Tools for Productive Partnerships Among Creatives, Changemakers, and Funders

What You Should Know About...


How Creatives Make a Living

Change-makers and funders who have full-time jobs should take a little time to understand creatives’ funding sources. While most creatives draw on a range of sources, here are some of the ways that they pay for their work:

  • Grants from foundations, which occasionally stipulate making the content available for free or at low cost to grantees.
  • Investments from people who hope to recoup some money.
  • Personal finances.
  • Human labor — especially for low-budget projects with minimal external expenses.
  • Revenue from exhibition, fellowships, sales, and other distribution deals (Netflix, public media, etc.).


The problem of creatives’ funding is not new, but it’s gaining more attention. A study of 580 “documentary professionals” conducted by the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University found that less than a quarter of them make their primary living from their creative work, and 36% make no money at all from these endeavors. Indeed, half of the respondents reported that they spent from $5,000 to $50,000 of their own money on their recent documentaries. Of course, not all creatives work as “independents” (see sidebar, Creative Prototypes); but in any case, it’s important for change-makers to understand the range of business models that produce the stories, art, videos, and other projects they hope to engage with.

What Everyone Should Know About Creatives

  • The practice of collaborating in any form is controversial for many creatives, and unfamiliar to many others. For those who originated an idea or project, staying at the helm of a project is as important as the artistry.
  • Many creatives who are “in progress” with their projects will be reluctant to promise what their work will accomplish, or even what it will look like, before it’s completed.
  • They work in an unstable “marketplace” and therefore are often looking for opportunities to promote their artistry, their current work, and future revenue. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t simultaneously dedicated to your cause.
  • The amount of experience with strategic planning, nonprofit protocols, and other cornerstones of advocacy will vary from one creative to the next.
  • Creatives are people with complex lives, surprising perspectives, and a set of experiences that will influence their creative process. They may have multiple jobs, or work in completely different sectors to make ends meet.

Photo credit:

What Creatives Should Know About Change-Makers

  • Many change-makers want clarity, strategy, and shared expectations when it comes to working with creatives. That’s because they may be under pressure — especially as “early adopters” — to prove that art and culture have an impact. They may even need to show measurables like number of views, shares, sign-ups or donations.
  • Frequently, the inclusion of creative work is connected to “branding” tactics.
  • Many change-makers, particularly those working on deep social issues, are frequently approached by creatives. Depending on their experience, this could create excitement that another film is available, competition if the organization has created or endorsed similar content, frustration if the creatives expect a one-way promotional transaction, or other responses.
  • Like most of us, many change-makers are used to getting their content for free via downloads, streaming, etc.
  • Change-makers are people with complex lives, surprising perspectives, and a set of experiences that will influence their decision. Another factor is whether they volunteer or get paid for their activism.

Change-Makers’ Objectives

More and more, change-makers realize how valuable media and stories can be in making emotional connections that move hearts and minds — and even change policy, culture, and social movements. In working with creatives, change-makers typically want to increase attention on their issue or their organization, such as by:

  • Lifting up underheard stories and experiences
  • Engaging individuals in the community and attracting newcomers
  • Encouraging individuals to sign a petition or take another concrete action
  • Initiating or deepening coalitions
  • Building power among historically marginalized communities
  • Communicating with elected officials or other decision-makers
  • Challenging a dominant narrative
  • Attracting “earned” media attention from journalists and media outlets
  • Raising funds
  • Building their social media presence
  • Differentiating their contributions from others who work on similar issues


There are many excellent resources designed to help change-makers become more strategic in pursuit of these objectives (see Mission, Method, and Mobility, as well as the websites below). This section focuses on activities that require resources such as time, money, and intellectual property.

Photo credit:

What Creatives and Change-Makers Should Know About Funders

  • Most funders, such as foundation program officers, are experts in their fields, and many have experience as scholars or activists or leaders in the fields they are now funding. They want to be recognized not just for their access to money, but for their expertise and passion for the cause.
  • In many foundations or government funding agencies, staff have to justify their grant choices to senior staff or the board of directors, or both. Such funders are stewards of funding, and if anything goes wrong with the grant, they may be taken to task.
  • Many funders have supported creative social-change work before, or know of examples, or may even have a creative practice themselves. The amount of experience with creative initiatives, working with creatives, or will vary from funder to funder.
  • Funders are people with complex lives, surprising perspectives, and a set of experiences that will influence their funding decisions in creative projects.

Photo credit:

Thanks to our generous funders!

Share this page: