Not for profits and documentary films

Not for profits have a story to tell, and documentary filmmakers like to tell stories.


These shared interests can inspire partnerships that can be immensely powerful. Working together, these groups can achieve their mutual goals and effect long lasting change.

Documentary Australia enables not-for-profits to advance their causes through effective partnering with grantmakers and filmmakers who share their vision.

We encourage collaboration between philanthropic grantmakers, not-for-profits and documentary filmmakers, and in doing so facilitate the delivery of messages and perspectives that need to get out into the wider community.


Join our impact partner network


How to assess documentary projects as a tool for your NFP’s advocacy goals


Well-made documentaries have the ability to educate, inform, empower, raise awareness and create meaningful social change, and aligning your not for profit with a powerful documentary can be a wonderful way of extending and enhancing your organisation’s social impact.

When choosing documentary projects to align with and/ or support, it’s important, therefore, for your not for profit to assess whether the objectives of the documentary will truly benefit your organisation’s own advocacy goals.

Here are some key points to consider when assessing any documentary project:

Long- and short-term objectives of the project

Does the documentary aim to educate school students on a particular issue? Is it designed as a catalyst for government action or as a fundraising tool? Whatever its objectives may be, do these objectives correlate with, address or extend the interest areas or advocacy goals of your not for profit? Why is the documentary suitable for not for profit partnership?

Demonstrated need for the project

Does the documentary project stem from a research project or a pilot study that uncovers a particular need, such as giving a voice to a disenfranchised community? Does the documentary project submission clearly outline the social change it will help facilitate, and put forward a compelling argument about its ability to instigate this change?

Main beneficiaries of the project

Which individuals, organisations and communities will benefit from and be able to make use of the documentary project? How do the documentary filmmakers plan to target and connect with these groups during distribution and outreach? Do the filmmakers have a detailed impact and outreach strategy?

Who is responsible for the project?

Who are the key creatives involved in the documentary project? Do they have an extended company profile, a positive track record with previous investors, and ready examples of previously completed projects and outcomes? Of course, some documentary teams may include less experienced filmmakers, but it is ideal to align with a project guided by at least one experienced practitioner.

Budget and funding scope of the project

What is the project budget? Where are these funds being sourced? If you are coming on board as a funder, remember that there may be other investors involved in the project: private investors, other foundations, or government funding agencies, for example. Seeking and exchanging information from other funders during the project assessment process is important, to ensure, for example, that the fees of the key creatives are in line with industry standards.


To learn more about documentary budgets

Promotion of the project

What specific strategies, tools, resources and partnerships will the documentary filmmakers use to draw people to their film? If the project involves a website, how will the filmmakers drive people to the site? What kinds of links will be associated with the site and what ideas does the producer have in terms of promotion and advertising? Are these in keeping with the values and goals of your not for profit?

Measuring success of the project

How do the documentary filmmakers plan to measure and evaluate the success of their film against its planned long- and short-term objectives, to ensure it is making meaningful change? Will the filmmakers create surveys and polls to evaluate their film’s impact? Are they planning a media content analysis, or planning to track the number of people signing a petition? Do they have a detailed, clearly defined measurement and evaluation strategy?

Time frame of the project

Remember that documentary project often progress in stages, with each stage having a designated time frame. The stages are development, production, post-production, outreach and impact., and if you are either coming on board as a funder or using the film for your own organisational purposes, you can choose to support the project at any or all stages. It may also be useful to ask the documentary team whether they are planning the timing of any of their projects’ stages to coincide with public campaigns or events, as this may help profile projects in ways beneficial to all involved.


Understanding the structure of documentary proposals, for NFPs


Along with their broader project submission as explored in the previous section, documentary filmmakers will typically present your not for profit with a film proposal. Proposals are written and visual representations of the story a film will tell, and the style it will be told in.

Strong proposals implicitly point to the wider significance and context of the story, as well as to its potential impact. Proposals will generally include a brief synopsis, an outline and a full treatment. Here, we break down each section for you:

The synopsis

The synopsis tells the basic story of a film in a sentence, a paragraph or a page.

A sentence or two will include the subject, the characters, the context and what might unfold.

A paragraph tells in a few sentences whose story it is, where it takes place and what is likely to happen. It will also point to the broader themes that the story explores. This indicates the wider significance and potential impact of the story.

A one-page synopsis gives more detail about the main characters, develops the themes, shows how they are played out by the characters, and makes the story structure apparent, indicating how it begins, develops and how it is likely to end. One-page synopses reveal the filmmaker’s intended interpretation of the subject.

The outline fleshes out the story structure and reveals how the issues will be explored. The outline, through its narrative structure and character description, reveals how the unfolding story delivers its argument. The chosen style for the documentary is clear from the outline, and this is where it is possible to judge whether the proposed style is appropriate for the story.
The outline may also explain which elements will be used in the storytelling, for example, archival footage, still photographs, dramatic re-enactments, or a stylised treatment of reality.

The outline also shows that the intentions of the filmmaker are achievable and allows the filmmaker to explain why they feel this story will have relevance to an audience.


Case studies


The treatment

The treatment builds on the outline and further illustrates the style that will be used to treat the material. It may include quotes from interviews, a description of how sound might be used, or a music sample, to give readers a feel for the proposed style.

A strong treatment describes the film as you would see and hear it on the screen. It retains the strong structure of the outline, and fleshes this out with charater quotes, visual descriptions, style, sound, subtext and rhythm. It frequently propels the story along with quotes from characters with each paragraph indicating the next scene or sequence.

A strong treatment will also develop themes and subtext. It will deal implicitly with wider issues of significance and make apparent why and how the story will connect with audiences.

It is important to remember that a treatment is still an intention or plan of how things might unfold, and not a dramatic script, which functions more as a blueprint for action. But if substantial research has been done and the filmmaker is well acquainted with the characters, their situation and what might be at stake for them, then the treatment can indicate potential narrative developments.

Other parts of documentary proposals

Often filmmakers have already shot some footage to give an indication of their characters, place and potential story. Watching rough footage can be misleading without a guide of what to look for in the material:

Research footage

During research, many filmmakers will film material to get a sense of characters or to follow time-critical action, which needs to be documented quickly before waiting for committed funding. Research footage is often rough – the camera may move around a lot and the sound may be less than perfect.

However, look for quality within the characters, place or situation that will engage viewers emotionally in a potential story. It is important to look beyond the technical weaknesses of research footage to see if there is something compelling in the characters and their context that aligns with your not for profit’s goals or illustrates the issues you wish to support.

The intention of research footage is mainly to show character and location, and should not be judged as the production quality of the final film.

Production footage

When a filmmaker has applied for funding to support a work in progress, they may submit footage captured with the intention of using it in their finished film. This footage should be a different quality to research footage. It should be of a higher standard technically, good to watch and easy to hear. Sound recording is extremely important in documentary production; even if the pictures look good, if you cannot hear what people are saying, viewers will switch off.

Production footage may not have captured the whole story or the complete event revealing the issues. As a work in progress there may only be sections of the whole that have been recorded, but there should be clear evidence of engaging characters involved in a developing situation.


Case Study

One example of a successful partnership between a not-for-profit and a documentary is the collaboration between the Australian Conservation Foundaton (ACF) and the documentary An Inconvenient Truth.





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