Writing a Kick-Ass Funding Proposal

Holly Million September 14, 2009

To land a foundation grant for your film, you need a well-edited trailer or work sample, chutzpah and, importantly, a kick-ass written proposal. Today’s topic is that proposal. Here are the basic ingredients.

Good ideas

You have to know what you are trying to create and what success looks like for that creation. With a film, your proposal is only as strong as the ideas, images and people your film contains. Do you have strong characters that give the audience somebody to identify with or whose story will move them? Are existential truths revealed through your film? Are there ideas, themes, lessons and morals to give your film shape and life? Have you thought through what the film is about, and is there a driving rationale for what it contains?

A plan

Who is your film aimed at? How will they see it? How are you going to raise the money to make the film? How long will it take you to make the film? You need to be able to answer these questions with some sophistication. Don’t say your film is aimed at everybody. Nobody believes that. Are you planning to have your film screen in festivals? Put down a really well-considered list of festivals with an explanation of why you picked them and what your chances are for getting in. Don’t list the top ten festivals in North America and walk away. That will just look plain lazy. Will you use some creative tactics to help your distribution plan? Then give some juicy details about how that will work and what it will look like.

A well-painted picture

Can a reader envision this film? Can they see the characters and what they’re going through? Can they visualize what’s going to be on the screen? One way to help your readers do this is by using actual quotes from the film. Having the words of real people from the film on the pages of the proposal helps bring it alive. Another way can be to tie current events to what your film will be about. Put in some description of what’s happening in the world and show how your film directly connects with this. A film is visual. Make your written proposal as visual as possible.

A convincing argument

One of the things program officers, board members and panel reviewers will all do is to decide whether they believe you can accomplish what you say you want to accomplish. You can make your proposal more likely to convince them by doing the following things. One, use affirmative language, not tentative language. Don’t say, "I would like to interview Joe Schmo, expert on the subject," say, instead, "I will interview (or even better, have interviewed) Joe Schmo, and he says X." Include information about distribution to show you not only have a plan, but you are already taking steps to make it so. Do you want to be on Discovery Channel? Then call up Discovery Channel and talk to a producer. Now you can put that in your proposal. I helped one director I was working with by setting up a meeting with a producer at HBO. She met with him, and he was polite but noncommittal about the whole deal. However, the fact that the conversation had taken place allowed me to write in the proposal, "the director met with producer ‘Mr. X from HBO to discuss the project and share our trailer. HBO sees this project as being a potential fit for their CineMax outlet." All of that is absolutely true.

Good writing

Well-written means engaging. A good proposal has energy and verve. The sentence structure is active. There’s a certain muscular quality to the writing. It is not flabby. Every word on the page must contain valuable information that presents the case for funding. There are no typos or grammatical errors. Yes, I need to say that last line, because some proposals go out in the mail in absolutely awful shape. Proofread! If you’re not good at that, have somebody else do it.


You are just one person. Wonderful as you are, unless you are Ken Burns, you alone will not be enough to convince the foundations you can pull off your film as proposed. Solution? Surround yourself with an experienced team who enhance your skills and abilities. Find a known filmmaker who has been around the block a few times who can serve as your executive producer. Hire an experienced director of photography and editor. In addition to the crew, how about an advisory board? Ask experts in the field to serve as advisors to your film, and include their bios on the proposal. Last, nonprofit partners are often a big boost to your credibility with foundations that are used to funding nonprofits. They can understand a nonprofit and its programs a helluva lot more than they can understand Joe Q. Filmmaker and his film. Nonprofits can bolster your resources by helping secure interviews with key people, adding advisors to the advisory board, helping to screen and distribute your film to interested audiences, and assisting with joint fundraising efforts that truly benefit both partners.


You cannot imagine how many people think applying to foundations is a one-size-fits-all deal. They write one boilerplate proposal and don’t change a word with each submission. That is a formula for failure. Your proposal needs to shift and evolve with each application. That’s why you’re going to all that trouble of poring over the guidelines, sifting through the records, and becoming bosom-buddies with that nerdy program officer. Why would you go through that and then use the same proposal every time? That’s right up there with recycling used underwear! Please, be more civilized.

Holly Million is a consultant, author, and filmmaker with nearly two decades 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 Amazon.com. Visit Million’s website at www.hollymillion.com and her fundraising blog at fearfreefilmfundraising.blogspot.com. Holly is organizing two camps for indie filmmakers in 2010. Visit www.goldenpoppy.com for more information.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Nov 1, 2011

    Essential SF: Joshua Grannell

    Since its first event in 1998, Midnight Mass has become an SF institution, and Peaches Christ, well, she's its peerless warden and cult leader.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 21, 2011

    In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

    Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.