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The Power of Film for Philanthropy

JAMES P AXIOTIS | July 15, 2022

Having worked in Hollywood for most of my career, it will come as no surprise to anyone that I champion the power of film for storytelling. However, as my life has headed down a different route, one of philanthropy and charity work, it has become increasingly apparent that the role of film in philanthropy is a crucial one and one that should never be underestimated.

Unless they see something with their own eyes, people can find it hard to translate what they read on a page into reality. This is where the power of film for philanthropy comes in. By showing people the facts of a situation, you bring that into their lives, and you pique their interest. You create a connection between the viewer and the charity so that connection can be built upon to gain more support. I had seen this connection first-hand recently when I helped make videos for the 'Children of War Foundation' that highlighted the stories of the refugee students at COWF's School of Dreams. At that point, I had numerous friends who contacted me, saying how they were moved by the content and how they immediately donated after seeing these stories.

Philanthropy depends on sharing our experiences, both good and bad, in order to share struggles and achievements. By filming on-the-ground in war zones, or gaining access to share footage of sensitive situations, we can reach people and make them aware of what is happening, and how they can help.


Using video footage, a charity or a campaign can amplify their message and support 1,000-fold. It has been proved that donations increase once a video appears on a website or on a social media platform showing the suffering it is trying to help. Having worked on a Facebook/Instagram show, I have learned the importance of content being "shareable" and the massive amount of impact and views content can have if it is.

Let me explain a little about why I have come to these conclusions and what drives me. Through film, I can address and contribute solutions to broader world issues; that is my purpose and ambition now. I know how to create films in a way that inspires people and drives them to action. Unfortunately, many non-profits don't know how to utilize storytelling through film, so if I see a way that I can use media to help their cause, I will offer my expertise free of charge, and urge philanthropists, in general, to investigate how they can use film to share their message.

One recent example is when I was invited just this past week at the Cannes Film Festival to watch and speak at a round-table discussion for multiple short-form videos made by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), showcasing the various stories of refugees they have worked with. It was clear to me and others attending how important the messages of this content were, and it sparked a big discussion of how to further this kind of impact by sharing refugee stories in a way that is compelling and understandable to a wider audience.

Images Need to Have Impact

And now to the Children of War foundation (COWF), which has taught me so much about philanthropy and how charities work. I have traveled to regions from Jordan to Navajo Nation to document the foundation's work so that they can promote it on their website, in the media, and on their social media platforms. Most recently, I traveled for COWF to Ukraine to deliver medical supplies to two hospitals. Traveling through warzones with both active bombings and absolute destruction from past attacks, I saw things I never thought I would encounter. It was both the most rewarding and terrifying experience of my life, but it was essential. By making that journey and shooting footage of the realities of war, I am helping share the work and mission of COWF and in turn, that of so many charities risking lives to help the innocent civilians caught up in this and other atrocities around the world.

Having traveled to and filmed in refugee camps, most recently to Jordan with my daughters Sophia and Georgia last winter, I know first-hand the impact of war on children. But I have also seen how my films have brought about awareness and support from a greater audience for the charities I help, and this is where my commitment lies.

The images we see of the refugee crises around the world are not impactful enough. We need to show the harsher images so that the world grasps the severity of the situation and the everyday human toils, while also understanding that people are people, and making that connection to close the gap of the too well-shared idea of "us and them" when it should be just "us."


Clearly, women and children are often the most hard-hit in these wars, but unfortunately, they are also the most overlooked. Because of this, I am a strong proponent of showcasing their stories specifically but also pushing the idea of sustainable aid. The average refugee is displaced for 15-20 years, which is the entire childhood for kids who were displaced at a younger age, making it all the more important to ensure they have access to education and opportunities wherever they are. When sharing this information and pushing for sustainability, helps to educate a greater audience and break the cycles of giving short-term aid that often may not solve the real root issues.

Of late, I have frequently said that the Ukraine war is the first TikTok war - the first whereby imagery of those involved on-ground is shared as much as that filmed by mainstream media. This is good; it is getting the horrors of war out there for all to see directly. While this information is often brutally honest, by being subjected to these images, we are given the truth of the situation and often compelled to help.

Cinematography is prompting philanthropic action. I find it hard to take any positives from the current global situation. However, in such scenarios, ordinary people like you and I have often responded to the call to action and explored ways to help in the past.

So how do philanthropists and charities go about using film for good?

They need to know how to make content, whether as a short film, an Instagram video, etc., in a way that inspires people. Many non-profits don't know how to use storytelling, but if they can recruit those who do, it could be of great help. Especially if done with respect for the organization's work and wanting to share its story rather than sensationalize it.

If this can become a movement, we can see the real impact of film-making in philanthropy.
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The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation is a nonprofit health and human services organization that has served the greater Saint Paul, Minnesota area since 1906. The mission of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation is to promote the social welfare of persons resident or located in the greater Saint Paul metropolitan area by all appropriate means including: relief of the poor; care of the sick and aged; care and nurture of children; aid of the disadvantaged and otherwise needy; promotion of physical and mental health; support of rehabilitation and corrections; and provision of needed housing and social services all without regard to, or discrimination on account of, nationality, sex, color, religious scruples or prejudices.

Spotlight

Amherst H. Wilder Foundation

The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation is a nonprofit health and human services organization that has served the greater Saint Paul, Minnesota area since 1906. The mission of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation is to promote the social welfare of persons resident or located in the greater Saint Paul metropolitan area by all appropriate means including: relief of the poor; care of the sick and aged; care and nurture of children; aid of the disadvantaged and otherwise needy; promotion of physical and mental health; support of rehabilitation and corrections; and provision of needed housing and social services all without regard to, or discrimination on account of, nationality, sex, color, religious scruples or prejudices.

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