Q&A with Laura Wilson: Impact through Documentary Film, No Small Matter

NoSmallMatter blog picLast year, our Center team spoke to an ultra-high-net-worth donor who expressed the need for creating “’An Inconvenient Truth’ for early childhood” to galvanize people around the topic. Laura Wilson, Director of Engagement at Kindling Group in Chicago, is hoping that her team’s upcoming documentary film and campaign for high quality, affordable early care and education, No Small Matter, will be just that. We spoke with Laura to get her take on what the film hopes to achieve, and her team’s unique approach to achieving and measuring impact.


Laura, what is your role on the “No Small Matter” project, and how did you get involved?

I have been involved in No Small Matter from its beginning back in 2014, as both a co-producer and an impact strategist, which is an exciting (and unusual) combination role for a film. For instance, before we began production, I was involved in convening a brain trust of experts in the early childhood education space to guide our message framing, share lessons learned from past campaigns, and to help steer us away from any “icebergs” that could hurt our credibility not only with early childhood advocates, but also with our target audiences. Now that we are moving towards the film’s premiere, which we anticipate will be in early 2017, that impact production (as it is called in the world of documentary film) includes conducting stakeholder surveys (or interviews), planning partnerships and a 2nd brain trust focused on campaign goals, and beginning to piece together the project’s overall plan for evaluating our real-world impact.

How did the impetus behind “No Small Matter” develop?  And why did you focus on early childhood?

Early childhood education (ECE) is an issue that has everything going for it — bipartisan support, an incredible baseline of research showing consistent and impressive return on investment, a diverse and massive potential audience — but it hasn’t yet reached a tipping point as a critical, national priority. Documentary film is another tool in the advocate’s toolbox to up the stakes — gathering new supporters for the cause, building empathy and emotional response, and using story devices like animation to drive home the incredible numbers backing up ECE as a strategy for addressing all kinds of challenges we’re faced with as a country today — from the changing structure of the family, to poverty, to incarceration, to building a better trained workforce.

Chicago has an incredibly collaborative cohort of talented documentary filmmakers — including Kindling Group and Siskel/Jacobs Productions, the two co-producers of No Small Matter. The two companies happened to be working together on another documentary project focused on K-12 education in Chicago, and realized we had been pitching local funders on the same idea for a film: A feature length documentary about early childhood education. So we figured — why not combine forces, and make this film together? Early childhood and education have long been a focus of the film’s directors, Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs, and Jon Siskel, who have produced client-based work for advocacy organizations, and have directed films covering similar topics, such as Kindling Group’s A Doula Story and Siskel/Jacobs’ Louder Than a Bomb.

What impact do you want to achieve with this film, and how does that inform the film’s development and release?

Early childhood education is constantly at risk of being put on the back burner for “sexier” issues — so the film is designed to radically change how viewers perceive what children need to thrive, and to drive home the urgency of making quality, affordable early learning and care available to all American families. Advocates have made incredible progress in the last five to ten years in driving new funding, increasing political will, and increasing the public understanding of the importance of investing in early learning. No Small Matter builds on this progress in changing perceptions with personal, resonant stories of how we must, and can, do this better.

The film will have a wide release — not only on television, but in festivals, in theaters, online, and in community screenings, to measurably move the needle on the perception of urgency around ECE. Equally as important, we want our audience to retain the lessons and stories in the film, and then, be driven to action. To that end, No Small Matter will include scripted scenes with celebrities; surprising statistics driven home in animation; and message-tested metaphors that we hope will stick with the viewer long after they leave the theater.

How will you measure the film’s impact?  Are there creative ways that other impact-seeking films have pioneered to measure their effects?

With the input of our brain trust, early childhood experts, and outside impact producers and mediamakers, we have drafted an Impact Campaign Plan to outline our long- and short-term impact goals and the metrics that we’ll use to measure our success (we’d be happy to share the draft if your readers are interested!). We are still more than six months away from the film’s premiere, so, based on the political climate, the news cycle, and partner campaign opportunities, we will continue to iterate our approach. We’ll also begin working with an outside evaluator to develop a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation plan — methods, tools, and processes for collecting data to tell the story of the film’s impact. The evaluator will bring their expertise on best practices, and also will serve as an impartial, outside reviewer to help better ensure we don’t measure our own success with our bias towards the project.

Some campaigns go a more traditional route, and have great success with the evaluation tools we all know and love – pre/post screening surveys, polling, a rise in traffic to the film’s website and social media. Others are getting really creative with ways to measure changes in conversations happening online and in the press, analysis of user-generated content, using digital data to measure online actions taken, and new apps that allow viewers to share their reactions to particular scenes in real time as they watch. We’ll be using a hybrid of these tools to gather qualitative and quantitative data at events, in the press, and online.

How has philanthropy supported your work? What are some ways that funders can continue to get involved?

To date, support for the film and the engagement campaign has been exclusively provided by foundations working in early childhood. We’re continuing to fundraise for the final push — editing the film, animation and graphics — and we’re still in the early stages of fundraising for the film’s engagement campaign. We’ve been very encouraged by the enthusiasm from funders in contributing specifically towards building the campaign around the film, and that early investment in that has been hugely beneficial towards laying the groundwork in research, strategy, and beginning to build our audience online.

We’re scheduling calls with potential stakeholders all summer long, and that includes learning more about the perspectives of funders in the early learning space. If you are interested in sharing any lessons about investing in early learning from a funder’s viewpoint with us, please email me at lwilson@kindlinggroup.org and we can set up a time to talk further.