The Paul Robeson Fund & The Funding Exchange

What is the Funding Exchange?
The Funding Exchange (FEX) is a network of 15 progressive community foundations located across the country and a national office located in New York City with its own grant-making programs.

When and why did it come into being?
The Funding Exchange is a partnership of activists and donors that began in the 1970s when small groups of donors and community organizers banded together in Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco to find new ways to support social movements. They coined the phrase “change, not charity,” because they believed in the importance of tackling the root causes of poverty and injustice. Most of the founding donors had inherited wealth, which provided the seed money to launch nearly all the community foundations in the network.

What distinguishes you from the more traditional foundations? How does the Funding Exchange facilitate “a national movement for economic justice”?
One of our most distinguishing features is our commitment to community control of grant-making To ensure grassroots participation, the national office established three activist-advised funds: the OUT Fund for Lesbian and Gay Liberation, the Saguaro Fund, and the Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media. Each has a small grant-making board made up of activists who review relevant proposals once a year and propose where the grant monies should be allocated.
Because the Funding Exchange supports programs that foster long-term structural or political change—as opposed to direct service programs that lack an organizing or deep-rooted social change component—we tend to fund projects that other foundations may perceive as too controversial, too political, too experimental or too new. Because community representatives are involved in decision-making, we attract a particularly thoughtful and dedicate cadre of donors who appreciate the significance of redistributing power as well as money.

The Funding Exchange has 15 member foundations, all supporting grassroots organizing for social and economic change. Do they function independently?
The 15 member funds have their own grant-making programs and priorities, which are local or regional in scope. They are autonomous, with their own offices, boards, and guidelines. They share the endowment fund and do additional fund-raising independently, with budgets varying considerably, and grant-making from approximately $200,000 up to over a $1M a year.

Do they fund media?
Some support media to a limited extent. They should be contacted separately to find out their priorities. [Links to all member foundations can be found at] The primary support for film, video, and radio production within the Funding Exchange network is through the Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media.

Can individuals apply for the Funding Exchange grants or are they limited to organizations?
Only the Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media accepts applications from independent media producers. Otherwise, individuals are not eligible to receive grants from the Funding Exchange.

What is the Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media’s relation to the Funding Exchange? When and why was it established?
The Paul Robeson Fund is one of the three activist-advised funds of the Funding Exchange. It was established in 1987, after the demise of the Film Fund, when the Funding Exchange felt the need to consolidate its funding of social-issue media. The fund was named to honor the singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. The FEX national office raises funds for the Robeson Fund from individual donors and institutions such as the New York State Council on the Arts and the Bohem Foundation. The monies raised are used by the fund for grant-making.

The driving philosophy behind the Paul Robeson Fund is . . .
to support the production of progressive independent media (radio, film, and video) that can be used as a tool for organizing communities against social and economic injustice.

How has the funding climate for independent media changed since the Robeson Fund’s inception?
The climate has changed in diverse and significant ways since 1987. The so-called right-wing “cultural war” of the eighties and early nineties succeeded in reducing public funding for art, culture, and media in general. The relentless attack on so-called “controversial” themes also contributed to a reduction of outlets and productions with progressive and independent viewpoints.
The new corporate media configuration characteristic of the late nineties is posing new challenges to funders and mediamakers alike. In the global corporate world, the need for progressive mediamaking and alternative distribution channels has become essential in building the progressive movement. In the face of growing funding demands and as public funding for independent media and the arts in general continues to shrink, foundations concerned with supporting media have been compelled to make strategic decisions regarding their grant-making priorities.
For example, the Robeson Fund found it more strategic to support only the pre-production and distribution stages of a film or video project. Support for pre-production provides the seed money for alternative or controversial projects to get off the ground while serving as leverage to procure other sources of support. Additionally, support of grassroots distribution initiatives aims at encouraging mediamakers to find alternative distribution models that would further the use of media as a tool for social change organizing.

The Funding Exchange projects itself as a “philanthropist for the cutting edge.” What types of projects does the fund seek?
We solicit projects of all genres that address critical social and political issues; that will reach a broad audience; that include a progressive political analysis combining intellectual clarity with creative use of the medium; and that demonstrate an understanding of how the production will be used for social change organizing. We prioritize projects that give voice to marginalized communities and to those traditionally excluded from mainstream media, such as people of color, persons with disabilities, gays, lesbians, and transgender and bisexual persons.

Name some of the best known titles and/or artists Robeson has funded. What have been some of the distribution/exhibition paths of these projects?
FEX was one of the first foundations to provide support for social-issue films, such as the acclaimed Harlan County USA, Tongues Untied, and Panama Deception. Most recently, the Paul Robeson Fund has supported projects such as The Uprising of 34, A Healthy Baby Girl, Golden Threads, Another Brother, The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez, and Blood Lines.
All of the films mentioned have been aired on P.O.V. and have an extensive record of festival showings and prize awards. For the Paul Robeson Fund, the most important aspect of both their production and distribution history is that these projects have all been made in collaboration with grassroots organizations, and that they all incorporate innovative distribution initiatives to further the work of progressive organizations. For example, one of the funded projects’ distribution strategy included a classroom-based study plan to connect its content with the school’s lessons in media literacy, critical thinking, and oral history. Another project was shown during fundraisers and activist meetings, and in conjunction with letter-writing campaigns and petition drives for a grassroots organization.

What percentage of the Robeson Fund’s overall budget goes towards film or video projects?
Around 75% of our grant-making monies goes to film and video projects. The remaining 25% goes to radio.

How many media awards are given out per year?
We award grants to approximately 24 to 30 film and video projects. The Paul Robeson Fund’s annual grant-making budget averages $200,000.

What is the average size of a grant?
Grants usually range between $3,000 and $6,000. The maximum grant amount is $15,000.

What’s the ratio of applicants to recipients?
The Robeson Fund is quite competitive. In 1998 we awarded 31 film and video grants out of 130 proposals received (approximately one out of four applicants received a grant).

Are there restrictions on applicants’ qualifications?
The Robeson Fund does not fund film, video, and audio installations; festivals, conferences or special events; organizational projects for internal or promotional use; sociological or anthropological explorations that do not provide a strong political analysis; documentation of cultural events, personalities, or performances with little or no political relevance; general operating expenses of distribution companies; script development for dramatic features or radio dramas; student productions or other projects associated with a degree program; and productions originating in countries outside the U.S., unless the distribution strategy incorporates (in part) organizing in the United States.

You’ve stated Robeson funds projects in preproduction and distribution phases. Can a preproduction grantee apply for a distribution grant?
Applicants may submit only one project for consideration and may not be listed as producers or directors of any other project submitted to the fund during a given funding cycle. Film and video preproduction grantees may indeed apply for a distribution grant for the previously funded project during a future funding cycle.

Explain your funding cycle and deadlines.
The application deadline is May 15. Proposals are accepted beginning one month prior to the deadline. Notification of grant awards is made in late summer. The Application and Guidelines booklet can be obtained through the Funding Exchange by calling our office, or through our website.

Are there time frame restrictions within which the funds must be used? Can the same individual apply for funds two years in a row?
There are no time-frame restrictions on the use of the grant. We request that grantees complete a Progress Report six months after the receipt of the grant. We also encourage grantees to keep us informed on the overall progress of the project on an ongoing basis.

Who makes the awards decisions? Can you name past panelists?
Staff pre-selects projects and the activist-advised grant-making panel selects the finalists. The panel then makes its recommendations to the Funding Exchange Board of Directors, which approves the allocation of grant monies to those projects.
The Robeson Fund grant-making panel involves grassroots activists, media activists, and mediamakers from all over the U.S. Our past panelists include Robert West, Curator of Film and Video at the Mint Museum of Art; Amber Hollibaugh, National Field Director of Women’s Educational Services at the GMHC; Juanita Espinoza, Executive Director of Native Arts Circle; Gretchen Elsner-Sommer, Program Director at Women in the Director’s Chair; and Karl Bruce Knapper, Robeson’s representative to the FEX Board of Directors.

Tell us a little about the review process.
About 60% of all proposals make the first cut, and are then discussed over three days by the panel. Priorities include the use of the piece for progressive social change organizing; the creativity of the distribution strategy; the applicant’s professional experience; the practicality of the fund-raising strategy; the demographics of the production team; financial need; and geographical representation.

What advice do you have for media artists in putting forth a strong application?
Grant seekers should read the guidelines carefully and do the necessary research when approaching funders. Know your funder and ask the relevant questions. In writing their proposals, grant seekers should be clear, concise, and specific. A diversified fundraising strategy, a realistic budget, and a thorough distribution strategy are very important in presenting a strong application. Sample material is also extremely important in our consideration of a proposal, particularly for pre-production requests. We recommend that media artists submit sample material that is the strongest in content, form, and production values.

What is the most common mistake applicants make?
Submitting poor or inadequate sample materials; submitting proposals with unrealistic or incomplete budgets; submitting proposals that lack clarity, political commitment, and an understanding of the type of distribution models that the Robeson Fund seeks to fund.

What would people most be surprised to learn about the Funding Exchange and/or its founders?
The Funding Exchange model has inspired some of the newer progressive foundations, and our concern for involving activists in our grant-making has generated some of the most cutting-edge funding this country has seen.

Other foundations or grant-making organizations you admire and why.
Soros Documentary Fund, New World Foundation, Veatch, and Public Welfare, because they bring a progressive vision that allows communities to develop their own agenda.

If you weren’t in the business of funding media, what would you be doing?
I would be making it full time.

Famous last words:
As technology continues to transform the way we produce, view, hear, and distribute media, we look forward to supporting new and exciting projects that push the boundaries and explore alternatives.

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