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This is the story of one small, specialized foundation that has made significant social impact across a range of issues and themes. 

In July of 1995, the thermometer in Chicago hit 106 degrees. The city recorded 739 heat-related deaths. In early 2020, COVID-19 hit major cities, including Chicago, which has now recorded more than 2,700 deaths. The heat wave and the pandemic share some tragic commonalities, including complicating factors of race, poverty and other “pre-existing conditions.” 

We might have forgotten this history and missed how it is repeating itself today were it not for “Cooked: Survival by ZIP Code,” a 2018 documentary by Peabody winner Judith Gelfand, which tells the story of the deadly 1995 heat wave. The film asks us to rethink assumptions about disasters and underlying vulnerabilities and preparedness.

Gelfand told IP that “the COVID-19 death map and the heat death map from 1995 are essentially the same map, and the zip codes that were hurt the most by the heat were hurt because those were the communities where people were struggling with underlying health conditions every single day, not just during a heat wave.” 

Gelfand’s film, along with several hundred others, was made possible in part by the Fledgling Fund, a go-to source for independent filmmakers. Now, after 15 years and $14 million, Fledgling will no longer play that role. Fledgling’s founder, Diana Barrett, recently announced that “we will not be reopening our application process or accepting proposals for new media projects.” The fund will focus on other priorities. But Fledgling’s decade and a half of media funding leaves behind a lasting legacy.

More Than Just Funding Films 

Film and media projects backed by Fledgling have touched nearly every challenge and crisis of our time: environment, aging, poverty, cancer, suicide, life after prison, race and gender, the future of democracy. For anyone looking for film funding, Fledgling has been an essential part of the search. That’s because most foundation guidelines suggest you look elsewhere, shooing away grantseekers with sweeping exclusions like “no funding for films or videos.” 

Eight years ago, the Council on Foundations issued a report neatly summarizing foundations’ objections to funding individual filmmakers: films cost too much, they might never be seen by important audiences, and grantmakers find it hard to measure the impact of these projects.

The Fledgling Fund has stood as one of a handful of exceptions to this philanthropic skepticism since its founding, supporting filmmakers even as it has acknowledged that the results of such funding are often tough to gauge. 

“I’d like to be able to say we could measure everything, but we can’t,” says Barrett. “You spend two hours reading to a child and what are the metrics? I don’t know, but maybe in two or three years, that child will say, ‘I remember that book that my mother read.’ I think metrics sometimes have a very long tail.” 

Fledgling has described its mission as “improving the lives of vulnerable populations,” guided by the belief that “film and other creative media projects can educate, engage and mobilize us around entrenched and complex social issues.”

Developing media projects in collaboration with the people who have “boots on the ground” has been a Fledgling hallmark. The foundation’s Engagement Lab brought a small number of filmmakers together with advisors and consultants to devise ways to work more closely with vulnerable populations. 

One of the 2016 Engagement Lab participating films was “Becoming Johanna,” the profile of a transgender teen and her fight for acceptance. According to the filmmaker, Jonathan Skurnick, who is also founder of the Youth and Gender Media Project, the Fledgling Fund’s hands-on guidance made all the difference.

“They took their whole game up to another level… filmmakers don’t necessarily have all the skill set and the support they need to do the engagement the way they want to do in their proposal. So they brought in a bunch of filmmakers, supported them for an entire year to really give them the interpersonal connections and support to do as good a job as possible. That level of commitment was really over and above. It was an amazing experience.”

A Flexible Model 

One the foundation’s strengths, says Barrett, is its flexibility. She and her small staff could turn on a dime. 

For example, after the 2016 election, Fledgling put together a rapid-response fund within three days and quickly began moving out small grants to experienced filmmakers who were using either found or new footage to react to Trump’s victory.

“We just had a sense that there had to be a social justice storytelling capability that could react really quickly. And so we gave out a whole bunch of grants. I don’t even know what the financial bottom line was. But we were able to read a proposal, get back to the filmmakers within a week. And we funded all sorts of things that we felt could be distributed quickly, and get on people’s desks and in their minds quickly.”

Fledgling has done more than just write checks to filmmakers. Through its Engagement Lab and other efforts, Barrett and her colleagues fund engaged grantees and collaborators to integrate the films into advocacy, activism and outreach. For Gelfand, this approach to supporting media was a godsend.

“I’ve always been very committed and involved in linking whatever films I make to movements for justice and equity and environmental justice.” Gelfand says Fledgling understood that supporting such efforts required field building that boosted both individual filmmakers and their institutional partners.

To work with so many issues and find ways to maximize the impact of small grants, “partners have been the mainstay of what we’ve done from the very beginning,” says Barrett. This is her answer to the Council on Foundations’ worry that films might not make it to key audiences. 

“Becoming Johanna” offers an example of how social justice films can have legs when connected to the right institutional partners. Skurnick says it was one of a series of four shorter films about trans and gender expansive youth that have been shown in K-12 schools and universities across North America and beyond. The films have also been used “to train institutions and individuals on how to be more inclusive, celebratory and accepting of non-binary youth.” 

During Skurnick’s struggle to find support for the films, he ran into a lot of resistance, even from progressive funders. He says that Fledgling Fund was “the only funder who understood the importance and power of getting these films into the hands of school communities who were struggling with a sudden influx of gender nonconforming youth… Their first grant helped me with post production, but more importantly, it funded the training of an entire school district to be more inclusive of gender nonconforming youth. Their second grant funded the creation of study guides for all four films in the series.” 

Defining Success 

Skurnick’s success in contributing to a critical debate helps explain why Diana Barrett believes that Fledgling has been able to develop “a set of metrics around film and storytelling.” In fact, the impact of grantmaking in this space is not as intangible as it might seem. 

Barrett says that many factors come into play in gauging the success of funding films: “We are not creatures of a single data point. We think it’s the last data point that really changed our minds, but it’s not. It’s the 27 data points that we kind of semi-ignored.”

Also, Fledgling found that it’s important not to gauge the impact of any single film in isolation. Specific projects tend to be part of a larger body of media work and activism.“It takes more than one movie to move the dial,” says Judith Gelfand. “Change takes a long time. So change makers need multiple films that explore an issue from multiple perspectives. They don’t need just one movie. As we used to say, there’s no cinematic bullet.”

Barrett says that foundations need to understand investments in varied kinds of media projects as part of a larger funding strategy. “You have to find lots of different vehicles to get the job done… Eventually, there’s going to be cultural change, and it’s not because of that one project you funded.”

This is, perhaps, Fledgling’s most important takeaway: the recognition that single media messages by themselves do not make things happen—but they have real impact when they are embedded in all the other ways to catch and hold attention.

There’s evidence that the model works. Diana Barrett talks about one small example: a film called “Sin by Silence” that opened at the Cleveland International Film Festival. It brought attention to the fact that past histories of domestic violence are often inadmissible as evidence in cases where women killed their husbands in self-defense.

“As a result of that film—I hardly ever use those words in the same sentence, because causality is really difficult to attribute—but as a result of that film, there were statutes passed in the legislature of California called the ‘Sin by Silence’ bills. They changed that whole issue of preexisting evidence. So that’s impact.”

Jonathan Skurnick is sorry to see Fledgling’s change of direction. “They were unique in the field. There are definitely other funders who fund, raise an audience engagement, and thank God for them, but there was kind of a special touch and perspective that they brought to it.”

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