Avoid These Top 5 Mistakes In Documentary Funding

Top 5 Mistakes In Documentary Funding by documentary filmmaker, Faith Fuller

Are you in need of funding for your documentary?

Are you uncomfortable asking people for money? Are you baffled by the whole fundraising process? Sometimes, just knowing a few simple rules and avoiding some common mistakes can make all the difference in your fundraising success.


Top 5 Mistakes In Documentary Funding

1. Not having a trailer – There’s nothing that can catapult or doom a documentary funding effort like a trailer. If you have a fantastic trailer that moves people emotionally, your chances for donations dramatically improve.

According to the crowd-funding platform IndieGoGo, campaigns with videos raise 122% more money than those without. You not only need a video, but that video needs to hit an emotional nerve with the audience. And NEVER show your video online without having a donate button right next to the video. If people are moved by your trailer, they need a way to donate right then and there while they’re “in the moment” and feeling inspired.

2. Not asking – We all know how nerve-wracking it can be during documentary funding to ask someone for money. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get! If you’re nervous about asking someone for money, ask yourself why you feel nervous. Have you done ample research to understand whether or not your project is a good fit with the needs and interests of your potential donor? Have you built a relationship with the person? Have you done your research to figure out how much the person is capable of giving?

The more information you have, the more confidence it will give you that you’re making the right ask at the right time. A documentary funding trick I learned from fundraising expert Marc Pitman is to take a “prop” with you to a meeting where you’ll be asking for money. That prop can be your trailer, some raw footage you just shot, photos of a location you’re scouting to shoot some re-enactments, etc. A prop can help take focus off “the ask” and put you both on the same team discussing the “prop.” But there’s no way around it. To get a donation, you’ll have to ask for it.

This leads us to documentary funding mistake #3.

3. Talking too much – When people are nervous or they are super passionate about a subject, they tend to go on and on. Filmmakers make this mistake all the time. One common situation where this happens is during “the ask”. Imagine you’re sitting across from a potential major donor, you finally get up the nerve to ask for that big donation and then… you keep talking.

Big mistake! Here’s how it happens. You say something like: “I’d like to ask you to consider a gift of $25,000 for the documentary project.” (uncomfortable pause) “Um… but if you can’t that’s okay too.” Don’t do this! Don’t try to fill the uncomfortable silence. In documentary funding, as soon as you make the ask, BE QUIET. Let the ask sink in and let the other person respond FIRST. It’s hard to be quiet but it’s crucial.

4. Cold Calling– Cold calling almost never works in documentary funding. Typically, there must be some kind of pre-existing relationship and trust built up before someone will give money for a cause (at least for significant amounts of money). So if you’re reaching out to a potential donor for money, don’t try to ask for money on that very first call. The first time you reach out to a person or organization, it is simply to begin a relationship. You wouldn’t ask someone to marry you on the first date, would you?

There’s a saying in documentary funding: if you ask for money you’ll get advice, if you ask for advice you’ll get money. Make it your priority to listen and engage with the potential donors. Find out THEIR needs and interests. Do a lot of listening and try to figure out if your project is a natural fit with the person or organization FIRST before asking for money. For example, get their advice on how you should proceed with your project or who they would suggest you contact for support. Build trust and give the person time to understand what you’re trying to accomplish. The goal is to get them thinking about you and your project in a positive way!

5. Going it alone – Don’t make the mistake I did when I first started making documentaries and try and do the documentary funding thing alone. Having a documentary funding team makes the fundraising process MUCH easier, especially if you are inexperienced with the fundraising process. Get some “gray hair” on your team and/or people who have connections in the business world. Expanding your field of influence can significantly boost your fundraising success.

The biggest mistake of all is to let the documentary funding process bog you down. There is always a way to find money! Use those brilliant creative skills you were born with to “think outside the box” and come up with fundraising ideas unique to YOUR project. If you want more information on how to make a documentary, you might want to check out Faith Fuller’s Documentary Fundraising Toolkit.

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Faith Fuller is the primary author of www.Desktop-Documentaries.com and the director of the award-winning documentary Briars in the Cotton Patch: The Story of Koinonia Farm which was broadcast nationally on PBS from 2005 – 2010. She helps filmmakers seeking ideas on how to make a documentary.


  1. says

    Hey Paul,
    Not all stock footage is expensive. In fact, you can find tons of free public domain stuff at archive.org. Sometimes shooting new footage is better/less expensive, sometimes not. All depends on the vision for your film and your resources.

  2. Paul says

    What about splurging all your budget on expensive stock footage? If you’re shooting a historical documentary a lot of your footage has to come from somewhere, right? Just wondering if there’s a better alternative than limiting the use of historical footage and just having lots of interviews and fresh footage of places revisited years after the events.

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