What You Need To Know About Your Fiscal Sponsor

Finding your fiscal sponsors for your documentary film is an important endeavor if you are looking to offer your donors a tax-deductible donation and obtain grant funding. There are so many criteria to consider when deciding which fiscal sponsor best fits you. After all, there can be many other perks and advantages to your fiscal sponsor relationship other than the financial. Here’s a short guide on things to know about a fiscal sponsor.


What is their reputation?

It’s your responsibility to find out what the potential fiscal sponsor’s track record is.  And it’s generally pretty easy to figure this one out these days.  Just get on the internet and start taking a look at their roster of films.

What kinds of films do they typically bring on? 

Are the films in alignment with your type of film or messaging? 

Or do they take on a number of different types of films? 

Are they documentary-specific or are they also allowing for fictional narrative? 

Find out if any of their films have gone on to receive any awards at film festivals.  Research if there has been distribution of films afterwards.

I’ve actually written filmmakers directly from these lists and asked them about their experiences with the fiscal sponsor organization.  Filmmakers are generally pretty open to sharing this sort of thing with other filmmakers, since we’re all in the same boat with this type of thing.  And it’s also kind of expected, that not everyone’s experience is going to be the same as another person’s.  It’s why I didn’t feel so bad about sharing with you my experience with CID.  Again, they’ve worked well for others, not so much for me.  Which leads me to…


Do they offer any other services?

We talked about the main reason for doc filmmakers to be seeking out fiscal sponsors is the ability for donors to be able to use their donations as a tax write-off.  But are their some other reasons we might partner up with an organization?  I’m glad that you asked.

A big part of what I was missing with CID was some kind of one-on-one interaction between an arts organization and an individual artist.  Perhaps naively, I was hoping for some intimate relationship whereby CID could share all of the deep secrets of documentary film funding  with me or they’d be there for some consultation when I’d come upon some documentary filmmaking obstacle.

Now, I would later on realize that my expectations were probably a bit unrealistic.  While they did say that they were there as a resource center for documentary filmmakers, when I started making calls and getting an answering machine that sounded like it was from the 80s, it should have been obvious to me that there manpower was probably a bit limited.  Especially, since they had such a massive roster of documentary films.

So, it’s a good idea when doing your research or when reaching out to other documentary filmmakers, to find out what kind of services, if any, that the fiscal sponsor might offer.

The fiscal sponsor that I would end up getting for my next few projects, was local. They took on more local projects, didn’t take on any more than twenty at a time, and so I think naturally were a bit more selective and attentive to their relationships.  These guys – the Hollywood Theater in Portland, OR – were open to taking calls and offering up resources or could at least point me in the direction for an answer to a question that they might now know about.  A nice additional perk that they offered as part of their fiscal sponsorship agreement was that they could have a screening of their film for free or they could host a fundraising party at no charge.

Of course, everyone offers different things.  Some more than others.  Some simply choose to be hands-off and just allow for the tax exemption ability. You just need to do your due diligence and discover what fiscal sponsors are willing to offer and what it is that matter to you and your project.


What’s their cut?

This is every bit as important as finding out what a car lender or mortgage lender is willing to offer you, when it comes to their interest rate.  It’s important for you to find out what the fiscal sponsor’s cut is that they take from the funds that are funneled through their 501c3 status.  Remember, at the end of the year, they have to fill out all of the paperwork to the federal government, and they’re the organization that is officially the non profit – which took a lot of time and money to establish – so they’re absolutely due some compensation… it’s just a matter of finding out how much you’re comfortable with.

And you’d think that it would be a fairly established amount, what organizations are charging for their fiscal sponsorship services.  But it’s not.  It actually varies somewhat greatly.  Generally in the ballpark of 5 to 15 percent.  Some even a little higher.  Again, it kind of depends on what they’re offering in exchange, what their status is in the industry, maybe specific requirements of one’s project.

There really isn’t much more to say on this subject.  It’s pretty straight-forward.  Do your research, find out what each potential fiscal sponsor charges for their services. And when I say charge for their services, remember this is simply off the top of any monies i.e. donations, being put through their system.  You’re not paying anything out of pocket.  Nor should you ever being paying a fiscal sponsor out of your pocket.  That, to the best of my knowledge, is pretty unheard of, and I, personally, would be highly skeptical of anyone doing such a thing.


What are the application requirements?

It’s the same as if you were applying for a grant or applying for a particular job.  You’d need to know what all was required in order to successfully complete the application, right?  Fiscal sponsorship applications should be treated no differently.  Most organizations will have a guidelines posted on their website.  If you don’t see them, call a representative of the organization, and find out what they can tell you about the application requirements.  (Actually, I would be cautious of anyone who doesn’t have a set of guidelines posted somewhere on their site.  To me that’s just not a good sign that they are an organization that is super versed in the world of fiscal sponsorship.  But that’s just me.  You might call someone and find out that their new to the whole fiscal sponsorship thing or something, but that they sound like a great fit for you and your film.)

Application requirements vary. They’ll likely want to see a mission statement and synopsis for your film.  Many will want to see some sort of trailer or footage of your film.  Some will insist on a full detailed budget from pre-production all the way through distribution.  Many will want to know what your plan is for fundraising.  After all, they will want to make at least some money from this agreement, so in order to do this, they need to see that you will, in fact, be going out and raising funds for your project.  Just keep in mind, the fiscal sponsor is effectively representing your project as a sub-grantor, so they want to be assured that you are someone who has a plan for your film.


What is the turnaround time for getting fiscal sponsorship?

Let’s be honest here, the reason that most of us even looked into this whole fiscal sponsorship thing in the first place, was because we had a grant application that only accepted applications from 501c3 entities and that their deadline for application is like, next week.  Don’t laugh.  You know that you’ve done this.  And I’m not just talking about film grant applications!

Seriously, it’s a good idea to find out what the usual turnaround time is on fiscal sponsorship applications. You can certainly ask for a fiscal sponsor to expedite the process- and depending on how many applications they’re receiving – they’re generally pretty good about honoring such requests.  That being said, it seems like the turnaround process is generally anywhere from 2 – 4 weeks. Again, this is depending on the fiscal sponsor and how many projects they’re generally dealing with.

And some fiscal sponsors only accept applications during certain times of the year.  So it’s a good idea to make sure that if you don’t see this listed somewhere on their website, that you call or email them and ask if they accept applications on a rolling basis.



Host and TDL Founder, Chris G Parkhurst

Chris is a documentary filmmaker and the founder and host of The Documentary Life, a platform which aims to inform and inspire documentary filmmakers from around the globe.

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