When it comes to raising money, consider the long game.
Take your time.
Do it right.
A trusted adage to be sure. And also a very catchy tune by the highly underrated SOS Band. Please forgive the flashbacks; I just returned from my 30th college reunion, which means I’m recovering from a 72-hour vortex of lifelong friends, 80’s nostalgia, and more than a weekend’s share of booze.
And I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. I confess I’m a reunion junkie — be they family, school, band, or whatever. They are always positive experiences, reinforcing strong emotional bonds amongst a group of people that will last forever.
For the universities, reunions also represent major fundraising opportunities. This is understandable and justifiable. Most institutions lean heavily on their alums for support.
This year, however, the way the asks were made rubbed me the wrong way. Part of it had to do with a business-as-usual approach despite my school wrestling with some headline-worthy scandals.
The institution will survive, of course, but given that the administration stuck to the same fundraising playbook during this challenging time struck me as myopic. Worse yet, my fellow class leaders and I were, on at least one occasion, directed to solicit our classmates for gifts with little to no context on how the university planned to address the admissions scandal in particular. Crisis management plans aren’t formulated overnight in most cases, so why not also exercise a little situational awareness when it comes to making philanthropic asks? This felt like taking ‘be true to your school’ a little too far.
But I digress…
At this point you’re probably wondering what this has to do with film or this blog or Lunacy? Maybe I’ve tapped into the strict definition of the latter, but bear with me as I try and connect some dots.
Last month I wrapped up teaching the latest (17th*) iteration of my “Business Plan Primer” class at Film Independent in Los Angeles. And while we do cover business plans, the class probably needs a new name. It’s really evolved into a comprehensive overview of raising money, and the ethical, legal, and diplomatic tightropes we have to walk when soliciting high-risk investments.
The overriding theme is that raising money is hard, at least partially because the people you’re asking have no shortage of worthy causes to support. In providing my students with some tips on how to tilt the odds in their favor, I started noticing a connection — or more accurately a disconnect — between these tips and our reunion fundraising efforts. For instance:
- Make it personal. Is there an emotional dimension to the potential investment? Does the person you’re asking have a personal connection to you, your team, the story you wish to tell, the location where you will shoot? They may be more inclined to say yes if so.
- Good > Fast. We all know the saying Fast, Good, Cheap: Pick two. More simply, you’ll almost always fare better by taking your time to foster good, solid relationships rather than pressuring folks to participate with gun-to-head deadlines. Another benefit to a measured approach? Repeat business. Giving folks breathing room is a sign of respect, and that attribute will set you apart from many who have their hand out. You know, take your time, do it right.
- Persistence vs. Pain-in-the-assence. When it comes to how many times you ask a person for something, don’t overdo it. Everyone is super busy and may not be able to get back to you as soon as you’d like. And some people simply never get back to you. Be polite and persistent but know when to say when. Don’t fill up people’s inboxes. Don’t invade people’s privacy. Sometimes accepting a “soft no” is hard to do, but accepting rejection gracefully often leaves you in a position to reapproach in the future. Being a creep, on the other hand, closes doors forever.
In seeking capital for independent film, we have the distinct challenge of selling an investment that is inherently risky, one that in most cases won’t provide a substantive return, and one that often won’t even yield a meaningful tax benefit until years after the check is written. So you really must embrace a fundraising philosophy that embodies the spirit of these three points or you are likely doomed to fail.
When it comes to raising money for your alma mater? Well, that should be a much easier path to “yes”: It’s got high emotional relevance, there’s no deadline, and most (content) alumni want to give when they are able.
But if the above three points were a test against which I
was grading our recent reunion fundraising efforts, I think we would have failed all three. And trust me, we still raised a good bit of dough. Which makes me wonder how much we are leaving on the table by not taking a more nuanced approach. By not taking our time and doing it right.
Incidentally, if you don’t think this matters, just remember there’s more than a little student debt out there, and alumni philanthropy is one of the big ways to help keep current and future students from generating more of it.
* This class was great — they actually organized a private screening and Q&A of RUST CREEK a few weeks after the class wrapped. What a fabulous and nice group!
Lunacy Productions’ head honcho Stu Pollard has produced dozens of independent films, including the 2019 thriller Rust Creek and the hilarious romantic comedy Plus One starring Jack Quaid and Maya Erskine. Stu also helped produce Alexandra Shiva’s documentary This Is Home (Audience Award, 2018 Sundance Film Festival), the powerful high school drama And Then I Go (2017), and Zachary Trietz’s Men Go to Battle (Best Narrative Feature, 2015 Tribeca Film Festival), as well as the coming-of-age drama The Short History of the Long Road, due out later this year. He has taught at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and Film Independent.