PPE 2015: Mary Virginia Swanson’s Tips on Funding Your Photo Project

Posted by on Saturday October 24, 2015 | Uncategorized

In her seminar “How to Fund Your Long-Term Project” at PhotoPlus Expo, Mary Virginia Swanson shared a variety ideas for researching and securing support from government, corporate and philanthropic entities. Swanson, a consultant, author and the executive director of the LOOK3 festival, encouraged photographers to think about everything they need to finish a project, and to achieve their goals: These valuable assets can include not only cash, but also access to subjects, paper or printing, publicity for an exhibition. Whether support in these areas from a lab that donates printing, the chamber of commerce that publicizes an event or or a local bank that helps pay for an exhibition, Swanson recommended thinking about what value your project can offer to the supporter. “Would putting their logo on an exhibition or book be of value?,” she asked. Consider the visibility the funder might want: “Do your funders the courtesy of thanking them,” on the wall of the exhibition, on invitations, and on your website.

Swanson noted that many photographers are applying for the same grants, fellowships, and government-supported arts programs, so they need to broaden their search for funding. She divided funders into two camps: Those interested in supporting you, and those interested in supporting the subject of your project. The people interested in supporting you are limited to “your fan base and your family.” Support for your subject matter, she said, “comes from like-minded, passionate people.” These may include strangers, who are likely to ask, “Is there a tax deduction in this for me?”

Funders who want tax deductions are unlikely to write a check to individuals, however, so photographers may benefit from partnering with a fiscal agent. Fiscal agents provide artists a connection to a 501 c 3 nonprofit, and can funnel your donations to you; they typically handle administration in exchange for a percentage of your donations. Fractured Atlas, Blue Earth Alliance (which works with artists devoted to environmental issues) and NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts) are three fiscal agents who work with photographers.

Swanson gave a quick primer on researching family foundations and corporate philanthropies. Many companies devote pages of their websites to topics such as “corporate responsibility” or “the community,” and provide information on the charities and causes they support. “They’ll be giving [to a cause] because it supports the community they function in or serves the families of their employees.” Target, for example, funds arts education.

The Foundation Center has a searchable database of grant-making organizations, which is available online and at hundreds of satellites the Foundation Center supports around the country in local libraries and community centers. The database provides information on each philanthropy’s mission, the causes it supports, and also access to its most recent 990 tax form, where nonprofits list exactly how much money they gave in the course of a year, and to whom. By paying for a subscription to the Foundation Center’s database, users can also search for grants and funders by subject matter or area of interest.

In considering whether to try crowd-funding, Swanson said, “You have to weigh if you want to take a month off from working to work on your crowd-funding.” She noted that Kickstarter has an extensive reach, can attract enormous traffic and donations to the campaigns its staff chooses to highlight, and provides users useful information about traffic and donations. She also noted, however, that if a crowdfunding campaign fails to reach its goal, it remains on the Kickstarter site forever “as a failed project.” Swanson recommended looking at the projects that failed before writing or recording your own pitch for a crowd-funding campaign. After looking at pitches that failed, Swanson said, “I promise you, you’ll make your video differently.”

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