Many filmmakers, funders and other stakeholders are wrestling with the question of whether and how to assess the social impact of creative media, and especially documentary film. At Fledgling we think about and discuss this issue a lot. Let me share some of our thinking. We recognize that not all documentaries have social change goals, rather they exist as works of art to be consumed and enjoyed, not to be assessed in the context of social impact. However, for those films and filmmakers with social change as a key goal and especially those that have decided to build outreach and engagement campaigns around their films to deepen the connection that audiences have with the social issues presented, how we define and measure progress towards these goals are important pieces of the puzzle.
As a funder focused on supporting social impact strategies for documentaries, we have a special responsibility to be thoughtful about our approach to assessing impact and recognize that this increased focus on measurement has revealed valid concerns and push back from filmmakers. Overall, we believe that the proliferation of tools and platforms (and the debate they have inspired!) are healthy and important for the field. There are now more tools in our collective toolbox to document, track, and communicate the social impact of documentaries and their campaigns. The trick is how they are applied. When used thoughtfully, they can lead to insights that then can be used in real-time throughout a campaign’s evolution; they can help shape and strengthen campaigns as they unfold. This presents an important opportunity to filmmakers and their teams; they share information with key partners along the way, deepening those relationships. This can help funders and other partners understand the role their support has played in the project to date and perhaps lead to deeper support.
We should note here that it is important that any evaluation methodology distinguish between “attribution” and “contribution”. The vast majority of social issue documentaries and their engagement campaigns are entering into a community (however small or large) of activists, leaders, organizations and coalitions that have laid groundwork long before the films and campaigns were conceived and they will be there for many years continuing to build the movement. This critical work must be acknowledged - just another reason an element of “story” is so important in this evaluation work - so that this relationship can be explained.
Think of the case studies that have been shared by Britdoc, Media Impact Funders, Active Voice, Harmony Institute, Fledgling and others that rely on both quantitative and qualitative information to create a more complete picture of the impact that a film achieved, sometimes over a long period of time. Often these kinds of “impact stories” offer a more complete and useful tool for understanding the power of social issue documentary.
We recognize that creating these case studies can be time-consuming and resource intensive, particularly if done retroactively. However, we believe that filmmakers who are trying to achieve social change, impact producers and importantly funders need to make a commitment to supporting data collection and impact tracking from the moment that campaign planning begins. This front-end quantitative and qualitative data collection will not only inform the campaign but also make impact reporting more efficient and accurate. We are not calling for extensive and expensive evaluation strategies – simply for thoughtful collection of diverse data throughout the life of a campaign that will show broad sample evidence of the ways that the project is affecting the world, communities or individuals, according to stated goals. We also believe that having these conversation with funders and partners on the front end helps to build a shared understanding of constitutes impact for each party involved, ensuring that everyone is on the same page from the beginning.
We should also point out here that we believe “measuring impact” is not the best description of what we are talking about, as it seems to imply a comparison between other film projects/campaigns or against arbitrary benchmarks. When we think about data collection and assessment we are seeking to understand the success a project has in meeting its stated goals. The importance of the link between a project’s goals and strategy and its impact assessment plan cannot be understated.
We are thrilled that this field is making solid progress in our collective understanding of how films and engagement campaigns make change in the world. The emerging tools increase the options for filmmakers and offer insights into how their creators define impact. Ultimately though, the utility of these tools for individual projects depends in large part on a project’s goals and its strategy for change. We will continue to encourage and support our grantees to tell the stories of the impact they are having – using a mix of data to provide deep context. We are deeply aware that the impact of this work is incredibly complex, often happens over long periods of time and can not all be captured. However, we have seen over and over again that evidence of impact is incredibly useful and continues to move this field forward.
Sheila Leddy is the Executive Director of the Fledgling Fund.