Un-Silent Movies—Diana Barrett Uses Visual Storytelling to Give Voice to the Vulnerable

Story in: Client Profiles

Before Al Gore and filmmaker David Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth popularized the term “global warming,” Diana Barrett, President and Founder of The Fledgling Fund, was already focused on visual storytelling and its potential for change. She discovered that films, such as one of The Fund’s first projects, the Academy Award-winning Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids, had the power to highlight the plight of vulnerable populations and inspire activism where traditional grantmaking could not. For Diana, who came to philanthropy after a career in academia, it wasn’t a casual discovery. “I did the analysis, and it  became clear that even a $500,000 grant, which is significant for a small, family foundation, doesn’t begin to get at the problem of childhood literacy or any of the other issues we were focused on,” Diana says. “Visual storytelling, when paired with activists and NGOs, has a greater chance of achieving some goals, and visual arts are more attractive to young people than the written word.”

“Our vision was helping vulnerable populations, specifically women, children, and immigrants,” Diana explains. “Our strategy was visual storytelling writ large, and our tactics were documentary films.” The Fledgling Fund selects films to support through a highly competitive process, choosing those that are well made, that tell a compelling story, and are timely. “We work with those filmmakers to connect them with activists and NGOs that are already working in that space, and we help them to find the right outreach producer (a term that didn’t exist ten years ago) to make sure that their film becomes an engine of change,” Diana says. “In 2016, continuing with this strategy, we added a new thread called the Rapid Development Fund. Here, we provide extremely quick turnaround for filmmakers who have a short story to tell about an extremely timely issue. Sometimes, they make the piece entirely; sometimes, they repurpose footage. This strand is also very competitive. In 2017, we received about 300 requests for funding and supported about 25.” Over the past 14 years, Fledgling has supported 450 projects to highlight and bring action to human rights, racism, and immigration.

Fledgling is productive from both a quantitative and qualitative standpoint. The film projects it has supported have won or been nominated for Emmy Awards and Academy Awards and have been exhibited at Sundance and other prestigious festivals. However, Diana is less interested in building a cineaste’s trophy cabinet than in getting traction on social issues. About eight years ago, Fledgling supported a film about domestic violence, Sin by Silence, which depicted the plight of women who’d been jailed for killing their abusers. The movie made such an impact that in its wake, three pieces of legislation were passed  in California called the “Sin by Silence Bills.” One statute of these bills permits many victims of domestic violence, including those featured in the film, to refile for a writ of habeas corpus and petition the court to reconsider their cases in light of the circumstances of their abuse. “I wish I could claim that kind of impact for every film,” Diana says, “but some of these projects have very long tails, and we won’t know for years whether they were impactful. You don’t know how long it will take until someone feels a sense of responsibility and acts.”

Despite Fledgling’s track record of achievement, Diana is a firm believer in regular and vigorous self-assessment. “Ten years after we started our outreach and community engagement strategy, we asked ourselves if we should revisit it,” she says. “We asked, what are we good at? What is our brand? How has the field changed?” She also asked a more personal question: “Is this making our key people happy? We’re certainly interested in impact, but I also want to wake up every morning feeling excited about what we do.”

The exercise prompted some valuable insights. “The field has changed a lot since we got started,” Diana says. “We helped to build the outreach and community engagement field. Now, there’s an entire ecosystem focused on it— ranging from individual impact producers that will work with filmmakers to larger companies that can manage specific components or a film’s entire campaign. When we first started, we gave $30,000-$40,000 grants, and that was enough to fund the project. Now, there are films getting $2-$3 million, just for outreach above and beyond the production costs.”

Instead of continuing to fund projects in the same manner, Fledgling looked for a longer lever to keep pushing forward. “We’re still focused on vulnerable populations, but we’re going to focus even more on the safety and health of women and girls because we think that’s the sweet spot in changing so many things that affect vulnerable populations,” Diana explains. “For example, imagine there’s a child in the South Bronx with asthma. If you’re focused only on the child’s disease, but you don’t help the child’s mother address the other issues that she has to deal with on a daily basis, often called the social determinants of health, such as adequate housing, lack  of food, inappropriate sexual behavior, drug use, etc., the asthma will never be dealt with. By focusing on the mother’s challenges, you can get to the root of these problems and make lasting change.”

The Fledgling Fund is also leveraging its connections on behalf of its current objectives. And Fledgling is very good at convening. Recently, they have been working closely with Double Exposure, a film festival in Washington, D.C. that works internationally to bring investigative journalism to global audiences. “Double Exposure is a great convening space, connecting journalists and filmmakers to feed investigative storytelling,” Diana explains. “At the moment, Fledgling is also working with PAI, an organization that advocates for universal access to  reproductive  health, and we saw an opportunity to partner with both of these organizations and worked to support nine Fledgling Fellows to attend the festival and convene around current issues in reproductive health. So, all of these people are in D.C. today—investigative journalists, photographers, filmmakers, and people who care about reproductive health. Our goal is to build an effective network of people who don’t often come together to develop stories, both visual and written, that will move the needle.”

Asked if she has any advice for other private foundations, Diana is blunt: “What you did five years ago may not make a difference today or be the right strategy,” she says. “You need to do a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis to determine where in the panoply of other activities you want to be. And, also think about what level of risk you want to take and how. I recently read about Barbara and Stephen Miller, Foundation Source clients who make micro grants to help people avoid becoming homeless. They’re doing great work, and they are clearly comfortable in that space, but who are you? Is this what you want to do?” For Diana, the answer to that question is the key to both philanthropic impact and personal fulfillment.