COF: Impact!

From May 2 – May 7, the Tactical Philanthropy Blog Team will be covering the Council on Foundations conference from Atlanta. The individual blog team members represent a range of opinions and have been given no editorial directions. The opinions expressed in these posts do not necessarily represent the opinions of Sean Stannard-Stockton.

By Bob Ottenhoff, GuideStar

It seems that most of our discussions about measuring impact are theoretical and academic. And then sometimes impact smacks us between the eyes.

If you care about philanthropy, public policy and the role of government you need to see the film “Trouble the Water” by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal. Yesterday I had a chance to see the film and hear Tia Lessin speak here at the COF. Later in the day, the film was awarded the Henry Hampton Award (to go along with its Academy Award nomination).

The film gives a dramatic eyewitness account of living through Katrina and the absolute bungling, incompetence and outrageous insensitivity of numerous government officials. Here’s what the COF program guide says about it: “This film features a young African American couple who record the flooding of New Orleans in a chilling video diary which threads through the film. It’s a story about a young couple living on the margins who are surviving not only deadly flood waters, armed soldiers, and bungling bureaucrats, but also a social system that has failed them.”

I asked the filmmaker how she funded it and she said “mainly through personal credit cards, small donations and the kindness of friends.” That’s not unusual for an independent producer; the hardest money to raise is before you begin rolling film. Most of the foundation funding the project has received came after the film was made and is going to support an impressive outreach campaign that includes a web site, screenings with community organizations, classroom curriculums and an upcoming screening on HBO.

I can say without hesitation that the foundations that supported this film will create greater impact on social policy than anything else they fund this year. And the impact will extend to thousands of viewers and students as well. This film will change lives. And it will make you mad.

At lunchtime, we heard a presentation by Melody Barnes, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. One point she made in particular caught my attention: “President Obama believes we all deserve to have a government that works. But we will need all hands on deck: foundations, citizens and government workers to make it happen.”

Bob Ottenhoff is CEO of GuideStar.