to overcome your fear of fundraising. This is true whether you are volunteering for a nonprofit or raising money for a film.

First, connect with your passion — why are you involved? Is this story personal? Have you been touched by this issue? Do you know someone who has? Why do you want to do something about it? You are as much a part of the story as the story itself.

Second, collect your message points — create a list of reasons why this cause is worth supporting. How will this work change the world and make it a better place? What makes this organization or this film unique, effective, exciting?

Third, practice talking about your passion — talk with your friends and colleagues. Role play. Test the messaging and the pitch before you go out and try it on somebody outside your circle.

Fourth, take a risk and see what happens — what could really go wrong if you ask somebody for support? They might say no? Tragedy! If they say no, you need to find out why, and then work with them to get to a yes. If you think it’s too early to ask, just ask. You might be surprised by a yes.

Fifth, don’t think it ends with the ask — all fundraising begins with a relationship, and it continues with a relationship. You don’t show up and ask a stranger for money and then disappear into the sunset. You stick with that person, through rain or shine, thick or thin, like bosom buddies. If they give you money, your relationship responsibilities have just begun.

If you follow this advice, your fears will shrink, and your success will increase.

Try it at home!

In fundraising solidarity,
Holly Million

(Photo by Petr Kratochvil)

Five Essential Tips for Bang-Up Events

Seems like lately, all the filmmakers I know are ready to party! They’re all throwing fundraising events to raise cash for their films.

While I applaud their resourcefulness and dedication to a fundraising tactic relying upon individual, not foundation, money, I confess that I tremble at the thought of what they are getting themselves into. So many babes in the party-planning woods!

They are about to find out how much time, energy, resources, and focus it takes to host a successful fundraising event. How can they ensure the biggest bang for their buck and avoid getting burned?

Well, I’ve compiled five essential tips based on my 20-plus years of event organizing that I hope will help all these stalwart filmmakers host bang-up fundraising events.

Tip One: Give yourself twice as much lead time as you think you need.
Events are more complicated than they look. You have to shepherd your event from start to finish, deal with the location, invitations, supplies, parking, you-name-it, then marshal the resources and get them to gel. For example, I know some folks who gave themselves three months to organize a fundraising event. They were starting with no budget, no mailing list, and no help beyond the four of them. When I said they were going to need closer to six months to a year to pull off the event they envisioned, they scoffed. They didn’t believe it would be that hard. Well, three months whirled by, and in the end, they cancelled their event because they couldn’t pull it together in time. So learn from their bone-headedness. Take the amount of time you were planning to devote to organizing your fundraising event…and double it.

Tip Two: Know from square one how you’ll make money.
“I organized my sister’s bridal shower, so how hard can a fundraising event be?” How much money did your sister’s bridal shower raise? That’s what I thought. A fundraising event is not a social event. This is not a cultivation event. It is a fundraising event, and people need to know that right up front. Say so on the invitation. Say how attendees are expected to contribute financially. Do they buy a ticket? Are they going to be asked directly for a gift once they get to the event? Will it be both? Tell them. That way, they’ll bring their checkbooks and credit cards with them. You also need to know what they’re going to be asked for, who is going to ask them, when they are going to ask, and how they are going to ask. When it’s time to ask for the money at the event, keep it short, direct, and politely insistent.

Tip Three: Write a budget out on paper.
That’s right. On paper. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen people “wing” the financial side of their event. They don’t know how much they plan to spend, so how can they possibly know how much money they will make? You have to anticipate everything that will cost you money — did you include napkins? Unless they’re going to be donated, you will be paying for them. You also have to track how much you are spending. And then there’s the income side. How many tickets do you need to sell to make $X. Are you projecting to raise more money than you spend. Good! There’s your profit.

Tip Four: Expect something to go wrong.
I’ve been organizing events for a long time. In all my years doing this, there has never been one event I’ve organized that did not have something go wrong. We had an outdoor event, and it rained. We had a fundraising luncheon for 500 people, and the florist forgot to deliver the flowers (Never did hire that bum again). When you expect something to go wrong, you won’t freeze when it does. You’ll know your job is to stay calm and loose and solve the problem. That event where the florist forgot the flowers? We sent two volunteers out to buy 50 potted hydrangeas (one for each table) at a fraction of what the other flowers were going to cost. The problem was solved and the room decorated in under 90 minutes.

Tip Five: Avoid this reaction: “Oh, no! Not another event!”
These days, everybody is getting hit up day and night for cash. How many appeal letters did you receive from worthy causes and organizations this holiday season? I got three times the normal amount. And how many events have you been invited to? The past two weeks, I’ve gone to an event every night. Seems like half are “benefit” events. Considering what your event is up against, you better make it stand out. What is going to make somebody skip that other event and come to yours, even though you’ve already made it clear this will cost them? Come up with a special enticement or feature. Is it at a house, club, or locale that is exclusive and normally inaccessible? Does it feature high-quality entertainment or a celebrity or some really fun activity? Is the food sumptuous? The libations luscious? What is the draw?

Trust me. If you can get them to show up, you can certainly get them to write you a check.

In fundraising solidarity,
Holly Million

(Fireworks photo by Petr Kratochvil)

Free Fundraising Webinar!

I’m presenting a free film fundraising webinar through the Women’s Film Institute, the presenters of the San Francisco Women’s Film Festival. Here is what they had to say about the presentation in their latest e-newsletter:

Free Webinar on How to Ask People for Money

This webinar is FREE and demonstrates how to develop relationships with individual donors and ask them to make a financial contribution to your film. Learn how to fundraise fearlessly and make a successful ask. We’ll discuss how to identify donor prospects and cultivate them, what tools you need to do this kind of fundraising and how to go face to face to ask for money. Webinar will be held on Dec. 3, 2009 at 7:00 p.m. Space is limited and RSVP by emailing:

About Holly Million:

Holly 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 She is writing a new book, “A Helluva Guide to Indie Film Fundraising” to be published in 2010.

She is the founder of Golden Poppy Productions, LLC, the presenters of A Helluva Camp for Indie Filmmakers on 1/23/2010 and for Nonprofit Rebels on 1/30/2010 in San Francisco, CA.

Fore more information on A Helluva Camp or to register visit:

Show Your Donors Some Love

So you’re drafting a fundraising prospect list for your indie film? Looks like it’s shaping up to be the most extensive list of individual donor prospects known to mankind. Good job!

Your list covers your personal connections (everyone from Uncle Ernie to your former Econ 101 professor), people your personal connections can introduce you to who care about the same issues your film covers, and known suspects in the community who just love film. You have really done your homework and you even know how much you plan to ask each one of these prospects for.

So what’s the problem? Well, I’ll bet you know what you want from them. But do you have any clue what they want from you?

That’s right. You know you want their money. But what do these fine people get for giving their cash to you and your film? Stumped? Here are a few tried and true ways to both entice as well as reward your individual donors, along with a few totally off-the-wall tips to demonstrate that the sky really is the limit when it comes to thanking your donors.

Tip One: Credit Where Credit Is Due
Some people would love to see their name on the big screen, even if it’s tucked somewhere far down the list past where you thank the caterer and your accountant. In exchange for people’s financial support, promise to include them in your film’s credits. Want to make things really interesting? Offer different levels of credits for different sized gifts. Somebody wants to be the executive producer? Or assistant to Mr. Waters? They’re going to have to pay.

Tip Two: Ask for Their Opinions
There’s an old saying that goes, “If you want money, ask for advice, and if you want advice, ask for money.” It’s surprising, but very few filmmakers think to ask people on their lists for ideas, information, and advice. Do you need a location? Do you need a graphic designer? Do you want feedback on your screenplay? The more you ask people for ideas, the more they will feel connected to your film. And when people feel connected to something, it increases their willingness to put some skin in the game.

Tip Three: Put Them on an Advisory Board
I secured a gift of $5,000 from an individual who was an artist who was passionate about women’s issues for a short narrative film I was making that focused on these issues. Although most short narratives don’t need the support of an advisory board, I created one anyway, seeing how it would both attach known names to my project and reward the people who cared most about my film. I invited my major donor to join this advisory board, and she was surprised — and pleased — by the invitation.

Tip Four: Put Them in the Film
Oh, my God! Did I really just write that? Am I out of my mind? Quite possibly. At least where some potential donors are concerned. I don’t recommend putting just anyone in your film. And I’m not talking about putting them in a speaking role if they can’t act their way out of a paper bag. But is there some scene in your film where you need a bunch of extras? Can they blend into the background somehow? If you have a really big potential donor or investor, this may be the ticket to get them to write that check.

Tip Five: Did I Mention the Tax Write-Off/Investment Potential?
If you’re making a non-commercial film that is fiscally sponsored, then you can offer your individual donors a tax write-off for their contributions to your film. You get their money, and they get to take a tax-deduction for making that gift. If you’re making a commercial film, then be prepared to talk about the potential return on investment. How is the investor going to make back her money? What are the risks involved? What are the potential payoffs?

Tip Six: Invite Them to Your World Premiere at Festival X
There is that special category of donors who just love the concept of making a film. They are probably themselves closeted filmmakers, but they won’t or can’t make the leap into making a film of their own. However, you’re a filmmaker. By inviting this potential donor to become part of the film scene by coming with you to a festival would start them swooning. You don’t know which festival you may get into, but for some people, it won’t matter one bit.

Tip Seven: Tell Other People How Great Your Donors Are
Whenever you host an event, thank the people who have shown their support. When you put up your website, list those who helped you get where you are today. Proclaim publicly that these folks are your heroes, and they will bask in the glow of your appreciation.

Tip Eight: Show How Your Film Has Changed the World
For donors who give to your film because of its subject matter, knowing that the film went on to great things will make them feel good. Did your documentary about food safety change national policy on food safety? Did your expose of corporate malfeasance bring the bad guys to justice? Show that impact, and those donors will see your film as the greatest thing their money has ever produced.

In fundraising solidarity,
Holly Million

(heart photo by Peter Kratochvil)

A Helluva Camp Featured Presenter — Rod Minott

I’m organizing A Helluva Camp for Indie Filmmakers on January 23, 2010 in San Francisco. For more information on this and other camps in the series, visit Golden Poppy Productions.

One of our featured presenters at the camp is Rod Minott, who will be presenting on the subject of “Grant Proposals That Don’t Suck.” We could all benefit from a discussion on that topic!

Rod Minott is the founder of Glisan Media, a San Francisco-based media company that focuses on video-journalism story production as well as consulting services for independent producers interested in producing programs for public television. Rod began his broadcasting career in 1984 as an on-air daily news reporter for the Boise, Idaho CBS station affiliate, KBCI TV2. In 1985 he joined public television as an on-air reporter/producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland. Rod has also been a reporter/producer for public television stations KTEH in San Jose, and KCTS in Seattle. From 1994 until 1999, Rod served as the Seattle-based on-air correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. From 2005 until 2007 he worked at the Independent Television Service (ITVS) in San Francisco as Program Manager for the LINCS (Linking Independents and Co-Producing Stations) funding initiative. He also oversaw ITVS’s online digital initiative, “Electric Shadows.” Rod lives in San Francisco. He can be contacted at: phone-(415) 553-5969 email: His website is:

Register now for A Helluva Camp for Indie Filmmakers and gain exciting knowledge from presenters like Rod Minott!

For more information or to register, visit

In fundraising solidarity,
Holly Million

Upcoming Film Funding Classes

Obama embraced fundraising like no political candidate before, raising over $750 million in the course of his campaign. That’s the real secret to successful fundraising — embrace it!

Want to become more intimate with the intricacies of fundraising? I’m teaching several film fundraising classes through the San Francisco Film Society throughout the rest of this year. Need to learn how to pitch? Want to find out how the Internet can enhance your film fundraising? I have the straight dope for you.

I’m teaching my long-running, popular class “How to Ask People for Money” on August 29 and September 12. The first session is sold out, but space is still available for the second class. This is an eight-hour-long, hands-on experience that has you learning what goes in to donor prospect identification, cultivation, and direct asks. By the end of the day, you are pitching your film to a live panel of real film experts who give you gentle, constructive feedback to improve your odds the next time you go out to bat!

I’m teaching a reprise of “How to Ask People for Money” on October 17 and again on December 5. I teach a simplified version of the class as a webinar on November 7.

I’m also teaching “Using Interactive Web Tools for Indie Film Fundraising” on October 21. Filmmakers are embracing blogs, tweets and social networking to help cast, market, distribute and raise money for films. Find out how Web 2.0 tools can enhance your donor cultivation and communication.

So there are plenty of class dates to choose from. Register now!

In fundraising solidarity,
Holly Million

(Obama artwork by Petr Kratochvil)

Your “Friends” Are Virtually Worthless

There’s a lot of buzz swirling around Web 2.0 and how it’s going to change — well, everything. Indie filmmakers, too, are embracing blogs, tweets, and social-networking, experimenting with how these tools can help them cast, market, distribute, and, yes, raise money for their films.. And yet, all the time, filmmakers say things to me like, “I have raised only $250 for my film through my Facebook page. Why aren’t people giving more?”

Why? Because if you don’t use Web 2.0 tools correctly, your “friends” are virtually worthless. So here is some advice about what Web 2.0 changes about fundraising and what it absolutely, positively does not.

Problem: “If We Build It, They Will Come”
There is a common misconception that money is going to pour in from this vast universe of online denizens who now know about you and your film simply because they have stumbled upon you online. Problem is, fundraising depends on relationship, and the virtual world is predicated on anonymity. Unless you take your contacts off Facebook and Twitter and make them flesh-and-blood friends, you can’t expect them to donate to your film in any significant way.
Solution: Find out who among your online friends is really interested in what you’re creating, and start to nurture an off-line relationship with them. I’ve converted numerous people I “know” online into real contacts by first emailing back and forth with them, then talking on the phone, then meeting in person. The cultivation does not stop there, it just goes on and on. After all, what are friends for?

Problem: I’ve Got a Blog/Facebook Page/My Space Page, But Nobody Visits
Yes, I know you have a blog. I’ve visited there. But the last diary you have up was posted in 1978. Your Facebook and My Space pages are pretty much the same. Has anything happened with your film since then? Just asking.
Solution: In order to drive traffic to your website, blog, or social-networking site, you need to give people a reason to go there. If the content is static, there will be no attraction. Ideally, you will post new content at least once a week or even daily. Tweak your social-networking pages to constantly give updates about the latest and greatest on your film. Make it interesting, and people will continually “drop by” to see what’s new.

Problem: You Think You Asked Them, But You Didn’t Really Ask Them
This is a common mistake I see happen everywhere people are trying to raise money, not just in the indie film world and not just online. People put their need out there on the Internet, thinking they have made a request for support, but then all they hear is the deafening roar of crickets.
Solution: You must be more direct. Your Facebook page displays your fundraising goal and a link to “donate now.” Warm. You sent an email appeal out to 10,000 potential supporters asking them to each give $25. Warmer. You hosted an event for 30 people who knew it was a fundraiser where they would be asked to write checks on the spot. Getting Warmer! You picked up the phone and asked 10 friends to each write a check for $100. Getting Hot! You sat down with Uncle Warren and asked him face-to-face for a large lead gift to leverage other donations. Hallelujah! You have learned that, at the end of the day, being direct when you ask is really the key to raising money.

Problem: They’re Just Not That Into You
You’re passionate about your film. But not everybody is passionate enough about it to give to you online. Oh, sure, you will pick up converts, but there are some things you just can’t compete with. After September 11, 2001, I (and millions of others) made online donations to the American Red Cross, the Fire Department of New York, and the New York Police Department without any of these organizations having to ask me for money. Why? Because the need was obvious, urgent, and on a vast scale. Hurricane Katrina, Asian Tsunami, terrorist attack? The word goes out and the online donations come in. Your film can’t compete.
Solution: Don’t assume that your film ranks high on people’s lists. Don’t try to compete online with causes that are in a different league. They can almost exclusively do anonymous, online, and mostly indirect fundraising. You can’t. While Web 2.0 tools can enhance your donor cultivation and communication, when it comes down to actually raising money, you need to be personal, offline, and mostly direct in your approach.

In fundraising solidarity,
Holly Million

(Photo by Petr Kratochvil)

The Doctor Is In! One-on-One Consulting

I often get asked if I am available to produce independent films. Right now, my hands are full directly producing three documentaries and one feature narrative. But that doesn’t mean I can’t help you. I’ve been consulting one-on-one with independent filmmakers for many years, and I’ve found a way to support projects that is cost effective and really useful for filmmakers, too.

Currently, I provide four main services: 1) writing a fundraising plan for your film that outlines where the money is coming from and how you will raise it; 2) writing a treatment, proposal, or business plan that can be used to secure grants or present to individual donors or investors; 3) teaching you how to pitch your film in a face-to-face meeting with investors or donors; and 4) providing ongoing coaching and support throughout the making of the film at an affordable cost.

If you think these services would help you launch your film fundraising effort today, send me an email at You can visit my fundraising consulting website at

Hope to see you soon!

Pony Up or Else! Fundraise Like a Wolverine

Most people think filmmaking is creative, but fundraising is a chore. In fact, the latter pursuit is full of opportunities to be innovative, as I’ve learned during my 17 years as a professional fundraiser. I have raised money for narrative and documentary films for the majority of my career and for the last ten years have been a filmmaker myself. I have submitted hundreds of grant applications, made scores of face-to-face major donor requests, and have applied to most major government funding sources. Over the years, I have learned techniques for improving my batting average. Let me tell you what resources are out there and give you some general tips for increasing your chances of fundraising success. Of course, it also helps to have the determination of a rabid wolverine.

You’re the one that I want
The universe of foundations that support films rarely changes, except that it is shrinking. At the same time, new filmmakers are minted every day, and all of them are applying to exactly the same places. That’s why I urge you to do individual fundraising. Individual fundraising gives you more control, easier access, and more solid long-term relationships that keep paying off in the future. Potential individual donors include your family, friends, classmates, teachers, work colleagues, and everyone else you know. Yes, literally, everyone else you know. You say you’re afraid to ask people for money? You’re not afraid of money are you? Money makes films. Contributing to films is a way for closeted artists to participate in your creative process. Films with ideals and a vision for changing the world are inspiring. Please give people a chance to experience that thrill by giving you money to make it happen.

Who do I ask for money? Who don’t I ask for money? My personal database contains contact information for 3,000 people, and I constantly keep it updated. I put everybody in there: my hairstylist, my doctor, the guy I met on the Super Shuttle (a consistent donor, by the way). Last year my sewer line blew up, and I paid my plumber $8,000 to put in a new one. Think my plumber is on my list? Hell, yes! And guess what, he sent a donation for $500 when I asked.

Every time I make a film, I send appeal letters to my list of past and potential donors. I tell them what kind of film I am making, creating a strong emotional case for why the film is vital. I tell them how much money I need to raise, and I give them a range of amounts for contributions. I also tell them to mail a check in the enclosed envelope or to go on the web to make an online contribution. I tell them the contribution is tax deductible because the nonprofit organization Film Arts Foundation is my fiscal sponsor. I often reward donors who give at a specific level, say $500 or above, by listing them in the film’s credits or giving them a copy of the trailer. I usually combine an email version of the appeal with the mailed version, and I often pair a benefit event with the letter. When a potential donor is capable of making a large gift, I set up time to meet with him or her in person and ask for $5,000, $10,000, or more. These relationships require time to develop, and they need to be maintained diligently over time. By cultivating these donors, I can continue to ask them for hefty support in the future.

Coming up next…raising money from foundations.