Backed by the Ford, Skoll, and Compton Foundations, the International Resource for Impact and Storytelling (IRIS) kicks off with plans to help deploy up to $30 million over three years.

IRIS will foster deeper collaborations between civic leaders and content creators, conduct capacity-building and research on narrative frameworks and strategies, and fund a range of creative moving image content.

New York (July 21, 2021) — Today, the Ford, Skoll, and Compton Foundations announced the launch of the International Resource for Impact and Storytelling (IRIS), a first-of-its-kind donor collaborative for storytelling and impact with seed funding of over $8 million. IRIS will work with partner donors in its three-year initial phase to support the deployment of up to $30 million to strengthen the impact of creative moving image content.

Around the world, communities are excluded from full participation in the political, economic, and cultural systems that shape their lives. This fundamental inequality is the defining challenge of our time, one that limits the potential of all people, everywhere. Driving this inequality are deeply rooted cultural narratives that undermine fairness, tolerance, and inclusion. IRIS aims to support communities internationally—including in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia—who are reclaiming narratives by innovating on climate solutions, promoting democracy, amplifying women’s achievements and leadership, and investigating the root causes of inequality.

Envisioned as a 10-year initiative, IRIS will work with donors and coordinate resources beyond its seed funding to build new, international networks in the independent moving image ecosystem that foster deeper collaborations between civic leaders and content creators. It will support these collaborations by funding aligned organizations, research, and creative moving image content appearing across traditional and digital platforms.

“Technology has democratized storytelling,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. “Ford is proud to support the launch of IRIS to help communities who face inequality tell their authentic stories, including from regions where funding for these collaborations is scarce.”

IRIS will experiment in all forms of creative visual storytelling content that intend to benefit communities through the storytelling process itself, from story ideas by frontline communities to content creation with storytellers and broad distribution. IRIS expands the genres typically supported by philanthropy to include artist-led fiction, animation, comedy and satire, short films, webisodes and social media content on platforms like Youtube and TikTok, visual journalism, immersive storytelling, and innovative platforms with a purpose.

IRIS will serve as an intermediary for philanthropy organizations, providing a learning space for the sector to create a deeper understanding of how cultural narratives that undermine fairness, tolerance, and inclusion remain entrenched, and identify frameworks for countering those narratives.

“IRIS is a response to an era shaped by polarizing narratives, deepening inequality, technological disruptions, and rising authoritarianism,” said Ellen Friedman, executive director of the Compton Foundation. “In the face of these complex global challenges, we recognize the power of storytelling as a critical element in organizing for cultural and political change. New cultural organizing approaches are needed to complement philanthropy’s more traditional funding in research, advocacy for policy change, rights-focused legal strategies, and organizing.”

“Thanks to Jeff Skoll’s vision, the importance of storytelling has always been central to our vision of how to drive change,” said Don Gips, CEO of Skoll Foundation. “Elevating the voices and stories of communities closest to the challenges and solutions is critical to helping drive truly transformational social change. We’re excited to embark on this journey with IRIS in close partnership with the Ford Foundation and others to help build and support a global network of proximate storytellers and social innovators.”

Recognized by multiple Emmy, duPont-Columbia and Peabody awards as well as a Webby for her on-line webisode series P.O.V.’s Borders, Cara Mertes will lead IRIS as its founding director.

Mertes most recently served as project director for the Ford Foundation’s Moving Image Exploration. She worked with the foundation’s offices around the world to design and implement a new generation of visual storytelling approaches. She joined the foundation as director for JustFilms, the foundation’s signature creative documentary portfolio. In her leadership capacity, Mertes and her team supported hundreds of artist-led documentaries, helped strengthen organizations that supported non-fiction filmmaking, helped build international networks for independent and artist-driven content, and developed inclusive leadership and new resources in the independent documentary field.

“Cultural change is needed to achieve long term advances in justice and equity, making the role of transformational storytellers all the more important,” said Mertes. “They present truths and lessons from the past that catalyze hope, make sense of the present, and help us imagine and build more equitable futures. Serving as the founding director of IRIS, I will work to foster a deeper integration of independent content creators with movement leadership and establish a much needed learning space for philanthropy and field stakeholders focused on 21st century narrative and storytelling approaches.”

Before joining Ford, Mertes served for eight years as director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and Fund and was part of the Sundance Institute’s leadership team. Prior to that, she was executive producer of P.O.V., the PBS prime time documentary series, and executive director of American Documentary, its umbrella organization. Throughout her career as an independent media field-builder, Mertes has championed the leadership role of artists in society and worked in her various roles to harness the power of cultural expression—with an emphasis on nonfiction storytelling—to amplify awareness and accelerate progressive change.

As founding director of IRIS, Mertes will work with an international team to support the Ford, Skoll, and Compton Foundations, as well as other aligned donors to integrate a range of innovative storytelling strategies in their grantmaking. IRIS is the result of two years of incubation at Ford, as part of our efforts to expand the range of creative visual storytelling for impact. The initiative builds on Ford’s decades-long legacy supporting independent media and documentary as a vehicle for social impact, and Skoll’s and Compton’s work in storytelling and social change. IRIS will be housed by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors as its fiscal sponsor.

The Compton Foundation is dedicated to igniting change through support for transformative leadership and courageous storytelling.The Foundation advances its positive vision for a peaceful, sustainable, and just future by investing in relationship based movement leadership advancing a positive vision, resulting in a vibrant and equitable future for all. The Foundation is based in California and will be spending out its assets by 2025.

The Skoll Foundation seeks to catalyze transformational social change by investing in, connecting, and championing social entrepreneurs and other social innovators who together advance bold and equitable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. Jeff Skoll, the first employee and first President of eBay, created the Skoll Foundation in 1999 to pursue his vision of a sustainable world of peace and prosperity for all. The Foundation is part of the Jeff Skoll Group, which helps oversee, connect, and drive strategic initiatives across the family of Jeff’s organizations. In addition to the Skoll Foundation, this includes the Capricorn Investment Group and Participant. The Skoll Global Threats Fund sunset in 2017. Led by CEO Don Gips, the Skoll Foundation is at an exciting inflection point in its two-decade long history. With equity at the center of our evolving strategy, the Foundation seeks to fundamentally shift the trajectory of urgent global challenges including health and pandemics, inclusive economies, climate action, effective governance, and racial justice.

The Ford Foundation

The Ford Foundation is an independent organization working to address inequality and build a future grounded in justice. For more than 85 years, it has supported visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide, guided by its mission to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. Today, with an endowment of $16 billion, the foundation has headquarters in New York and 10 regional offices across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

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