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

Tag Archives: individual fundraising

Real-Time Fundraising: WITH YOU’s New Campaign

I’ve been writing up case-studies of the fundraising I did for two separate documentary films — WITH YOU and JACK LONDON: 20TH CENTURY MAN. Well, things just amped up for WITH YOU. Instead of blogging about our past fundraising success, I’m going to post over the coming weeks about our NEW fundraising campaign to raise $20K by April 20.

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“Jack London: 20th Century Man,” Case Two: “Jack London Calling!”

My husband, Chris Million, has been an unofficial scholar of the great American author Jack London for the past twenty years. He was at a literary conference more than two decades ago and met Becky London, Jack’s daughter, who autographed a book for him. Meeting the author’s daughter made Jack even more real and tangible for Chris, and from that moment on, he was determined to make the world’s first-ever feature-length documentary about London, his immense literary legacy, and his fascinating times. Flash forward more than two decades to 2012. One of Chris’s academic advisors to the film emailed to say she had a wealthy donor who contributed to her university. This individual had endowed her faculty chair at the university where she was one of the world’s foremost London scholar. Now, the donor was potentially interested in funding Chris’s film, “Jack London: 20th Century Man.” He was a long-time fan of London’s writing who had made his fortune by owning a restaurant chain in the Deep South. He wanted to make a contribution to the film. But there was a catch. There was always a catch. There always IS a catch when it comes to major donors contributing to films, I can assure you of that. He wanted to make his contribution a matching gift. We would have to match his gift dollar for dollar in order to receive it. It was all or nothing. If we did not meet the match, we would not get a dime. His intended gift? $50,000. It was up to me to create a campaign that would take advantage of this offer and succeed. How did I structure the campaign? What did I tell the donor? How did this challenge test our nerves? Find out in my upcoming posts. — In fundraising solidarity, Holly Million

With You, Case One: Sky’s the Limit? Scoping the Campaign

Once we secured our lead gift of $22,000 for “With You,” our next job became scoping the fundraising campaign. To succeed with any fundraising campaign, you need to answer three questions: 1) How much money do I need to raise?, 2) Why do I need this money?, and 3) By when do I need this money? Having specific answers to these questions allows you to create a compelling, urgent, actionable case for potential donors. Sounds simple, right? Yes, and yet, it is so powerful. For the “With You” campaign, to answer question one, we decided $50,000 was the right goal. $50,000 would give us enough to complete the rough-cut of the film and support doing invited sneak-preview screenings at Frameline and Outfest. This seemed like a good goal to me, not only because it served our real needs, but also because it had some flash, some bling. It was a big, hairy, audacious goal, the kind that gets you noticed. But it was also not so big a goal that I feared falling short. In other words, it was achievable. Plus, we already had $22K to kick off the campaign, meaning we just needed to raise another measly $28K to reach the goal. Very good! To answer the second question, we had a simple response. We needed $50K in order to complete a full-length cut of the film. Awesome! Concrete need, grand in scope, but totally achievable. Inherent in that goal was a reward for potential donors — they would help the film reach a significant milestone, and there was the chance they could participate by getting to view that feature-length cut. Boffo! As far as the third question went, I did some mental calculations about the timing. First, we would be able to sustain the excitement level so long as we completed the campaign BEFORE the Frameline screening. We had received word that “With You” would screen on a Thursday evening at San Francisco’s famous Castro Theatre. Definitely prime time. Once that moment passed, so would the impetus for people to donate. So we had to be done before then. To be safe, I set the goal for June 1, a couple weeks ahead of the screening. That meant that we had about eight weeks total to finish the campaign. This was a good target, because it was a fairly quick campaign (which would keep the sense of urgency up), but not so short that we would run out of time to put the messaging and tools of the campaign in place. Next time: I’ll describe what tools we needed to run the campaign. In fundraising solidarity, Holly Million

“With You,” Case One: I just need $20,000.”

The first film in the queue that I was producing during the past three years is “With You.” This is a feature-length documentary that tells the story of Mark Bingham, one of the heroes of United Flight 93 who on September 11, 2001 helped prevent the terrorists who had hijacked the plane from completing their mission. The film also tells the story of Mark’s mother, Alice Hoagland, who was a United Airlines flight attendant before Mark’s death and who became a nationally known advocate for both transportation safety as well as LGBT rights after Mark’s death. I’m going to call “With You” Case One on this blog, and I’ll be writing a series of posts about how we were able to raise the funds we needed to complete the feature-length cut. In January 2011, the filmmaking team that included me, my husband Chris Million, Scott Gracheff our director, and Todd Sarner, a friend of Mark’s from childhood, realized that we needed to capitalize on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 that was swiftly approaching in 2011. We had been working for more than eight years on this film, following Mark’s mom Alice, interviewing Alice and a wide range of Mark’s friends from childhood and his adult life, filming Mark’s friends as they ran in his honor at a marathon in San Diego, and collecting archival materials to tell Mark’s story. We needed to get a cut together. But we had run out of money we’d raised years earlier to help us with production costs. We were literally down to spare change in the bank account. How were we going to hire an editor? Before you can launch any kind of successful fundraising campaign, you need to create a structure. You need to assemble your tools. You need to know how much you want to raise, by when, and for what purpose. And the first tool you need to have in your hand is a lead gift. You need one person who believes so strongly in your film and who wants it to succeed that they will give you a large sum of money to kick off your campaign. Years earlier, we had secured seed money for “With You” from Mark Bingham’s family and friends. In order to make it to our finish line, we needed to go back to a true believer and get them to plunk down some serious cash. My top prospect was a family friend of Mark’s who was our top donor to date. I approached him by phone with the good news that we had a plan together to finish the film. “Oh, that sounds wonderful,” he said. “Yes, and to make this plan succeed, we need your help. Can you make a donation of $20,000 to kick off our fundraising effort?” There was an almost inaudible gulp on the other end. “$20,000?” “Yes, that’s right,” I said, and waited, patiently and silently for the donor to say yes or no. I needed to stay out of the way until I heard an answer. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll talk to my accountant and see how I can do this.” A few days later, I received a check in the mail — a check for $22,000. The lead donor had decided to enhance his contribution beyond what I had requested. I probably should have asked for $25,000. Next time I will write about how we structured the fundraising campaign: how much, by when, and for what purpose. Things got intense really fast, so stay tuned for all the gory details. In fundraising solidarity, Holly Million

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)

Hella Hot Tips Open Donor Gateway

I’ve been raising money for twenty years. During my career, I have asked people for all kinds of money for all kinds of reasons. However, whether I’m asking for $1,000 or $100,000, I have found that there are some key concepts that rule. These are my Hella Hot Tips for how to ask people for money. The good news is that this isn’t brain surgery. It’s common sense. If you take these key concepts and use them as your guide for individual donor fundraising, you, too, you’ll find that the gateway to individual gifts will open to you.

Hella Hot Tip #1 — Put yourself in your donor’s shoes

You walk into a donor’s home or office because you have something to say to them. What you really need to do is listen to what they are saying. Understand what they are looking for. Understand what is getting in the way of their saying yes. Work with them to remove the obstacles so they can say yes. What do they get out of this?

Hella Hot Tip #2 — ALL fundraising is about relationships

You need to build a relationship with the donor or prospect. It doesn’t begin with your asking for money. It needs to start before that point. And it doesn’t end with their gift. You have plenty of work to do afterwards because you will want to ask them again later. There’s no use in calling up somebody you neglected for five years to ask them for money for your new film. When it comes to your donor prospects, be the constant gardener.

Hella Hot Tip #3 — There is no magical Rolodex

Everywhere I go, people are searching for the magic list – somebody else’s list that they can get a hold of that will give them the names of the people to ask for money. It doesn’t exist. You have to create your own list. It starts with who you know, then goes to who they know. Sit down and start writing out names. Have everybody in your organization do the same. Eureka! You now have a prospect list.

Hella Hot Tip #4 — Focus on six degrees of bringing home the bacon

Kevin Bacon is reputed to have been in so many films that every other actor is connected to him and through him to everybody else. This is called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. It’s based on Six Degrees of Separation. In the 1960s, a social scientist determined that we are ALL connected by no more than six degrees of separation. Anybody you could want to know is already part of your network. You just need to connect the dots.

Hella Hot Tip #5 — Your fundraising is only as good as your ideas

Spend time honing your message. What is your mission? What is your vision? What are your immediate objectives? What major ideas inform your actions? Who are you and why are you here, doing this thing? Now spend time getting good at talking about what you do. Practice. Create stories that show your impact. Who have you helped? What is their story? Put a face on this thing. Inspire me.

Hella Hot Tip #6 — Go out and ask, already!

It seems ridiculous that I have to say this. But you have to ask in order to raise money. Lots of people get stuck in the courtship and can’t seem to get to the consummation. When in doubt about timing, amount, etc. – just ask. The worst thing that can happen is that they will say no. The best thing that could happen is that they will say yes.

Hella Hot Tip #7 — There is no such thing as no

A board member of a nonprofit I used to work for once said of me, “For Holly, all roads lead to yes.” That’s true. I don’t believe in no. If I ask someone for money and they tell me no, I understand that this “no” is not the ending place. I need to find out why they said no. Is it the amount? My timing? Do they have unanswered questions? Do they want to do this a special way, maybe different from the way I’m asking them to do it? My job is to work with them to find a way to get past the no. I have to be patient and realize that it takes two, three, maybe more attempts to get the yes I want. Be persistent. Persistence pays off.

In fundraising solidarity,
Holly Million

(Photo by Peter 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)

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)

How to Ask People for Money Webinar

Are you tired of barking up the same old foundation trees for grants for your film? Have you noticed that the well of grant funding has shriveled and dried up? That’s why you need to learn how to ask people for money.

Individuals are certainly feeling the pinch of the economy, but unlike institutional funders, individuals have more discretion with how they spend their money, even in bad times, and there are different factors that motivate them to give in good times or bad.

I’ve been teaching a popular class called “How to Ask People from Money” through the San Francisco Film Society for over a year. Now, I am proud to introduce a webinar version of the class. The webinar takes place Saturday, June 13 from 10 AM to Noon and is hosted on DimDim.com. The webinar is a bargain at $25 per SFFS member and $35 for non-members, and you will leave with greater knowledge and power over your individual donor fundraising than you ever would have imagined.

Asking people for money….it’s easier than you think! Come take my webinar. Click this link to register.

Six Degrees of Bringin’ Home the Bacon!


Here’s a question I get asked all the time in endless variations. “Holly, there is this guy in town I think might be interested in my film. How do I ask him for money?” In response, without even knowing who Mr. Potential Donor is, let me tell you what I would do.

My first step in planning a major-donor solicitation or “ask” is playing my own version of the well-known game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Legend says actor Kevin Bacon has been in so many films that every other actor is connected to him, somehow, through these films. My personal version of the game is “Six Degrees of Bringing Home the Bacon.” First, I search my brain to figure out who I already know who has a connection to the potential donor. Within my network of friends, family, colleagues, and passing acquaintances, there has got to be somebody who knows him directly or who knows somebody who knows him. I guarantee the same is true for you. Put the word out among your friends, your LinkedIn connections, everyone you meet. For example, a friend wanted to interview Richard Branson for her film and wondered if I knew how to get a hold of him. Flattering. I didn’t, but a few days later, I met another filmmaker who had interviewed Branson and could give me his contact information. That same week, at a party, I also met a woman who turned out to be Branson’s personal assistant! Just like that, my friend was only two degrees away from the bearded billionaire!

Six Degrees of Bringing Home the Bacon is fun and profitable. Try this at home. You’ll see.