sharing our good fortune

sharing our good fortune

Selecting the organizations with which we share our good fortune is a group effort that includes our full time staff as well as the collaborators with whom we work. My request to them is that they share ideas that reflect who we are as a company: we want to support organizations that are unapologetic about their passion, who use storytelling as a strategy to achieve their goals, or have simply reached us with a powerful story about their work.

I’m proud of the people who have joined me in building Aggregate and of the ideas they shared this year. I hope you’ll consider joining us in supporting the following organizations.

We believe in justice.

We have now made our third annual donation to the Southern Center for Human Rights, which provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails and improves legal representation for people who are low-income. We made the donation in the name of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

After reading about Lenzi Sheible, the 20-year old founder of Fund Texas Choice in The New York Times, we felt compelled to make a donation to enable her to do her important work. Because of legislation passed in the state of Texas—as well as in a number of other states—women often must travel long distances to access abortion services and many cannot afford to do so. So our donation will support Lenzi and Fund Texas Choice to cover those costs.

In July, we paid a Detroit resident’s overdue water bill  to prevent their water from being turned off thanks to the quick organizing and deft communication skills of the Detroit Water Project. We admire them for jumping in to address a need and for ensuring others both understood what was happening and that they could do something to help.

And in September, we made a donation to the Center for Death Penalty Litigation after they successfully worked to enable the exoneration of two men—Henry McCollum and Leon Brown—who had been on death row for 30 years in North Carolina for a rape and murder they did not commit.

We love filmmakers. 

Because 1) we like working with Josh Simon, 2) because criminal justice should be just, and 3) because Josh asked, we made a donation to support the production of This Place is Dirty. This new documentary—currently in production—is about Jon Burge, a former Chicago Police detective who was convicted of torturing criminal suspects for nearly twenty years.

For the second year in a row we are supporting the True/False Film Fest‘s Pay the Artist program to enable the festival to support the filmmakers who screen their films at the Fest (beyond travel costs) and to encourage others to invest in independent documentary filmmaking. (We’ll  be announcing additional support for the festival soon, so stay tuned.)

We made additional donations to support the re-release of Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer as well as the Sarah Jacobsen Film Grant, which is a grant for young women filmmakers “whose work embodies some of the things that Sarah stood for: a fierce DIY approach to filmmaking, a radical social critique, and a thoroughly underground sensibility.”

We think young people deserve better.

This year was also the third year we made a donation to the Ali Forney Center in New York City, which provides services to LGBTQ youth. And for the third year in a row, we made the donation in the name of Spencer Cox, the great AIDS activist who died in 2012.

Closer to home, the Sanctuary Art Center in Seattle works with homeless and street youth to enable them “to experience creativity and success through art.” We supported them this year to buy a new press. They reached that goal, but they have countless additional needs, so we’re confident that would appreciate your support as well.

We also gave to the national organization, Girls on the Run, which uses running as a strategy for promoting self-esteem, teamwork and a positive body image for young girls.

We love Jay Smooth.

We made a donation to WBAI‘s hip hop show Underground Railroad, which is hosted by our favorite video blogger Jay Smooth. Jay was such an important and smart voice on race relations this year, someone to whom we looked to make sense of a series of events and a world that often made no sense at all.

We love Seattle.

We also gave money to our hometown public radio station KEXP (for the second year in a row) to support their efforts to build a new home in Seattle. As I said last year, they are a significant contributor to making Seattle the amazing place it is and we’re grateful to them for filling our office with music every day.

KEXP is building a new home at a time when the real estate market in Seattle has gone apeshit, leaving many of our lower income neighbors in situations where they are paying an unlivable percentage of their income to put a roof over their heads. It’s a heady time to live in Seattle—if you are among the privileged who can still afford it. So, we’re supporting the Tenants Union of Washington State to enable them to continue to be advocates for tenants’ rights. Thanks to the fabulous Ansel Herz at The Stranger for pointing us in their direction.

We owe it to veterans (especially Ryan).

My friend Ryan Friedrichs came home safe this year after serving for the past three years in the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan. To express our gratitude for and admiration of Ryan, we made a donation to the Veteran Artist Program, which has a mission to “foster, encourage and promote veteran artists.”

We love food.

Finally, we gave to L.A. Kitchen, which “reclaims local, healthy food that would otherwise be discarded, training men and women who are unemployed for jobs and providing healthy meals.” L.A. Kitchen was founded recently by Robert Egger, who founded D.C. Kitchen 24 years ago as the first “community kitchen.”

Best wishes to everyone for the new year. Give when you can.

films are films: measuring the social impact of documentary films

films are films: measuring the social impact of documentary films

Earlier this year, the firm that I founded—Aggregate—partnered with the organizers of the True/False Film Fest to conduct a survey of the filmmakers whose films screened at the Fest in 2014. True/False is a well-regarded documentary film festival, particularly among filmmakers who often talk about how well the festival organizers treat them and the obvious regard the organizers have for the art of storytelling.

The goal of our survey was to understand how these filmmakers felt about their films’ potential contribution to social change, any intentions they had to capitalize on that potential, as well as their views regarding measuring the social impact the films could have. While True/False is not specifically a social change documentary film festival, of those who responded to the survey, 72 percent believed that the film they screened at the 2014 Fest could contribute to social change.

As we were getting ready to share the outcomes of the survey, The New York Times reported on Participant Media’s efforts to establish an index that would enable them—and others who invest in social change films—to determine which films “spur activism” and those, seemingly, which do not. The Participant Index, based on my understanding from the article, measures the ability of a film to inspire “emotional involvement” as well as its ability to “provoke action.” So, while a film may generate an intense emotional response, if it does not also lead the audience to take action, it would generate a lower score and, perhaps, not receive the support of funders that want to invest in action that they believe will lead to social change.

It should not be a surprise to you that the filmmakers we survey expressed concern about measuring the social impact of their films: 66 percent were opposed to using metrics. And, while I believe very strongly in measuring impact, I share some of their concerns. If the “effectiveness” of storytelling is, for example, defined by actions taken by audience members in the short term, this could lead to a bias toward investing in didactic films (“This is how you should feel and this is what you should do.”) about issues with relatively clear paths toward resolution. And that’s not good storytelling.

My concern is that the path being taken by foundations and other funders of social change storytelling to demonstrate a return on investment—while paved with good intentions—has made a wrong turn.

Despite their belief in the potential of their films to contribute to social change, 56 percent of the filmmakers we surveyed indicated that they had no plans to do outreach specifically to increase the social impact of their films. Why? 42 percent said they didn’t have the time or budget to do so and 15 percent said they simply didn’t know how.

This was not a surprise. A few years ago—during a panel at True/False on social change films—I heard Steve James, the award-winning filmmaker of Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters and the newly released Life Itself, tell the crowd that, despite the social issues addressed in many of his films, he was a filmmaker and not an advocate. He felt strongly that he should leave it to those who know how to make change happen to determine how to use his films to do so.

What I believe is that (more) foundations should invest (more) in outreach strategies for documentary films to take (better) advantage of their emotional impact. Filmmakers could be involved in the development of these strategies, but advocates with knowledge of the issues, the influencers and the solutions—including foundations’ current grant recipients—should design them. And I believe we should measure the impact of THOSE investments, using metrics that assess REAL outcomes.

Yes, let’s measure the emotional impact of a film: the anger, the sadness, the sense of injustice, or the empathy or admiration for those who are suffering or who are creating change. But do not let us dismiss films that do not, on their own, provoke immediate action as being less than integral to social change. Think of the stories that have introduced you to new ideas, new worlds and new people. Think of the stories that have challenged your previously held beliefs. They are no less valuable to society because you didn’t sign a petition after viewing them.

There was an intriguing line in the New York Times article about the issues that were most likely to compel Participant audiences to take action. “Stories about animal rights and food production, it turned out, were the most likely to provoke individual action. But tales about economic inequality—not so much.”

In developing social change strategies to mobilize people to take action, one of the most important things to do is to understand where people are in relationship to the issue being addressed. Are they aware of it? Do they care about it? If they do care, do they understand the factors that allow it to persist or which led it to exist in the first place? If they do understand, do they believe that they—as individuals—have the capacity to impact those factors?

Sure, stories about animal rights and food production are more likely to provoke individual action—because people think they, as an individual, can stop going to SeaWorld or can start shopping locally. But ending economic disparities? Most audiences need a little help to believe they alone can do anything to have an impact on what most of us perceive as an intractable problem. Enabling people to understand how they could have a TRULY meaningful impact requires understanding the players and the policies that need to be changed. THIS is the job of the advocate: to take the baton from the filmmaker—who has generated the energy—and to share their knowledge and know how—to direct that energy wisely.

“Films are films,” wrote one filmmaker in response to our survey. “If they are a visually interesting experience, spark conversation and inspire people to engage new ideas, they’re successful. Films should not be reduced to advertisements, no matter how worthy the cause. They need to exist on their own terms. If they’re good, they’ll get people thinking.”

giving away money

giving away money

It’s time again for our end of year donations, but the truth is that Aggregate gives money throughout the year. Sometimes we do so to show our admiration and other times our love. Sometimes we do so because a great story compels us or because we want to support our friends. We always do so because the missions that these organizations pursue—as well as generosity—are core to our values.

  • In February, we donated to the True Life Fund at the True/False Film Fest, which is run by our Creative Director, David Wilson. Each year, True/False selects one of the films in their program and raises money to “support and honor those who appear in front of the camera.” In 2013, the True Life Fund film was Which Way is the Front Line from Here?, about Tim Hetherington, a conflict zone photojournalist who was killed in 2011 while covering the civil war in Libya. The money we donated went to support Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues and the Milton Margai School for the Blind in Sierra Leone, an organization that Tim supported when he was alive.
  • In March we donated to the Brothers of a Boston Fraternity because we were so impressed with their decision to support their transgender brother to have top surgery after his insurance company denied his claim.
  • In June we donated to PATH, our neighbors in Seattle, to support their efforts to transform global health through innovation.
  • In August we donated to the Maplewood Barn Community Theater to support the Willy Wilson Scholarship to support high school graduates to study performing arts in college. Willy, David’s dad, passed away this summer. In addition to being a talented performer, Willy gave us David, for which we are eternally grateful.
  • In September, we donated to support friends who were riding in the Canary Challenge to raise money for cancer research at the Stanford Cancer Institute.
  • In November, we donated to charity: water because it was the least we could do to show Paull Young that we admired his willingness to wear a Speedo on the streets of Philadelphia in November.

Through these donations, we nearly doubled what we gave through our year-end contributions last year.

For this year’s donations, we renewed our commitment to last year’s recipients: the Ali Forney Center (again, in honor of Spencer Cox), which provides housing for homeless LGBT youth in New York, and the Southern Center for Human Rights, which provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails, seeks to improve legal representation for poor people accused of crimes, and advocates for criminal justice system reforms on behalf of those affected by the system in the Southern United States.

As far as new recipients, staff contributed their ideas and these are the additional groups that have received our support:

  • We made a donation to KEXP in Seattle because we listen to them every day in the office and because of their own contribution to making our favorite city an amazing place to live.
  • Finally, after seeing Jim Olson speak at PopTech in October and then again this month in Seattle, we made a donation to Project Violet at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. It is Jim’s ambition, commitment, innovative approach and amazing skills as a storyteller that caught our eye. We’re honored to be able to help him and his team.

In total, our donations this year were three times what we gave away last year. We did well and we gave back. We hope you’ll consider giving to some of the same organizations to which we donate.

Best wishes for the new year.

our annual contributions

our annual contributions

When I decided to start my own company, one of the things that I wanted to achieve was to ensure that the people I hired were proud of where they worked. I figured we could do so in a few different ways: do smart, creative work for great clients, provide a fun and beautiful setting for them to come to every day, enable them to have new experiences (travel, meeting cool people) and be a company that wears our values on our sleeves.

To achieve this last item, we could be outspoken about the issues we care about—in our conversations, via the content we share online—and we could work with organizations that share those values. We could also give to organizations that were working to uphold those values.

We moved into our first office on September 1, celebrated our first anniversary on October 1 and today we are announcing our first annual charitable contributions. We reached out to friends, vendors, family and clients for ideas and they sent quite a few fabulous options. Hopefully next year we’ll be able to increase the number and the size of the donations we make, but this is what we are doing this year.

Boys and Girls Club of King CountyWe wanted one of our donations to go to a group in our home town of Seattle. Haley suggested the Boys and Girls Club because, as she said, they enabled her to afford to ensure her beautiful daughter had after school care when Haley was enrolled in a full time Master’s program. Giving women the chance to further their education—and to inspire their daughters to do the same—is core to our hearts and we love having the opportunity to allow Haley to say thank you and to join her in doing so. We are giving the Boys and Girls Club $500 (actually, we’re letting Haley’s daughter do the honors) and encourage you to consider making a donation as well.

Southern Center for Human Rights: We are proud of the work we are currently doing with the Council of State Governments Justice Center and of the other people in our world who work to address the injustices of the criminal justice system. They need our help. The Southern Center for Human Rights provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails, seeks to improve legal representation for poor people accused of crimes, and advocates for criminal justice system reforms on behalf of those affected by the system in the Southern United States. We are giving the Southern Center for Human Rights $1,000 and hope you will consider making a donation as well.

Ali Forney Center: On December 17, Spencer Cox died at the age of 44. Spencer was a committed AIDS activist whose passion enabled him to contribute to saving the lives of millions of people worldwide, a fact we should all know and never forget. His family suggested three charities to which donations could be made in Spencer’s name and we selected the Ali Forney Center. The Center, in New York City, provides housing and other services to homeless LGBT youth and recently needed to invest significant resources to rebuild its drop-in center, which was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. We are giving $1,000 to the Ali Forney Center—in Spencer’s name—and hope you will consider making a donation in his name as well.

Spencer was featured in David France’s How to Survive a Plague and upon his death, David posted the amazing video of Spencer at the top of the page, in which Spencer reminds all of us what matters most: being kind, and being generous. Thank you, Spencer.