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A 'Flip' Chat With...Lesley Chilcott, Producer, 'Waiting for Superman'

November 19, 2010

(This is the eleventh in our series of conversations with thought leaders in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. You can check out other videos in the series here, including our chat with Kate Robinson, producer of "Saving Philanthropy," which is scheduled for release in the spring of 2011.)

With more and more documentary films finding an audience among the general public, a growing number of funders and nonprofit leaders have begun to ask whether film can be used to raise real money for their causes. According to the panelists at a Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising panel discussion ("Film it. Fundraise. Repeat") I attended earlier this week, the answer to that question is an emphatic yes.

Part of the center's Philanthropy 3.0 speaker series, the event featured Lesley Chilcott, producer of the new ed reform documentary Waiting for 'Superman'; Yvette Alberdingk Thijm, executive director of Witness.org, a nonprofit that uses video to expose human rights abuses; Asi Burak, co-president of Games for Change and co-founder of the ImpactGames; Chris Kazi Rolle, co-founder and creator of The Hip Hop Project, which highlights Rolle's journey from poverty to entertainment success; and Kaoru Tozaki Wang, a first-time filmmaker.

Led by moderator Marcia Stepanek, founding editor-in-chief of ContributeMedia, the panelists described how social issue documentaries can be used not only to highlight an issue, but to start a movement. Indeed, in the case of Waiting for 'Superman', that's exactly what Chilcott and director David Guggenheim have done.

During her presentation, Chilcott explained that before the film was released, the "Superman" team reached out to communities across the country, encouraging them to mount "pledge to see the film" campaigns. The team also partnered with DonorsChoose.org, which pledged $5 toward a classroom project of a donor's choice for the first 50,000 people who took the pledge; First Book, which promised to donate 250,000 new books to schools and programs in low-income communities; and NewSchools Venture Fund, which committed to invest $5 million in innovative education organizations if 150,000 people took the pledge. To date, more than 261,000 people have pledged to see the film.

After the event, I had the opportunity to speak with Chilcott about the film and the state of education reform in the United States. During our chat, Chilcott also explained why she believes the film has struck a nerve and what she and the "Superman" team are doing to keep the issue of education reform in the spotlight.


(If you're reading this in an e-mail, click here.)

(Running time: 4 minutes, 12 seconds)

What do you think? Have you seen Waiting for "Superman"? Did you like it? Hate it? Are you optimistic about future of public education in the U.S.? And if you're a filmmaker, what advice would you give others interested in producing social issue documentaries?

-- Regina Mahone

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Posted by Kathryn Pyle  |   December 06, 2010 at 08:33 PM

Regina, thanks for this note and interview on grantmaker interest in documentaries that take on important topics like our educational system, films that complement and even fill in for other sources of investigative journalism. I wonder if any foundations are supporting the extensive community engagement activities that Chilcott describes. Such events turn Waiting for 'Superman' into an advocacy and education project with real potential for change.

Posted by Regina Mahone  |   December 08, 2010 at 04:21 PM

Kathryn, the only mention of foundation support for the film's social action campaign that I could find appears in a Fortune magazine article. After listing grants for charter school programs that were announced during the week the film was released, the article's author writes,

the Denver-based Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit venture capital fund, announced on Wednesday that they had secured $80 million in initial commitments toward $160 million expansion fund, with donations coming from the Walton Family Foundation and the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, organizations supporting the Waiting for Superman social action campaign.

The fund also announced that it would give $20 million to six charter school networks, also known as charter management organizations, two of which are parent organizations of schools featured in the documentary (KIPP LA Prep and Harlem Success Academy).

And charter schools across the country have organized with Paramount Pictures to schedule screenings over the next couple of weeks, both to rally their current base of donors and to attract new ones....

With all its moving parts, Waiting for 'Superman' has certainly become "an advocacy and education project with real potential for change." I couldn't agree more.

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