Thanks to Harold Phillips, an actor friend who twittered he was in a webisode, I happened upon a creative fundraising and marketing tool for an indie film project in Portland. Mike Vogel wrote and directed “The Waiting List,” a feature-length comedy currently playing at festivals, as well as the bike-themed short “Claire Rides a Bike.” He is also author of the Needle Award winning novel “Isn’t That Bigamy?” and runs Front Avenue, his production company. I asked him about his funding/marketing videos.

Tell me where you got the idea for these videos.

Mike Vogel

Mike Vogel

Everyone worked for “deferred payment” on my first feature, “The Waiting List.” So the second time around, I wanted to at least attempt to secure some sort of funding. After I wrote the script for “Did You Kiss Anyone?” I made a production schedule, budget, and a handsome PDF with headshot photos and charts and all that. But then it occurred to me that I don’t know one person who would drop $10,000 to be an equity investor in a feature, let alone ten or twenty people. But I know a handful of people who might donate $20 or $50, and so if I could target those people and the people they know, then maybe I’d have enough to cover basic production costs. But in order to get those contributors engaged, I wanted to give them something upfront, not just the promise of a movie I hadn’t shot. So, inspired by webisodes like “Wainy Days” and shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” I outlined the first five episodes of “Did You Cast Anyone?” and started asking favors from actor friends.

How do these fundraising/marketing videos represent the project you want to produce?

Both the movie “Did You Kiss Anyone?” and the webisodes “Did You Cast Anyone?” are comedies. But the webisodes are much broader comedy. Goofy, silly things that are better suited for the web. The actors in the webisodes will actually be in the movie playing the characters they talk about in the webisodes. The webisodes will continue into production and post-production because it’s a good way to build an audience regardless of whether or not that audience is donating money right away. Hopefully they’ll feel more involved and will want to tell friends to go see or buy the movie when it’s available.

How’s it going so far? Has it accomplished what you wanted?

We’ve received a few donations on our website but not enough to start shooting yet. There’s a DIY (Do-It-Yourself) style of filmmaking that I think is dead. If it’s not dead, it’s totally uninteresting. DIWO (Do-It-With-Others) is a lot more exciting. Ideally, the webisodes might help us find someone who wants to invest $10K or $20K in an independent film. But even if that doesn’t happen, we’re building an audience for a movie before we even make the movie. And we’re having a hell of a lot of fun doing it.

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Some thank you cards I've received...

Some thank you cards I've received...

I received some comments from experienced creatives about how they handle requests for brain-picking. Most people will respond if someone asks politely and with respect. But young artists and even working professionals need to realize that what they’re requesting is a “favor” and that the mentor is under no obligation to help them.

Todd Melby describes a mentor’s worst case scenario:

“I volunteered to mentor a reporter through a professional journalism organization. When I contacted the reporter, she seemed distracted on the phone. When we set up a time for me to evaluate one of her stories, I prepared and called her at the appointed time. She wasn’t there and didn’t return my call or email. A month later, she wanted to start over and try again. I declined.”

Kimberly Haas lays out the number one obstacle an established working artist faces when someone out of the blue asks for help. This goes for professionals as well as those new to the field.

“I struggle with this. Yes, I want to be magnanimous and supportive of new producers, but maybe because I work in a very specific area of radio production, the requests I get all seem go something like ‘I’m into the same kind of music and want to produce a show just like Echoes.’ My internal reaction is usually, ‘So you want me to help you compete with me?'”

It’s important consider why someone in the business would want to freely hand over information it took them years to acquire. Again I stress offering your own time to volunteer, bartering a skill you have that you can offer in trade or paying for actual consultation time.

Finally, Michael Van Meter makes an important point about following through with a thank you note.

“One item to add to your list: Say “Thank You” after the brain-picking session. A formal card or other handwritten note is always groovy, but at least an e-mailed acknowledgement of the value of the time is an important bit of manners that some recent beneficiaries of my time have blown off.

An email thank you is okay but a thank you card in the mail means so much more! I proudly display mine on my office wall. If someone volunteers their time to talk to you, the very least you can do is send a thank-you card. It really helps reinforce the idea that mentors haven’t wasted their time and are appreciated. This makes the mentor more likely to help someone else in the future!

Established Working Artists…

(c) Creative Commons

(c) Creative Commons

How many times have you been in this situation?

Someone, generally younger or recently moved to town or someone who just heard your name but doesn’t really know much about you, calls or emails out of the blue and asks this:

“Hi, I’m new in town and want to do what you do and someone said you were good at this and I should call you? Let’s meet for coffee, tea or lunch? I’d like to pick your brain!”

Established artists, performers, writers, media producers will generall breathe a collective sigh… and then ask the question, what’s in it for me?

Yes, we’d like to help the world and new generations to continue the propagation of our artforms and professions but when you’re a freelancing independent or someone running a small nonprofit, there are only so many hours in the day.

So here are three guideposts to help in fine art of Brainpicking.

1) Research the person who you’d like to get valuable info from.

2) Offer them something in return… Offer to BUY them coffee, tea, drinks or lunch. Make sure it’s clear it’s your treat. Or better yet, offer to intern or do some volunteer work for them—and mean it!

3) Be very respectful of their time and set a limit. Try to ask something like: “Do you have time for a 10-minute phone chat? Or may I email you a couple questions that you could answer at your convenience or do you have time to meet for half an hour for a drink or quick lunch?” Don’t assume they have a ton of time. And definitely be brief about who you are and what you want. No angst-driven long emails about what you want to do with your life and what makes you special, please.

Now none of these suggestions may work. It really depends on the person and what work or life deadines someone might have. Never get angry that doesn’t have the time. They’re most likely working hard to fund their bliss too.

That’s not to say I haven’t made some really good friends from folks who have sought me out because they knew and respected my work and offered to buy me latte or cocktail. But when you get several emails a week from folks, you learn to be quite choosy when responding to these requests.

Ultimately, the best way to pick someone’s brain is to find out if they do consulting work or if you can get funding to consult with them on a professional level. If that’s not an option then try these three rules and always respect their time…and be nice out there!

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Photo Credit: Richard Jensen

Photo Credit: Richard Jensen

Interesting post about deciding factors on foundation giving. This could well apply to arts grants as well. I think track record, skill and experience as well as a great project idea are all important factors. But outreach is equally important these days for most funders. Check out this post from the Knight Citizen News Network. It’s geared toward citizen journalism projects but that could also apply to grassroots arts/outreach projects.


How does a foundation decide what to fund? A good place to start is to map out the information needs of its community.

“It boils down to, ‘What is the community lacking?’ ” said Gary Kebbel, Knight Foundation’s journalism program director. “What is specific to that community where a community foundation can make a difference?”

“Has the local newspaper just laid off an investigative reporter? Maybe there’s a way to fund an investigative chair at that newspaper. Has the local newspaper just laid off the arts critic? Maybe there’s an arts blog that you ought to be funding. Has education reporting in the community always been weak? Maybe now’s the time to try to strengthen that.” Needs will be different from community to community, Kebbel said, so it’s best to ask, “What’s missing and what niche could I fill?”

Read the full post at Knight Citizen News Network.

keyboardI just completed a literary fellowship application and even a smallgrant proposal took me a while to get it just right. I tend to think about a proposal at least a month before it’s due. The rough draft  is generally done two to three weeks before the deadline, and the week it’s due I refine and refine. I spend a couple hours a day, and I’ll set it aside and look at it the next day. It’s amazing what weird wordings or unclear sentences you see with fresh eyes.

Here are some tips from my 25 years of putting together proposals and as an a consultant to many grantwriters. These can be used for any discipline.

1) Always read the guidelines carefully and highlight key points. Keep referring the guidelines as you write and start collating your materials.

2Have a specific idea that can be stated in one sentence in the opening line. For Crossing East, I used the tag line, “the first Asian American history series on public radio.” Jonathan Miller said he had “an idea for a radio series about traditional societies and cultural change.”  That’s a specific idea that makes a great opening line.

3) Talk to the funder before you start writing your proposal. Do not wait till the day of the deadline to try to reach a grants officer. Practice your one line as a pitch and be ready to flesh it out.

4) Devote a paragraph in the proposal detailing how much you know about the subject.

5) Write a short succinct bio and make sure you highlight your track record. A good proposal bio can be done in about 50 words.

6) Put passion into your words and ideas! Funders want to know why you care and why they should care.

7) Have several people proof your writing before you send it out.

8) Allow yourself at least a month (or more) to think about and write your proposal if possible.

9) Use good paper and fresh toner. You want your proposal to look good after you’ve been toiling away on it, right?

10) Hand deliver it if it’s local. Use an express mail serviceso you can track your packages. Make sure it gets there the day before or sooner and save yourself a lot of worry.

That’s it for now. If you have your own tips, please post comments!

(For more info about I helped others get their first funding, check out my consultations page.)


Photo by Richard Jensen

I love that people are starting to answer each other’s questions in the comments sections.  I promise a post soon about Mei Mei and how I matched funds for that project for both radio and theatre. But Richard sent this comment so I’m sharing it. This was in response to Meghan’s question about advice on securing a non-profit sponsor for grants…also known as an “umbrella.”

Richard writes:

“There is a good one in Durham NC called the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF.) Historically it seems a lot of documentary fiscal sponsors have dealt mostly with film makers. It does not hurt to ask though. SDF seemed pretty open to sponsoring a project I proposed last spring but because of scheduling reasons I went with another sponsor–again, one that primarily deals with film makers.”

I happen to run a non-profit, MediaRites, so it’s been awhile that I needed fiscal sponsorship for my arts projects.  But I have collaborated with numerous non-profit community and arts groups.  It is entirely possible to work with organizations that could act as an umbrella for grant applications to fund a radio/film documentary, a writing outreach project or a stage play.

For the latter, theatre companies do collaborate with directors, playwrights and actors who bring a project to them, and they pool together to raise funds for it.  I’ll talk a little about how I collaborated with theatres as a playwright.

When working on media projects (radio/tv/film/multimedia) community outreach is often crucial. It’s really important for freelancers and independent artists to reach out to the community around them. Not only do you get ideas for your projects but you also build trust that could lead to fiscal sponsorship.

Now there are many groups within your communities like Richard has suggested. There are national groups too. It’s worth researching and seeking them out for a rainy day…when you need that umbrella!

Dmae with George TakeiWhen I tell people what I do, often their eyes glaze over. It’s always been difficult to explain how I have juggled all my projects throughout the years. Because I have so many varied interests as a writer, an actor, a playwright, radio producer, essayist, and multimedia artist, I have worn a great many hats in my work. Add to that the roles of grantwriter, marketer and bookkeeper, then no wonder it’s hard to share my “profession” with people I meet. 

Yet I’ve made a living for 25 years on funding my passions for creating multicultural artist works.

An independent artist is a walking talking store of potential products waiting to be created. I can tell you how to leverage all your talents into a a paying project but first, I ask you, do you know what you want to do?

What are your talents? What do you feel passionately about that you would dedicate a portion of your life (and sometimes your sanity) to making a lifestyle of it? 

For me “funding my bliss” isn’t a 9-5 five day a week job. I don’t even consider it a job. It’s my lifestyle, my calling and my passion. It requires creativity and planning to match your passions, your talent with a certain business sense in order to fund it.

So what is it you really want to do?

(Coming Up: Some examples of how I funded projects)