Careers and Ed: Look Ma, no grants - Page 2

How one independent filmmaker scored alternative arts funding

"With the exception of walking my dog, I don't think I left my home for three or four days," he remembers. After the initial bout of earth-shattering depression, he decided that if he had to, he would shoulder the whole $60,000 budget himself and just go into debt. "Bankruptcy is not the most desirable thing, but there are worse things to go bankrupt for."


Chen decided to get a fiscal sponsor, a strategy he used to help fund his documentary Sandman, which aired on KQED last year. On paper, fiscal sponsorship seems like a counterproductive measure — the artist ends up actually paying the sponsor, not the other way around. But sometimes it makes real financial sense. Because of a sponsor's nonprofit status, any person or organization making a donation will be able to write it off come tax time. Donations are made to a foundation under the project's name, the foundation processes the paperwork, and then it gives the money to the artist less a fee. Essentially, the artist is piggybacking on the organization's charity status. Any nonprofit can offer fiscal sponsorship, but it's a good idea to go with one that knows what it's doing — this will involve the IRS, after all. Another big benefit: sponsorship allows the artist to apply for grant funding that is usually only available to tax-exempt organizations.

For Memory Book, Chen is partnering with the San Francisco Film Arts Foundation (, which takes 7 percent of funds raised for its fee. This is higher than the 4 or 5 percent fee some foundations charge, but Film Arts makes up for it with a speedy turnaround time. Instead of having to wait for his money for up to seven or eight months, Chen will get it "as soon as the checks clear." Attaining a Film Arts sponsorship can be an arduous two- or three-month process, but the organization's criteria are based more on fiscal feasibility and sound planning than inherent artistic value. If your fundraising outline consists of, as Chen puts it, a "cupcake sale every Saturday," you've got problems.

For fiscal sponsorship for all disciplines, check out the New York Foundation for the Arts (, which sponsors artists nationwide, offers assistance in everything from fundraising and budgeting to bookkeeping services, and has a detailed online database of available grants, NYFA Source.


Now that you're nonprofited up, what's the next step? For Chen, that was the $60,000 question. First he made sure his current lifestyle wasn't going to siphon any money away from his project. "I cut out all luxury items," he says. "I stopped going to movies." He budgeted $20 a week for groceries (including pie). "I let my hair grow," he continues. "People wanted gifts for weddings. That wasn't going to happen. Their present was me not starving."

Then Chen talked to a friend who mentioned she had experience arranging benefit dinners for various causes and asked if he was interested. "It was such a foreign idea," he says. "But she took care of almost everything." That included securing a private chef (who donated his services and provided his home for the feast), contacting retailers such as Mission District specialty grocery Bi-Rite Market (which donated the meat and produce), and convincing wine wholesalers to donate three bottles of vino per course. Students from City College's culinary department volunteered to serve the 16 guests, who each paid a minimum of $250 to attend. From the dinner alone Chen raised $3,500. It might not sound like much, but put it in perspective: the Uganda hotel for his crew of four will cost $2,000 for the 21-day duration of the shoot.

Chen soon realized that directly soliciting in-kind donations might be the way to go.

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