Media: Documentary Film Grant Guidelines


Please note:  Application guidelines for documentary film funding differ from guidelines for other MacArthur grantmaking strategies.  Please precisely follow the instructions below for documentary film proposals.


MacArthur's goal in media grantmaking is to provide the public with high-quality, professionally-produced documentary films, deep and analytical journalism, and well-produced news and public affairs programming. In a media environment characterized by proliferating information sources of varying degrees of reliability, the Foundation seeks to support serious, fact-based journalism for television, radio and the web, the type of original reporting that is likely to be blogged about, linked to, tweeted, and otherwise circulated throughout the Internet. Programs supported by the Foundation inform and educate their viewers about important and under-reported topics, provide balance and accurate information, encourage global conversations, and use technology to tell stories in engaging and interactive ways.

Documentary Films

Application Process

MacArthur funds the production of documentary films and participatory web-based documentaries that combine exceptional storytelling with in-depth journalism. We look for projects that challenge preconceptions and examine underreported social issues. These documentaries are intended to reach a large U.S. broadcast audience and, often, a targeted audience of educators, community leaders, advocates, and policymakers. We look for projects that have the potential to spark dialogue, create understanding, and contribute to social and policy change.

MacArthur accepts applications for documentary production funding once a year through the Documentary Fund.

What We Fund

We seek to fund documentary projects that address the significant social challenges of our time or explore important but under-reported topics in a journalistic manner. Domestic and international topics are welcome.

Support will be provided primarily for production and post-production activities. To qualify, you must apply through an organization or company that is legally incorporated in a U.S. state that has editorial and financial control over the documentary project. The MacArthur Documentary Fund cannot make grants to individuals, or through fiscal sponsors. Preference is given to experienced filmmakers with a record of producing films that have been broadcast nationally and internationally and received critical recognition.

MacArthur-supported documentaries:

  • Address important, contemporary social topics - international or domestic - illustrating the human impacts of public policy
  • Follow an issue over time, providing in-depth reporting that goes beyond conventional news coverage
  • Utilize compelling personal stories to engage viewers and create empathy
  • Appeal to a broad audience because  they treat different points of view with respect
  • Are factually accurate and follow best practices in documentary ethics
  • Are led by experienced filmmaking teams that have past success in bringing a documentary project to successful completion and reaching broad U.S. audiences
  • Are in production or post-production phase (on a very limited basis, we may consider projects seeking research and development funding)

What We Don’t Fund

  • Biographies or films profiling one person
  • Historical documentaries
  • Advocacy films
  • Student films
  • Fiction films
  • Multi-part television series
  • Distribution, outreach or community engagement campaigns
  • Films primarily focused on sports, or the arts, without a social issue component


Grantee Requirements

The following information is provided for reference, so that you can be aware of the MacArthur Foundation’s requirements for making grants before deciding whether to apply.

All activities that the MacArthur Foundation supports must be for charitable purposes. This means they must not give rise to private benefit or monetary profit to the organization receiving the grant, or any individual.

The MacArthur Foundation will make grants to organizations that do not have a 501c3 tax exempt letter from the IRS, including organizations that are incorporated as for-profit business corporations, with certain conditions, detailed below.

Non-profit corporations with 501c3 status:
If you are a non-profit corporation with 501c3 status, your organization must be able to provide a letter stating that the documentary seeking funds is a project of the organization, over which the organization has “complete financial and editorial control.” The Foundation’s Media Program does not make grants to fiscal agents, or fiscal sponsors.

Non-profit corporations without 501c3 status:
If you are not a tax-exempt 501c3 organization, but have incorporated as a non-profit, in addition to the requirements above, your organization or production company must be able to provide the Foundation with proof of incorporation and organizational by-laws, and a Certificate of Good Standing from the state in which you incorporated. In addition, the purpose for which you are seeking funding must be for a charitable purpose. You must accurately state that the resulting documentary will be distributed to the public, at little or no cost, and provide a distribution plan with your proposal.

For-profit corporations:
If you are incorporated as a for-profit company (a business corporation) applying for a grant to support a documentary film being made in the public interest, in addition to providing proof of incorporation, by-laws or operating agreement, and a Certificate of Good Standing from the state in which you incorporated, you must be able to accurately state in writing that all professional fees are being charged at or below cost, and that the project will not give rise to a profit for the organization, or anyone else, and provide a production project budget that supports your statement. You must also be able to accurately state that the resulting documentary will be distributed widely to the public, at little or no cost, and provide a distribution plan with your proposal.

Reporting requirements:
All organizations applying for funding through the Documentary Fund must be prepared to keep detailed financial records of any expenditures of the grant funds, and report these to the Foundation on a yearly basis for the duration of time during which the grant funds are being spent.


Updated February 2016