Social Justice Documentary: Designing For Impact

Social Justice Documentary: Designing For Impact

September 2011
Click here to view or download a PDF of this report.

Report by:

Jessica Clark,
Center for Media & Social Impact, American University

Barbara Abrash,
Center for Media, Culture and History, New York University

Research support by:

Katie Donnelly
Elaine Kozma

Design by:

Manuela Garreton

With support from:

The Ford Foundation






“People come in as participants in a media project and leave recognizing themselves as members of a public—a group of people commonly affected by an issue. They have found each other and exchanged information on an issue in which they all see themselves as having a stake. In some cases, they take action based on this transformative act of communication.

This is the core function of public media 2.0 for a very simple reason: Publics are the element that keeps democracies democratic.”

Jessica Clark and Patricia Aufderheide, Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics

This working paper aims to synthesize current efforts to develop comparable evaluation methods for social issue documentary films. Authored by two researchers who have been jointly documenting the field’s transformation over the past five years, this paper offers a framework for planning and evaluating the impact of these films in a networked media environment.

Tracking impact has become increasingly complex as platforms and content streams proliferate, and campaigns evolve over several years. A single piece of media can now spread across a variety of screens—a theater, a university classroom, the Web, home televisions, a mobile phone and more. Each screening carries with it different expectations, different measurement schemes, and different potential publics—i.e., groups of users for whom the film and related campaigns serve as a catalyst for debate—as well as advocates who seize upon the film as a hub for action. Cheaper production and distribution tools, new channels, and increasingly skillful and networked users are challenging previous assumptions about how social documentaries reach users, and offering powerful but vexing opportunities for collaboration and organizing.

The transition from 1.0 to 2.0 opens opportunities for documentarians to fulfill and expand their missions—not only informing individuals and leading public conversation but also building community cohesion and participation. Documentaries travel differently in this new media ecosystem, and they can also play a role in shaping its development.

As a result, evaluating such efforts requires a deep understanding of the mission and intended audiences for each project, and both qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. Given the quick-shifting digital terrain, mobile and documentary producers are operating in a rapid prototyping mode, experimenting with and refining a variety of distribution, outreach, and networking techniques. This makes it difficult to develop comparative assessment frameworks, instead refocusing evaluators’ attention on whether project goals were met, appropriate publics engaged, and unexpected publics pulled into the mix of discussion and action.

Such new discoveries are leading filmmakers in directions they could not have predicted at the start of their projects—creative opportunities that lead to innovations in narrative form and the shift from filmmaking to other modes of communication. Successes and failures alike drive such strategic shifts—finding a fortuitous partner, or an angle or clip that goes viral, or sinking money into a web site that ends up yielding little interaction. Documentarians are becoming more nimble, adopting research and planning methods that more closely resemble those associated with fields such as product design, agile software development, and community organizing. Drawing insights from the design thinking field—a user-focused creation process that has emerged from the commercial design field and is now being applied to create and improve social sector projects—this working paper
examines state-of-the art methodologies for strategic design and evaluation of documentaries. The report’s recommendations are informed by lessons from six case studies of representative films:

•   A Lion in the House,

•   The Line,

•   Lioness,

•   Not in Our Town,

•   Out in the Silence, and

•   State of Fear.

These are all award-winning projects featuring compelling documentary films at the center of multiplatform strategic outreach campaigns. All have been screened in traditional broadcast and/or film festival settings, as well as venues designed to engage publics and mobilize advocates relevant to the issue being addressed. These producers utilize a variety of technologies and both online and offline organizing tactics. At their most powerful, they catalyze and support issue-based networks that connect individuals with relevant organizations and empower participants not only to learn about and discuss shared problems, but to organize for action and respond to breaking developments. In this way, documentaries feed both social movements and the broader public sphere.

Finally, the report offers a model framework that encompasses planning, circulation, engagement and mobilization, which we hope others will use, critique and refine.


Why now?

“Our media habits are threads in our cultural tapestries, not stand-alone features; their impact on our beliefs and actions are sometimes impossible to separate from other parts of our experience. Laboratory conditions do not bear much similarity to people’s lived experience with media. Social scientists depend on a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches… in the hopes that the limitations of each can be supplemented by the other.”

Patricia Aufderheide, In the Battle for Reality

Documentary film projects have increasingly become core elements of social issue campaigns. Telling deep human stories about complex societal problems, they serve as catalysts for organizing, network-building and civic action. In an environment of information overload and polarized sparring, social issue documentaries provide quality content that can be used to engage members of the public as citizens rather than merely media consumers. As a result, they have gained in visibility, influence and number over the past decade.

But despite the box-office and critical success of high-profile examples such as An Inconvenient Truth or Supersize Me, the social impacts of such expensive, longrange projects have been hit-or-miss. As a result, investors and filmmakers are asking tough questions about how best to plan for and assess the impact of such films and related engagement strategies, and to create models and standards for a dynamic field.

Questions about how, when and why to fund documentary projects have become increasingly pressing as demands for media funding increase. Public broadcasting, long a source of support for documentary filmmakers, is now not only under threat of cuts from political opponents, but stretched to the limit by demands to produce content for multiple platforms. The decline of commercial journalism business models is also driving up funding and investment requests for a new generation of nonprofit news startups. Only a limited number of
foundations invest in media projects at all, and according to the 2010 report from Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media, Funding Media, Strengthening Democracy, those funders are now barraged with proposals to support not only content production, but related policy and infrastructure projects.

At the same time, many continue to seek ways to counter a national “civic recession” marked by declining rates of voting, participation in public meetings and volunteerism. NGOs, government agencies, and others are increasingly interested in funding documentary films in conjunction with their programs. Such films are no longer independent artifacts, but components of strategic campaigns with specific agendas.

These transformations are taking place in a media landscape where commercial and noncommercial boundaries blur; some social issue filmmakers are not only seeking foundation support, but attracting investors and developing marketing plans. They are operating in an environment of philanthropic entrepreneurship, enjoined to track their double bottom lines—the first denoting profit; the second social good.

In tandem with funders and investors, documentary filmmakers have a crucial role to play in defining the goals, outcomes and evolution of their projects. Research-based strategic design does not have to remain the province of commercial manufacturers, marketers and public relations firms. Instead, the most resourceful documentary producers are finding ways to harness the new streams of data offered by online and mobile platforms to track user behavior: sites visited, petitions signed, letters sent, networks joined, rants recorded. Emerging search and “sentiment” tools are able to track a story or meme as it travels across the Web, picking up velocity and influence and morphing as it goes.

This volatile and expanding universe of information can be both a boon and a morass. Determining the impact of a mission-driven media project—one designed primarily to drive social outcomes rather than to entertain or yield profit—can’t just be a numbers game. Quantitative metrics such as audience size and sales figures are imperfect indicators of how a media project changed minds or inspired participation.

Instead, the accounts of impact that resonate are those that show how media can further the mission in question. Documentary filmmakers are learning not to just tell the story within their film, but to dynamically communicate the power and progress of the project to stakeholders.

Current Methods

“More cutting-edge research on documentaries and features will enable independents to prove that films can make a difference. Filmmakers who learn how others have achieved social impact will be empowered to make films that can truly change the world.”

Peter Broderick, The Distribution Bulletin

Standards have previously been established for assessing and giving official recognition to technical and artistic excellence in the field of documentary film, as well as depth and accuracy of reporting, and educational uses. Similarly, methods have evolved to track financial returns on documentary distribution, including ticket and DVD sales, licensing and broadcast revenues, though such figures usually do not include the in-kind contributions and unpaid labor that most documentary films require.

Currently, there are myriad tools available for collecting basic social media and digital distribution statistics. Commercial media companies deploy surveys and other well-tested instruments for gathering and analyzing quantitative data including audience size, demographics, screenings, sales revenues, media coverage, etc. At the same time, Google Analytics and other tools provide unparalleled information about individual and social patterns of activity and engagement. Such quantitative measures are important to noncommercialmedia as well; tools specifically tailored to collate and analyze comparative metrics for the social documentary sector—such as a dashboard currently under development by the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC)—have begun to emerge. However, it is more complex to interpret the significance of such data and pair it with qualitative analysis that reveals social rather than financial return on investment.

Qualitative evaluation is taking place unevenly across the social documentary sector. At its best, rigorous qualitative analysis gathers and synthesizes anecdotes into trends and outcomes, and harnesses the storytelling skills of media producers to reveal the resonance and power of their productions. Producers and funders may track the film or campaign’s influence—how it contributes to changing individual behavior or opinion, shifting debate on a key issue, informing organizational or governmental policy, or serving as an educational resource. Such methods include content analysis of online and offline coverage, participation and dialogue; field observations of use of the film and associated campaigns; and visualizations of emerging issue- or community-based networks along with other rising methods.

What is needed now is a more standardized methodological approach that combines the strengths of both types of analysis in order to allow for more consistent assessment of the social impacts of documentary film. Standards for conducting such “mixed methods” research have not yet stabilized sufficiently to gauge either the circulation or influence of such films within public debate or their effectiveness in supporting social change goals. The shifting dynamics of communication—including the rise of a 24-7 opinion culture, the increasing power and speed of short-form video and microblogging, and the growth of niche networks dedicated to particular issues or publics—provide both new opportunities and an unsettling fragmentation of the mass audience.

Some consensus, however, is beginning to emerge. Center for Social Media researchers, including the authors of this report, have been tracking such projects and reporting on associated methods for a number of years. A handful of foundations, such as the Fledgling Fund, the Knight Foundation and the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation have also taken the lead in this inquiry by issuing key publications and assessments. They are joined by commercial producers such as Participant Films, public funders such as the BBC, and social justice film initiatives tied to documentary film festivals. Along the way, these efforts have surfaced numerous evaluation tools and methods, and agreement has begun to emerge around a set of evaluation categories. Current impact assessment initiatives generally agree that:

•   the primary goals of social issue media projects are to inform, engage, and motivate publics,

•   open and accessible media is the sine qua non of healthy democratic life, and

•   providing relevant and trusted quality content, and strengthening the capacity of individuals to engage with that information is a unique and necessary public service.

Visualization is playing a key role in various analyses, as stakeholders struggle to understand and synthesize the dynamics of impact. For example, the Fledgling Fund has developed a series of insightful graphics modeling the impact of social issue documentaries, and an analysis of the documentary End of the Line supported by the Channel 4 BRITDOC and Esmée Fairbairn foundations used a number of infographics to capture different aspects of the film’s influence on both individuals and corporations.

Flow chart1 in Designing for Impact

These reports offer parallel categories of qualitative impact measurement for social documentary, including evidence of quality, increased public awareness, meaningful partnerships, increased public engagement, and collective action. They also generally agree on the need for both qualitative and quantitative assessment of impact.

Common quantitative metrics that are tracked include:

•   numbers and diversity of viewers across platforms, streams, and opinions

•   sales and paid screenings

•   investment by foundations and individual donors

•   numbers of users engaged, both on social media platforms and in offline settings

•   mentions of the film across traditional and online media

Qualitative approaches focus on the degree to which a film contributes to a healthy participatory civic life. They may assess the impact of the film as demonstrated by:

•   evidence of newly engaged and diverse viewers, as demonstrated by online and in-person responses

•   the amplification and reframing of an issue in media coverage and public discourse

•   reported activities after viewing—such as voting, partnerships, events, training, and behavioral changes

•   the creative capacity of a film to generate identification, connection, and controversy

•   mobilization for action around issues

•   entry of the film or campaign into policy- and decision-making circles

•   legislative and/or policy impact

•   the nature and durability of partnerships around an issue

•   creative initiatives that contribute to community-building

•   relationships formed across boundaries of ethnic, class, generational, racial or religious difference

The methods that evaluators use, and the questions they seek to answer, often differ according to the stated goals of the films. This can be confusing for those hoping to find a single yardstick against which impact can be measured. However, as our analysis of the case studies below suggest, given enough examples it is possible to begin identifying common goals and related evaluation categories.

Missing Links

Qualitative research methods enable the design team to develop deep empathy for people they are designing for, to question assumptions, and to inspire new solutions. At the early stages of the process, research is generative—used to inspire imagination and inform intuition about new opportunities and ideas. In later phases,
these methods can be evaluative—used to learn quickly about people’s response to ideas and proposed solutions.

Human Centered Design Toolkit, 2nd Edition

This growing consensus about how discrete documentary projects should be assessed misses a few key dynamics, however. These include:

•   The value of incorporating user-focused research at each phase of a social documentary’s rollout

•   The challenges of assessing such films as hubs for networked advocacy and awareness-building

•   The role key films and campaigns are playing as models for this transforming field

Strategic Design for Documentaries

Much like product design, social issue documentary filmmaking now takes place in an unstable environment, influenced by new technologies, changing economic realities, and, increasingly, feedback from users. Each filmmaker must grapple with defining the lifecycle of a project while maintaining the flexibility to respond to emerging opportunities and shifts in the media landscape. This means deciding at key moments whether to enter new partnerships, adopt newly available platforms, engage new audiences, or reconsider long-term
goals—as well as how to fund and staff expanded activities. Evaluation can play a key role at each juncture, but needs to be understood as central to impact.

Understanding the process of filmmaking in this way requires new mental models and new approaches to craft. Documentarians can take inspiration from successful efforts by other types of creators to incorporate evaluation into the lifecycle of production—and to reconceptualize production as ongoing and iterative service rather than one-time creation.

Now in use for more than a decade by corporations, educational institutions, nonprofits and others, “design thinking” offers an alternative approach that can help documentary makers think about how research and evaluation will increase the impact of their projects. Pioneered by design firm IDEO, this approach conceptualizes production as human-centered, iterative, and solution-focused. The design thinking process shares many values with documentary practice—it is centered on storytelling, and anthropological approaches to culture and craft.

As reimagined for social issue documentary, design thinking steps might include:

•   Define the project’s brief—design thinking aims to identify new solutions. What problem does the film solve?

•   Design with users—design thinking is user-centered. Surveys, interviews and observation before production can help to reveal how users will put a documentary project to work in policy, education and civic settings.

•   Build the production team—design thinking is multidisciplinary, and so is filmmaking. Documentary filmmakers must think collaboratively; involve users, stakeholders, researchers, developers at each stage.

•   Prototype—design thinking is iterative. Filmmakers should road test storyboards, short videos, campaigns with users to think through how their campaign and platforms will help them meet their mission.

•   Understand limits—design thinking includes a keen awareness of constraints. Doc makers should consider the desirability, feasibility, and viability of their film or campaign, and how long each phase will take.

•   Evaluate, and then iterate—design thinking relies on both qualitative and quantitative measures to determine if a design solution is working, or should be retooled.

In addition to a helpful framework, the design thinking field offers a number ofuseful tools for brainstorming, conducting user-focused research, low-cost, and hands-on prototyping of not just products but interactive processes. (See the resources section in Appendix IV for related references.)

A similar logic is evident in parallel efforts to pair strategic design with evaluation for media producers. For example, in 2011, the Knight Foundation published IMPACT: A Practical Guide to Evaluating Community Information Projects, which offers producers of multiplatform local news projects a step-by-step guide
to impact assessment, including instructions for identifying mission and goals, understanding the project’s “theory of change,” identifying target audiences and stakeholders, refining the purpose and key questions for evaluation, tracking metrics and outcomes, and communicating evaluation findings. The report also provides a helpful rubric for identifying the project’s “logic model” —including resources, key outputs, activities, and short- and long-term outcomes.

Flow chart2 in Designing for Impact

Assessment of Documentaries’ Role in Network-Building and Field-Building

Impact evaluations are often conducted on a project-by-project basis, with a focus on how films affect individuals or civic outcomes. However, more attention is now being paid to the ecosystem in which such films operate—and how different support organizations and allies can help films reinforce or connect with larger movements, or invent new capacities within the field of documentary production.

Methods of tracking this kind of impact may include gathering evidence of effective collaborations between the filmmakers and advocacy or civil society organizations; knowledge-sharing among users and stakeholders that is prompted or supported by the filmmakers; the uptake and adaptation of shared practices, spaces, and tools, as well as the leveraging of resources.

Flow chart3 in Designing for Impact

Networks of advocates and stakeholders can form both online and offline, with face-to-face activities serving to build and strengthen bonds and deepen both understanding and activism. Active Voice, an outreach organization specializing in social change media strategies, is testing a model “Ecosystem of Change” to evaluate the impact of social issue media within this context of funders, stakeholders, filmmakers, policy-shapers and advocates.

High-impact social documentary projects stand to serve as incubators for media practices on rising platforms—laboratories in which users have the opportunity to develop shared rules and methods for civic dialogue, information exchange, or community-building. Tracking the uptake, evolution, and replication of such models helps to build templates that enable filmmakers and stakeholders to emulate successful initiatives and learn from failures. Creating shared categories of assessment and transparent processes for sharing outcomes can be a powerful tool for transforming the impact of projects across the field. Such efforts are documented in a 2009 report by FSG Social Impact Advisors, Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement and Social Impact,which highlights efforts to standardize evaluation processes and categories in the nonprofit sector. Researchers in adjacent fields are also examining innovative networking models—for example, the Monitor Institute’s 2011 report, Connected CitizensThe Power, Peril and Potential of Networks examines a variety of “network-centric” advocacy and media campaigns; the 2010 book The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting With Social Media To Drive Change examines how advocacy and community organizations are combining social media with offline organizing to build and deploy social capital.

Case Studies

In order to test both established and rising evaluation methods against realworld examples, we have conducted six multi-year case studies of successful documentary films with robust engagement campaigns. The common objective of these films is to produce positive social change through strategic media projects with documentary films at the core. All of these award-winning multiplatform projects were intended to create public awareness and frame civic discourse, engaged stakeholders and partners early and expanded these relationships as opportunities arose, were broadcast and/or shown in festivals; and produced resources for long-term use by educators, advocates or policymakers.

Our assessment methods included content analysis, tracking of offline and online responses to the films and associated campaign, and interviews with filmmakers and funders. This research was complicated by the fact that standard evaluation methods do not yet exist, and filmmakers are not currently systematically collecting impact data. Filmmakers and funders alike found the process of assembling the case studies informative in and of itself, as they lacked appropriate protocols.

Have the films produced social changes, and if so, what kind? In order to find out, we collected data related to the following impact categories (see Appendix I for our evaluation framework). This process in turn helped to determine how and whether the films had fulfilled their intended social mission:

•   Quality—Associated goals: Produce a high-quality film that is relevant, factually sound, aesthetically striking, and technically sophisticated.

•   Reach—Associated goals: Reach broad audiences, target key stakeholders and publics.

•   Engagement—Associated goals: Encourage interaction with the film beyond simple viewership to stimulate learning, debate and action.

•   Influence—Associated goals: Make an issue visible or change the frame in which it is publicly discussed, for the purpose of reaching influentials, changing practice and policy, rectifying injustices, and surfacing solutions.

•   Network building—Associated goals: Create infrastructure to foster new coalitions, connect publics, advocates and institutions via shared tools, platforms, and standards.

The longer case studies are below, in Appendix II. Below is a comparison of the six films, and associated takeaways.

Case Study Table-2

This is a diverse group of projects, spearheaded by filmmakers representing a range of experience, audiences, and issues. Nonetheless, this analysis indicates that social issue documentaries embedded in strategic campaigns evolve in four general phases: R&D/Production, Launch, Engagement and Network Building. Social documentary campaigns take at least three years to develop through their phases—sometimes much longer—as filmmakers focus their stories, expand partnerships, and identify needs. Research and evaluation are central to each of these phases; while filmmakers often see assessment as an onerous add-on, it’s actually an intrinsic element for success.

As the graphic on the next page suggests, assessment processes can serve a multitude of purposes over the course of a project:

•   During R&D as a tool to better understand how a film or campaign might best represent and reach intended publics; . In early production phases, as a tool for stakeholder engagement and prototyping;

•   In the launch phase, as an idea-generator for engagement and action campaigns;

•   During the engagement phase, as a warning sign or beacon of new opportunities;

•   Towards the tail end of distribution, when new uses, campaigns and publics might emerge and coalesce into networks, as indicated by:

•   the formation of coalitions around the issue that the film addresses

•   uptake of the film and associated campaign materials by citizens, who take it upon themselves to share, amplify or build upon the film’s messages and content

•   the creation and/or circulation of shared tools, such as petitions, listservs, DIY screening instructions

•   the creation of common standards, such as a shared hashtag, shifts in professional practice, or a common vocabulary to describe the issue

•   division of labor among stakeholders and partners in distributing, publicizing, and advocating.

As the Connected Citizens report notes, “To grow a network is to create new relationships and deepen existing ones. This happens when people come together, online and in person, in inviting environments where there are opportunities for good things to emerge. …Designing for serendipity means creating spaces that focus more on people and less on specific results. Such environments welcome people and make it easy to connect with others and with new ideas and resources. They are designed to optimize for good fortune, increasing the likelihood that people will bump into others sharing similar interests—or goals.”


Flow chart p18 in Designing for Impact


Case Study Takeaways

“Audience engagement is the process of moving a film’s audience from passive viewing to active involvement with the issue represented. It is what happens after audiences see the film and want to use their energy, resources, ideas, connections, or time to make a difference.”

Emily Verellen, From Distribution to Audience Engagement

Social issue documentaries evolve over time, in response to obstacles, opportunities, new technologies, and events

These case studies reveal the shift over the last fifteen years from an understanding of documentary films as sources of reliable information on hidden injustices to central nodes embedded in strategic campaigns designed to inform, motivate and engage viewers as active citizens.

Taken together, they reveal uneven adaptations to digital technologies in a transforming environment. State of FearNot in Our Town and A Lion in the House, for example, were produced by traditional longform social issue documentarians whose early films and outreach plans were limited to broadcast and nontheatrical circulation. They are now utilizing digital technologies to extend the range and variety of tools and services. The Line, on the other hand, was produced by a digital native who conceived her film as a networked project in a viral environment.

State of Fear demonstrates such shifts in assumptions about how documentaries can and should function as advocacy tools. The film was produced by a team whose first film on human rights violations in a Latin American country, When the Mountains Tremble, was made in 1985.When the Mountains Tremble was screened at Sundance, broadcast on PBS, and circulated on VHS to schools and advocacy organizations, establishing outreach circuits that the filmmakers have honed over time. While festivals, broadcast and non-theatrical distribution continue, State of Fear’s 2.0 life includes an interactive website, blogs, and the ready adoption of available technologies for human rights advocates from local to international settings.

Successful projects feature strategic campaigns with clearly articulated goals and target audiences

High-impact social documentary makers have identified agents of social change relevant to their objectives and engage stakeholders early. Working in a rapidly evolving media environment and with limited resources, successful documentary filmmakers have the capacity to respond flexibly to opportunities for partnerships, funding, tool-sharing, and coalition-building, as well as to the needs of the publics and advocates they serve.

For example, A Lion in the House addresses health care inequity through the lens of childhood cancer. The filmmakers engaged stakeholders early on—from national organizations to local and regional service providers. This group then expanded, as agencies like the Centers for Disease Control saw the relevance and need for services. The filmmakers created links among these groups, and produced a series of training modules adopted by professional health care providers.

Such films serve as laboratories for civic engagement

They expand accessible circuits of circulation, serving as information hubs and providing safe spaces online and offline for discussion and debate, which may model practices for civil discourse in a polarized society. As such, they are incubators of replicable models and tools for community engagement; educational and training materials for professional groups, youth, and underserved audiences; and best practices for future makers. By succeeding, they become incubators of the content, tools, and practice that contribute to fortifying the infrastructure for media- and issue-based networks.

A film may itself become an active intervention in the events it is documenting. Useful content may mobilize advocates and fortify coalition-building. A project which has activated communities or opened vistas so great as to demand another or expanded engagement phase presents a dilemma for such filmmakers. Some identify primarily as artists or journalists; others as activists. While these mission-driven filmmakers are committed to the issues addressed by their films, some may wish to move on other topics. Questions of capacity and sustainability become key:

•   Has an outreach campaign strengthened the capacity of partners with the motivation and need to continue the work?

•   Is there sufficient infrastructure—in terms of tools, issue networks, fieldbased partnerships—in place to ensure sustainability?

•   How does a particular social issue film and campaign fit into larger on-going initiatives?

Social issue documentaries are produced and circulated within a networked media and advocacy landscape to which they, in turn, contribute as hubs for organizing, collaboration and knowledge-sharing

Social issue documentary films help to weave together both online and offline networks of publics, stakeholders, and institutions:

•   The Not in Our Town films, which inspired spontaneous uptake in towns and cities facing hate crimes, is now a hub for resources and information-sharing about inclusive community-building and discourse across boundaries.

•   Lioness was adopted by both military health care providers and policy advocates working for official recognition of women in combat. It was screened on Capitol Hill and was instrumental in the campaign for official recognition of women’s combat service. The film and its related resources serve a network of health care providers.

•   State of Fear filmmakers participated in campaigns from local to international. The producers developed tools and programs that strengthened Peruvian NGOs advocating for the rights of Andean Indians, and expanded the film circuits of international human rights organizations

Digital technologies can network resources to strengthen local activities and underserved populations. Many of these projects have become the nodes of national networks, functioning as gathering places where information is aggregated, shared, and adapted in local communities—providing models for screenings, town hall meetings, and community-building.

Out in the Silence became an agent of change in the community it was filming and slowly assembled the components of a national network of support for small towns, as it evolved from a regional project into a national initiative that has stimulated a network of urban-based LGBT advocacy organizations to serve vulnerable rural and small town people.

Successful projects are participatory and circulate on multiple platforms. Digital technologies vastly expand the reach, uses and longevity of social issue documentaries, but much of the most enduring work takes place on the ground— in community screenings, professional training, in schools, etc. It is here that engagement and community-building take place. For example, The Line is a digital project with an extensive 2.0 website with active blogs and linked with sites around the world. At the same time, it is screened on campuses and in bars, and has been incorporated in professional training programs.

These projects face three major challenges—capacity, sustainability, and funding. 

Individual projects that flourish often lack the capacity to amplify their reach and extend their services. At the same time, a filmmaker may be vexed by how to ensure that a campaign, once begun, can be sustained beyond the life of a particular film. As strategically designed projects mature and enter into a networked environment, tasks such as distribution, resource development, and marketing are not necessarily the sole responsibility of the filmmaker, but may be assumed by stakeholders, outreach specialists or issue-based networks.

While foundations and government sources remain primary principal sources of support for documentary films and outreach, many filmmakers are experimenting with new economic models. In addition to online and DVD sales and Kickstarter campaigns, some projects are drawing the interest of organizations such as Impact Partners and the Skoll Foundation, which support social entrepreneurship.

The case studies revealed how an individual media project may function as the point of formation for both ad hoc and more enduring networks of communication and activity among individuals and organizations. They also revealed the need for:

•   a standard visual vocabulary for depicting the dynamics of outreach and engagement, both offline and online— how films travel, grow networks of people and organizations, and create “ripple effects” that contribute to notable outcomes; and

•   longitudinal analysis with sample timelines for metrics and models—key markers, including dates of related platform innovations are needed to track the life-cycle of a social issue documentary project over time, including duration, reach and impact.

Below, in Appendix I we offer a skeleton framework of strategic processes and data collection categories that we hope will serve as a discussion platform for makers and funders concerned with impact evaluation. The template is intended to specify what kind of evidence should be gathered over the course of the project in order to reveal impact and make visible the dynamics of engagement and network-building in order to inform strategic design at each phase. It is also intended to serve as a baseline for standardizing mixed methods data collection across multiple projects so as to strengthen the field of social documentary production.

Appendix III offers some initial efforts to visualize the formation of networks around media projects, developed collaboratively by the report’s co-author, Jessica Clark.

Clark developed the first set of graphics in conjunction with Tracy Van Slyke, for their 2010 book, Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media. The second spread, which examines the ripple effect of the multiplatform documentary Mapping Main Street, was developed in conjunction with Sue Schardt of the Association of Independents in Radio for a report titled Spreading the Zing: Reimagining Public Media Through the Makers Quest 2.0. They are intended to suggest how the dynamics of various social issue documentaries might be modeled and visualized over time.

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How should funders and filmmakers integrate strategic design and evaluation?

DFI-page 23 graph-1

A Sample process

•   Define your mission.

•   Define your agents of social change and stakeholders.

•   Define, research, and connect with your project’s potential publics and associated advocates. Most filmmakers have a general idea of their target audiences, which they tend to reach through partners, advocacy organizations, or other intermediaries. From this base add more diverse audiences and users, including those who represent races, ages and even ideological positions outside of the expected audiences for the film in order to gauge the film’s potential for stirring debate and speaking beyond the choir.

•   Define, research, and connect with your project’s potential networks from the start of the project; be open to new opportunities.

•   That research will help you to choose and develop appropriate platforms and engagement strategies, and diversify users. Match your evaluation plan to those choices and your mission.

•   Track and evaluate responses to the film and campaign using data collection categories below.

•   Evaluate at each phase, and iterate as results suggest.

•   Tell the story of your project not only to funders and stakeholders, but to users.


Strategic Design for Social Issue Documentaries( Click for full-size


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This report was informed by six in-depth case studies of social issue documentaries, conducted by Barbara Abrash.

•   A Lion in The House

•   The Line

•   Lioness

•   Not In Our Town 

•   Out In The Silence

•   State Of Fear: The Truth About Terrorism

For full review of case studies, please download the PDF here.

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Related Visualizations

The graphics below represent earlier efforts to visualize the formation of networks around media projects, developed collaboratively by the report’s coauthor, Jessica Clark. These have informed the visualizations on pages 18 and 24-25 in this report.They are intended to suggest how the dynamics of various social issue documentaries might be modeled and visualized over time.

Clark developed the first set of graphics in collaboration with Tracy Van Slyke, for their 2010 book, Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media— for more details.

The second spread, on pp. 72-73, examines the ripple effect of the multiplatform documentary Mapping Main Street. It was developed in collaboration with Sue Schardt of the Association of Independents in Radio for a report titled Spreading the Zing- Reimagining Public Media Through the Makers Quest 2.0. (Resouces- case study)

Designing for impact p68

Designing for impact p68

Designing for impact p69

Designing for impact p70

Designing for impact p71


Designing for impact p72

Designing for impact p73

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Documentaries and Social Impact

•   Barbara Abrash and Patricia Aufderheide: Documentary Funding at the Ford Foundation, 1970-2005, Ford Foundation, 2006

•   Patricia Aufderheide: In the Battle for Reality: Social Documentaries in the U.S., Center for Social Media, 2003

•   Diana Barrett and Sheila Leddy: Creative Media’s Social Impact, December 2008.

•   Peter Broderick: “Special report: How Films can Change the World”The Distribution Bulletin, Issue #16July 7, 2011.

•   Jessica Clark and Pat Aufderheide: Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged PublicsThe Center for Social Media, February 2009.

•   Jessica Clark and Sue Schardt. Spreading the Zing- Reimagining Public Media Through the Makers Quest 2.0., Center for Social Media and the Association of Independents in Radio, May 2010.

•   Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke: Investing in Impact: Media Summits Reveal Pressing Needs, Tools for Evaluating Public Interest Media Center for Social Media, May 2010.

•   The End of the Line: A Social Impact Evaluation, Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation, 2011

•   IMPACT- A Practical Guide to Evaluating Community Information Projects, FSG and the John and James L. Knight Foundation, February 2011.

•   Peter B. Kaufman and Mary Albon, Funding Media, Strengthening Democracy: Grantmaking for the 21st, Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media, March 2010.

•   Mark Kramer, Marcie Parkhurst, Lalitha Vaidyanathan. Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement and Social ImpactFSG Social Impact Advisors, July 2009.

•   Sheila Leddy and Serena Keith: Assessing the Impact of Good Pitch, 2010.

•   Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers: Cultivating Change- Lioness Impact Report, 2010.

•   Pull Focus Showcase, Center for Social Media, 2011

•   Emily Verellen: From Distribution to Audience Engagement – Social Change Through Film, The Fledgling Fund, August 2010. 75

Design Thinking

•   Bootcamp Bootleg, Institute of Design at Stanford, 2010.

•   Tim Brown: Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, HarperCollins, September 2009.

•   Human-Centered Design Toolkit, IDEO and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2009.

 Networked Media

•   Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke: Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media, The New Press, February 2010.

•   Diana Scearce: Connected Citizens- The Power, Potential and Peril of Networks, Monitor Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Spring 2011.

•   Beth Kanter and Allison Fine: The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting With Social Media to Drive Change, Jossey-Bass, June 2010.

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* There have been a few slight changes to this report since November 16, 2011. For details of corrections please refer to: