Filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar (right) won an Oscar for “American Factory,” one of the first movies from Higher Ground, the production company founded by former President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

While many of us watch the Academy Awards to figure out what is worth seeing, this year’s were especially worth noting for people in philanthropy because they demonstrated that film can achieve significant social impact.

The most obvious example was the Oscar-winning “American Factory,” which offers an incisive portrait of the Chinese Fuyao glass factory that rose up in an abandoned General Motors automotive plant near Dayton, Ohio. The film, available on Netflix, shows the complex and confounding dynamics unfolding in our global economy between workers and management, between American employees and their Chinese counterparts, and between human labor and the robots that are inexorably replacing us.

It was the first Oscar for filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, and notably one of the first films to come out of Higher Ground, the new production company founded by former President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. Beyond the tremendous reach of a film with the worldwide distribution of Netflix and the peerless backing of the Obamas, the film was also the focal point of a major outreach campaign created by its initial producers at Participant Media, the Hollywood studio of philanthropist Jeff Skoll.

That campaign included a national tour with screenings and panel discussions in communities dealing with the challenges of deindustrialization, such as Detroit and Pittsburgh. It also included Harvard Business School, where students augment their understanding of the Fuyao business strategy with a deeper understanding of worker perspectives illuminated in the film. The point of the outreach effort is to open up a meaningful dialogue among disparate interest groups, labor, management, academe, and philanthropy, all seeking to better understand the future of work.

New Insights
The film, along with this campaign, opens a window into the ways media and philanthropy can work together to make a difference. We have long harbored hunches about the power of media to influence change, but our understanding about the degree of media’s influence, and the triggers and pathways that lead to change, have often remained somewhat mysterious. That’s why new scholarship is emerging to shed light on the relationship between media and social outcomes.

Media Impact Funders, the organization I lead, has been tracking this growing field of research for seven years and has just published a report to synthesize that learning for grant makers that want to understand where to start. Decoding Media Impact: Insights, Advice & Recommendations is a practical resource that examines four key insights:

There are many ways to measure impact. Among them:

  • Reach: the number of people who read, hear, or watch a media project
  • Influence: adoption of an issue by an influential audience
  • Policy change: a movement toward enacting or altering public policy

Grant makers should be mindful of power dynamics and thoughtful in determining appropriate impact strategies with their grantees.

When filmmakers are beholden to foundation reporting requirements, that can take away from the actual work required to achieve social impact—especially for small media organizations. But perhaps more important, grantees may hesitate to share stories of struggle if they think it could affect their chances of future funding.

Digital analytics tools provide a wealth of useful data, but grantees require financial and logistical support to put them to good use.

Grant makers should do more to collaborate on what works best in gathering impact data, both to improve their own work and to increase the overall impact of measuring results.

Assessing the impact of documentaries, films, and other media is essential to understanding audience perception and attitudes.  The results of measurement efforts can help demonstrate the power of storytelling as a strategy to spark actions that result in social change. And assessing the impact of media efforts can demonstrate whether the reactions to content are the ones we intended and whether people who view media demonstrate stronger understanding of the topics featured.

Of course, there is no master framework for measuring media’s impact. No single strategy will work for all types of media. And there’s no consensus among foundations and media makers on how to do this work, so everyone needs to approach impact assessment with humility.

“Media impact measurement is a fairly complex endeavor when it’s done well, and the various social science and computational methods it employs can be off-putting to people who prefer to judge the impact of their work by film-festival awards or box office,” said Johanna Blakley, managing director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, in an essay from the report.

Still, foundations are funding a variety of high-impact documentaries and other types of media  with great success. As a measure of the results they are achieving, you just had to watch Zack Gottsagen make history at the Oscars as the first person with Down syndrome to present an Academy Award. His appearance that evening grew out of sustained efforts by the Ruderman Family Foundation, which has been a uniquely powerful voice in promoting inclusion in the entertainment industry, especially by encouraging film and television to audition actors with disabilities, like Gottsagen, to perform roles with greater authenticity.

In the unpredictable landscape, the approaches to measuring impact—and learning what works from such research—will have to keep evolving. But there is no doubt movies and other media projects will continue to have the power to change the world.

Closing the Oscars with her presentation of the Best Picture Award, Oscar winner Jane Fonda made that clear as she declared: “Nothing is more important than raising awareness, right? Tonight we’ve hopefully brought to light the impact that films have made and can make on our lives, as individuals and on society as a whole.”

This piece originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on February 28. Vince Stehle is the executive director of Media Impact Funders and a Chronicle columnist. He is also a board member of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

Editor’s note: “American Factory,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019, won the film festival’s Directing Award in the U.S. Documentary category. And this week, the Ruderman Family Foundation presented the Morton E. Ruderman Award to directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Green Book”) for their efforts in authentically portraying disability in entertainment. The Ruderman Foundation partnered with Sundance to improve the accessibility of closed captioning, audio description and assisted listening devices at the festival this year.

About the Author
Vincent Stehle

Vincent Stehle

Executive Director

Before joining Media Impact Funders in 2011 as executive director, Vince was program director for Nonprofit Sector Support at the Surdna Foundation, a family foundation based in New York City. Prior to joining Surdna, Stehle worked for 10 years as a reporter for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where he covered a broad range of issues about the nonprofit sector. Stehle has served as chairperson of Philanthropy New York and on the governing boards of VolunteerMatch and the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN). Currently, he serves on the board of directors of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.