How to Entice and Reward Potential Donors

Holly Million November 10, 2009

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! It 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.

Give 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.

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.

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.

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.

Did I mention the tax write-off/investment potential?
If you’re making a noncommercial 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?

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.

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 Web site, 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.

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.

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. Visit Million’s website at and her fundraising blog at Holly is organizing two camps for indie filmmakers in 2010. For more information, visit

  • 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.

  • 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 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.

  • Oct 19, 2011

    Essential SF: Irving Saraf and Allie Light

    Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.