A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Storytelling through Film: A Powerful Tool for Social Change

By Sheila Leddy, The Fledgling Fund

I am sitting here this morning thinking about the proposals I will review over the next few weeks, most of which include a documentary film. Once again, I am struck by the power of film to inform, inspire, and hopefully ignite social change.

Many of us in philanthropy are focused on trying to solve entrenched and complex problems within our local communities and beyond – from education reform to environmental justice from health care to homelessness. We are faced with complex issues that require multifaceted solutions that range from changes in individual behavior to changes to national or even international policy and everything in between. We spend time thinking about the issues and analyzing data and then try our best to identify a strategy that will lead to solutions. We want to change in some way the status quo. Often the road to change involves engaging others in action. But, how can we move people to action and inspire a commitment to work for change?

At The Fledgling Fund, we believe that storytelling through film can be a powerful tool to engage audiences. A film, and the story it tells, can create a greater awareness of complex problems, and just as importantly it can highlight possible solutions. It connects viewers to its characters and can inspire those viewers to become involved in, or reconnected with, social change efforts. We begin to understand how an issue plays out in the lives of individuals, families and communities. When these films and stories are coupled with a strategy or campaign that provides clear opportunities for audiences to get involved, we see results.

Consider the following:

  • Sin by Silence introduces us to the women in Convicted Women Against Abuse, a group inside a California prison created to help break the silence about domestic abuse and stop the cycle of violence. The film and its campaign have inspired women around the country to commit to not returning to their abusers while empowering communities to do their part to stop domestic abuse.
  • A Small Act tells the story of Chris Mburu and Hilda Back and has inspired audiences by reinforcing the notion that one small act can have a profound and catalytic effect. The film and its campaign have raised over a million dollars for the Hilda Back Educational Foundation, benefiting hundreds of Kenyan children.
  • Lioness shares the story of female soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who became American’s first female combat veterans. The film and stories the women shared with policymakers helped shape national legislation to support women veterans.

These outcomes did not just happen. They were the result of filmmakers who were as committed to telling the story as they were to using the story for positive change. So, as I review proposals I will be thinking about the power of story and what role each can play to engage viewers in action, build and strengthen social movements, and provide another tool for advocates in the fight for social change and justice.

Sheila Leddy is Executive Director at The Fledgling Fund, a private foundation that works at the intersection of film and social change. She has worked with Fledgling since its inception, playing a key role in developing its overall strategy in collaboration with the Fund’s president and board. She plays a leadership role in developing grant guidelines, reviewing and developing projects and assessing their potential to advance the Fund’s mission. In 2008, she co-authored the white paper, Assessing Creative Media’s Social Impact.

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