How to Find and Win Grants for Your Film

There are thousands of non-profit organizations offering grants each year.  Here is how to locate and win grants for your film. 

by Carole Dean

Grants are a wonderful way to fund your film.  We’ve got the best list of grants for filmmakers on our From the Heart Productions website.

Win grants

The second-best list is what you would find at  They offer a Foundation Directory Online (FDO).  This is a database from which you can view over 242,000 granting organizations.  It is an essential resource for finding grants.  The majority of these grant makers do not have websites and would otherwise be almost impossible to find.

Getting Started with the Candid Foundation Directory

Candid offers subscription access to their database.  The FDO Professional plan at $199 per month offers the most exhaustive and up-to-date knowledge and insight on the social sector.  FDO Essential, starting at $49.99 a month, is the quickest, least expensive way to identify the grantors that will fund you. 

You can also find free access to the Candid Foundation Directory database through some local city and nonprofit organizations. We have one in Camarillo, CA.  Candid makes it easy to find a location near you with an interactive map on their website.  You can also use the map to find locations that offer free training on how to use the directory.  I strongly suggest to take a class to learn how to get the most out of your database searches.

Another free option is FDO Quick Start.  This allows you to research for specific organizations from which you’d like to seek a grant.  Through this search, you can find the foundation you’re looking for by name, EIN, location, and assets or giving range.

You can be sure if you do what I suggest you will find dozens of grants.  They say they have 24 million grants listed.  It is worth the time.   Especially for documentaries and for webisodes. Features and shorts that have important social issues may benefit too.

The Powerful Information on the 990

I highly suggest that you pick a month where you can focus only on looking for grants and just pay for one month and use it to find grants.  This should bring you additional income.

When you search the database, you will want to seek out each 501(c)3 non-profit’s government form, the 990.  This form has great benefits for you.  All nonprofits must complete this form.  It lists all donations the nonprofit receives from $5,000 and up.  And it lists the name of the person or organization that donated to the nonprofit and how much they donated! 

This is what you want.  It shows you who else is interested in the subject of your film.  You could do a letter writing campaign to these people to introduce them to your film.

Plus, you want to create strategic partners for your film.  Finding nonprofits with the same subject will benefit you in many ways.  Read my blog on “How to Find and Engage Strategic Partners for Your Film.”

Creating Keywords for Your Film

You need key words to describe your film because that is what you use to search’s database. What are the keywords of your film? There could be 15 keywords to define your film so keep an open mind and look at all the aspects of your film and create your keywords because that’s what you’ll use to search with.  You may have used key words when you created your website.  If so, use those to begin with and keep expanding on them.

I think finding local grants and smaller grants for around five to ten thousand dollars is a good way to get started. If you’ve never applied for grants before that’s where I would start.

Consider setting up an excel chart by date of each grant deadline you intend to pursue.  That way,  you can plan ahead and apply for the grants all year long.

What Grantors Look for In Your Application

As a grantor for the Roy W. Dean Grants for over 30 years, I’ll say to you the most important thing I look for is why are you making this film?  What is your connection to the material? This information will tell me how connected you are to the project. I want someone who will stay the course and finish the film. The average documentary takes six years and two more for marketing. The average feature can take up to 10 years to find the funding.

Every grantor I know is worried you will not finish the film.  We have all funded films that were never finished.  So, your connection to the material is most important to us.  Your passion for the project must jump off the page and inspire me.  I must know that you will finish the film.

Next, and this is also very important, what’s the story? I don’t care what kind of camera you’re using or who your set decorator is, because I want to know is, what’s the story. Focus on telling me a good, engaging story in a visual manner, so that I can see the film as I read your application.

Last Minute Stuff Doesn’t Work

Every filmmaker who is part of the From the Heart Production Fiscal Sponsorship Program, can contact me and send me your granting materials.  I will read them and give you feedback before you apply.  However, I want you to come to me at least a week before the deadline. Then I can review it and discuss it with you to help you improve it.

Last minute stuff doesn’t work. I’ve seen too many people miss grants by waiting to the last minute. Their computer may have technical difficulties, they can’t get on the granting website, or it takes up so much time to complete, that they’re over the time limit and can’t apply.

Please plan ahead with grants. Give yourself lots of time and get it in before the final minute because that’s when everybody applies for the grant.  I can see this on my own grant. I can sit here on the final day of the grant and from three o’clock Pacific Time on it’s like a slot machine!

We get sometimes 50% of the applications on the last day.  This means that the computer is stressed out and there are many opportunities for problems.

The Benefits of Just Applying for a Grant

Grants are a fantastic way to raise money for your film.  Even if you don’t win the grant, I promise that you will improve your project just by applying.

Every time you apply for a grant you continue to improve and develop your film.

Even if you don’t win you have benefited.  Applying for grants is like being a salesperson.  They know that it sometimes takes 10 “no’s” to get a yes. The secret is just keep applying and go back to the same grant year after year if they let you.  Because once they give you suggestions to improve, and you do what they say, they will recognize your willingness to take direction.  You have a much better chance of winning in the second and third application.

A Grant Success Story

Rebecca Dreyfus applied for the Roy W. Dean Grant about 20 years ago and I can still pitch you her film. She wrote an incredible story. She wanted to document the largest art heist at the time. The Gardner Museum was robbed of one of the 26 known Vermeers and many other incredibly valuable pieces of art.

Rebecca told me that she applied for five grants and won four!  How did she do that? She said she carefully chose the grants that she felt she had the best chance of winning. She did not go after the NEA or some of the more difficult grants.

She put her time into writing a good story for each of the five grant she applied.  This worked for her, and I think it will work for you. 

Meeting the Grant Criteria

Be sure to include in your grant application the criteria of the grantor. Say it back to them and explain how your film fits their criteria. This may sound mundane, but it is very important.  Grantors are reading scores of grants at one time. When you can clearly tell me how your film fits my criteria, it benefits you. That’s what the judges are looking for. Grant judges want to know if you fit the grant criteria and do you have a good story to tell.

For example, if you were applying to the Roy Dean Grant our criteria is that we want films that are unique and that make a contribution to society. I love it when filmmakers tell me why their film fits my grant.  It’s that simple.

And please, put some passion in your proposal!  We want to know that you care about this story. Please put your heart on the page so we get to know you.  It’s you we are giving the money to.  It’s you we want to support. You are the artist.  You are the magic.


Carole Dean is president and founder of From the Heart Productions; a 501(c)3 non-The Art of Film Funding Podcastprofit that offers the Roy W. Dean Film Grants and fiscal sponsorship for independent filmmakers. She hosts the weekly podcastThe Art of Film Fundinginterviewing those involved in all aspects of indie film productionShe is also the author of  The Art of Film Funding, 2nd Edition: Alternative Financing Concepts.  See IMDB for producing credits

Using the Mighty 990 to Fund Your Film

Before You Apply for a Grant, Take a Peek at Who Grantors Funded in Past

by Carole Dean

Where do you start? I read thousands of proposals a year for my Roy W. Dean film grants. I know what wins grants and what turns judges off quickly. Getting it right can be a piece of cake.

Documentary film funding starts with a well-written, organized proposal. It outlines your film’s story, background, and need. It also outlines the approach, structure and style in four to eight pages of dynamite passion.

It continues through finding the right grant for your film, by investigating a funding organization’s 990 as well as reaching out to the right person at that organization who can help you get funded. 

Getting started may be the hard part, when really, this is the best part

Just write page after page of your visions for the film. Don’t worry if you only need a 6 page proposal and you now have 25 pages, just keep putting down what you “see” happening in your film. Focus on your vision of the film.

I realize that you are not sure what your subjects may say in the interviews, but if you did your research thoroughly, you know the subject matter. So, tell it to us as a compelling story and any people you have secured for the film, tell us their story.

Your proposal needs to be a visual description of your film

It’s there somewhere in those 25 pages of written material so read them carefully and find the best visual sections to paste into your proposal. Now, read it over and create your first three dynamite paragraphs that tell me a compelling story.

Put time into this because it is my introduction to your film. You may have been working on it for over a year, but this is my first look. You need to condense the film to three paragraphs to engage me because the first paragraphs are the most important part of the application. It tells me you are a good writer and it shows me your vision of the film.

Don’t start by writing in your proposal how much this film is needed

With our Roy W Dean Grant, we fund stories about interesting characters and concepts. The biggest mistake is to tell us the history in the beginning or to tell us how much this film is needed or that you want to send a message.

Remember, Harry Warner said, “If you want to send a message, go to Western Union, if you want to make a picture, tell me a story!”

That’s just what we want, stories, keep telling us the story and let me see the film it as I read the story.

Who is your audience?

Now, take those 25 pages, cut and paste the information into the background, and keep that separate from the theme and separate from the approach, structure and style. We also want to know how you will market your film. Only 1 in 1000 docs gets a theatrical release and that does not always have a financial return.

Creative filmmakers are building audiences for their films on the web by organizing communities around the film’s issues and these people are donating to their films and waiting to pay for downloads. You should consider distributing it yourself to sell on your website.  Instead of a percentage of each download, you will make the full price.

What are your marketing plans? 

Outreach is a major key to socially oriented films; we want to know that the people who need the film will see it so put outreach in the budget. Did I lose you with that last word?

Well, you have to face the music and go to the left brain now and do a budget but never fear Maureen Ryan  is perfect for you.  Maureen is an award winner producer of many great documentaries including Dick Johnson is Dead

Her website has sample budgets on her website which is dedicated to supporting independent film producers by sharing helpful and essential information about practical film production.

Using 990’s to find grants that match your project

Finding grants that match your material is paramount to the funding process. Go to and search for granting organizations by key words.  Once you find them; go to

You want to find and check out the Corporations 990 form which is part of their income tax, and has a slick 990-PF that shows you exactly where the most important funding information is located.  You can find the most recent 990’s at

I know is sounds sneaky, to look into some corporation’s income tax, but all is fair in love and doc financing. You can access info on over 200,000 U.S. private and community foundations for free and you will find how much an organization donated in contributions, gifts and grants for prior years.

Don’t enter grants you don’t think you can win

Find a potential funder that matches your film and find the name of the operations officer and, most importantly, find who won last years and prior year’s grants. Is your film a fit? The biggest complaint is that too many people apply for grants that do not fit. See if you can find the prior winner’s web sites, they might even be willing to give you tips on entering this grant.

Don’t enter grants you don’t think you can win. Your time is too valuable, it is best to find grants you think you have the best chance of winning and then write a few more paragraphs in your proposal to tailor it just for them.

I know when someone reads my grant web site information because they say, “My film is unique and makes a contribution to society.” That’s my mission statement and I like to see this because I know they read the guidelines.

While you read each potential funder’s site, keep looking for questions that are not answered, like how many apps did they have last year and what is the amount of money they are giving this year.

Don’t be shy

Now comes the best part of funding. Get the list of corporations or non-profits you think are the best ones to submit your film. Find your question that was not answered on their web site.  Then, search for the name of the granting officer and phone number because you are going to call them!

Don’t be shy. You would never enter a grant without first making contact with the grantor. This is your great opportunity to introduce yourself and make an important connection.

Place your call in “prime time” from 10 to 12 or 2 to 4 and ask to speak directly to the operations officer in charge of the grant. If they don’t answer, try again later or get information on the best time to reach them.

“Touch my heart and I reach for my pocket book.”

Your job is to touch them, remembering that we communicate through the heart chakra.
I say, “Touch my heart and I reach for my pocket book.” Keep this in mind when creating your short pitch. This connection puts energy to your application; it is the voice behind the film.

Now what will you say when you get them on the phone? Go back to your 25 pages and create two lines that bring your film to life and tell them this story as your pitch. Tell them the title of your film and give them this short pitch. Don’t over pitch, that’s the worst thing you can do. Just tell them enough of the story line for them to remember you and the pitch.

You read this person’s bio on the site and you know the films she/he funded in the past.  You want to compliment them on their past selections, for their on-going contributions, and support of filmmakers.  Ask your question that was not answered on the web site.

Be relaxed, have your check list of these things in front of you and make a good impression and keep this phone call under three minutes. Be sure to listen to what they say. Let them talk.

Don’t forget to write and never give up

Once you hang up the phone, write them a nice Hallmark card and mail it that day. Be sure to thank them for the information. Give them your short pitch again in the card. You now have two connections with this person and when they see your application they will remember you through the call and the card and the story of your film.

Realize that we want to fund you; we are looking for emerging and established filmmakers with engaging stories to tell.

We know you are talented, most of the people who give grants are not filmmakers, we are your admirers, and we are astonished at your talents.

The golden rule in applying for grants is “never give up.” Keep going back, I have funded 2 films that entered my grant 3 times, I love filmmaker’s tenacity.


Carole Dean is president and founder of From the Heart Productions; a 501(c)3 non-The Art of Film Funding Podcastprofit that offers the Roy W. Dean Film Grants and fiscal sponsorship for independent filmmakers. She hosts the weekly podcastThe Art of Film Fundinginterviewing those involved in all aspects of indie film productionHer new class “How to Fund Your Film” is available on Vimeo on Demand.  She is also the author of  The Art of Film Funding, 2nd Edition: Alternative Financing Concepts.  See IMDB for producing credits