Since the 1980s, hospitals, museums, public TV stations, and other community-based institutions have used an approach known as “outreach” to promote their services, explained Ellen Schneider. But useful as the “outreach” model is for certain kinds of promotion, it’s still unidirectional. Schneider’s organization, Active Voice, works to engage people in more open dialogue by using film and other media to put a human face on public policy. “We’re not satisfied anymore with just telling people about the stories, then asking them to watch the stories, come to a screening,” she said. “We want the stories to be part of an ecosystem of change.” Active Voice is not a funder, but it is inspiring grantmakers to think in new ways about how to spark civic dialogue.
Take the example of “A Doula Story,” a film by Danny Alpert about a birth coach in Chicago who serves teenage mothers, many of whom are alone and scared. In partnership with the Kindling Group film production company and the Chicago Health Connection, Active Voice used the film as the centerpiece of a campaign to activate grassroots groups and policymakers in support of doula programs. Active Voice organized screenings in six communities around the country that were considering establishing doula programs. The organization brought together small groups of hospital administrators, funders, and teen advocates and used the film to get a discussion started about what it would take to get programs going in their own communities, what assets they had, what obstacles they faced, and where funding would come from. Some are planning to set up local programs.
Active Voice also presented the film to policy audiences. “Now, was it the clip of ‘A Doula Story’ shown at the National Press Club that prompted the federal government to fund replication of the Chicago doula program?” asked Schneider rhetorically. “Of course not. But it was a vivid tool that brought policymakers and the press into those delivery rooms. That’s one of the reasons why this medium is so powerful. It takes people where they would not otherwise go.” With the help of a good “engagement campaign,” a film has the power not just to move people emotionally but to move them to action.
It’s a power funders are increasingly coming to recognize — especially, Schneider noted, as video replaces text as a key form of communication. What Active Voice offers, a grantmaker explained, is “multiple levels of engagement” beyond the film itself, such as community forums, interactive presentations online, or short versions of the film that can be screened in classrooms or other settings. Ideally, he said, the engagement campaign “is baked into the project. The film should have a shelf life of its own, but an organization like Active Voice helps build and engage audiences.”
Schneider understands some grantmakers’ reluctance to fund film or engagement campaigns. “It can be hard to measure exactly how it contributes to your portfolio. It does require some leaps of faith.” Those leaps may be getting shorter, thanks in part to extensive research by Active Voice on how film can have the biggest impact.
Active Voice is also examining collaborations, and how to structure them most productively, through its Interdependent Media project. One tactic they’ve used is to bring advocates, funders, and policy advisors into the conversation early on in the development of a film to inform the process and increase the ultimate impact, without compromising the filmmaker’s independence. Advocates and community organizations become invested in a film from the beginning; later on, they get a great story to galvanize their stakeholders.
The Interdependent Media model works especially well, said the grantmaker cited earlier, if the interests of the funder, filmmaker, and advocates are aligned. However, he cautioned, “funders should know what they’re getting into. It’s not just money; it’s a commitment of time and effort to the intellectual process.” The payoff, however, can be dramatic. By using film engagement campaigns in tandem with other strategies, “you’re moving your issue in different ways.”