How to evaluate a fundraising opportunity

A friend of mine in North Carolina is working on what sounds like a really awesome climate change video, and he recently asked me for fundraising advice. Here are the key points of the conversation, which I hope will benefit other people who know they’ll need money in order to launch an ambitious creative project.

“I’m starting to look around for capital,” he wrote to me, “namely philanthropists who won’t expect anything back. Any ideas about who might want to invest? I’m also thinking of going to SoCap in San Francisco, in October. Is that worthwhile?”

(SoCap is a big impact investing conference in San Francisco, and I’ll get into that in more detail in a minute.)

I love this stage of a project, when anything is possible! And of course it can be daunting, especially with something like a film that requires so much money to get off the ground. My friend is super smart to be thinking about fundraising early on in the process, and this is true of most projects: fundraising takes a LOT longer than you think it will, so if you know your’e going to need money at some point, start putting your fundraising plan together sooner rather than later!

The first thing that caused me a bit of alarm about his email was that he was using the terms “philanthropy” and “investing” interchangeably. He did, however, specify that he’s looking for funding that he won’t have to pay back, which indicates to me that he’s looking for philanthropic dollars… more commonly known as grants.

And so my first piece of advice to him was this: it is very important, when you’re fundraising, to be clear about whether you’re looking for investment dollars that you have a plan to pay back, probably with some sort of a return… OR grant money that you don’t intend to pay back.

I’ve noticed that people are using the word “investment” more and more to talk about things like donations to nonprofits, or even paying for yoga retreats… but if you don’t use direct, precise language about what kind of money you’re looking for, you may end up wasting a lot of time barking up the wrong trees, or worse, unintentionally misleading interested parties.

Now that we’ve clarified that Fred is looking for grants – let’s get to the second part of his question: “should I go to SoCap?” I’d been to the event several times, and certainly have some opinions about it. But those details couldn’t help me help him judge whether or not he would find it worthwhile…. because I had no idea why he was thinking about going.

Which brings me to an important point: as you’re evaluating ANY fundraising opportunity, Step #1 is to get clear about your goals and intentions. WHY are you interested in this opportunity? What are you hoping the results might be? Step #2 is to make sure that the opportunity you’re considering is a good fit as far as helping you achieve your goals.

Turns out my friend was considering this particular conference specifically to pitch his film to the investors and grantmakers he knew would be in attendance. Once I’d learned that, it was easy for me to say “NO, there are much better ways to spend your time and energy!”

Just because someone — or some foundation — or even 3,000 of them might be at a particular event does NOT mean that they are there to look for projects to invest in. And in this particular case, I knew from experience that the attendees are there with their investor hats on, not their grantmaker hats, meaning they’d be even less open to suggestions for how to give their money away.

In addition to considering your OWN intentions, fundraising is an exercise in making sure you’re considering the intentions of your would-be funders. Is the opportunity you’re considering a good match for these, too?

Now if my friend had told me he was hoping to learn more about how investor types work and what sort of issues they’re facing, what topics are hot for them these days, and to start getting a sense of which institutions are most interested in which issues… or if he had said, “I’ve been invited to go by a funder who said he’d introduce me to a few people he thinks might be interested,” that would have been a totally different story! In those cases I would have said “YES, if you have the time and the money, Go for it!”

But this event, if he’s looking for grants for a film? Nope.

Instead, I suggested he spend a few days researching film grant programs, and do some sleuthing to learn what organizations or grantmakers had funded similar film projects. Even just Googling “how to get funding for a climate change film” and following the first 10 or 15 links would likely be MUCH more fruitful than showing up alone, at an unfamiliar conference, with no warm leads.

I seriously hope my friend and his filmmaker find the money they need because it really does sound like an important film, and I can’t wait to see how his excellent writing skills will show up in a big screen! And I’m relieved that he didn’t end up wasting any time flying himself all the way across the country to find himself in a sea of strangers who weren’t there to hear his pitch.

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