The impact producer

Photo by Ronald Yang |
Photo by Ronald Yang |

The #ImpactAgenda is upon us. Every government funding agency I know is looking for impact outside the academic sphere. So, I’ve been thinking about impact a lot lately.

One of the best ways to learn how to do things better is to look at how they’re done in an allied industry. The best example of this that I know of is the idea of bench-marking hospital admissions against hotel check-ins. At a basic level, both activities are similar: you are allocating a room to a person who wants to stay at your establishment. Yet the experience can be totally different. Hotel check-in is usually quick, friendly, and relatively painless. Hospital admissions, on the other hand, can sometimes be quite bureaucratic, protracted, and impersonal. The two experiences, while similar, are underpinned by completely different attitudes to the work. So, hospitals have learnt a lot about admissions from hotels.

By examining an idea in a different environment, we can sometimes learn not just how other people do things, but gain new ideas about how to improve our own activities.

For those researchers who are grappling with the impact agenda currently being rolled out in Australia, the UK, and other countries, it’s worth thinking about how documentary film-makers increase the impact of their films.

Making a documentary film can be a long and exhausting process. Finding funding, assembling a team, executing a plan when you never have quite enough resources, coping with team dynamics, keeping everything together long enough to get the job done, and maintaining a singular vision while doing it – all of this sounds a bit like a research program to me.

Of course, there are major differences. One big difference is that documentary film-makers are explicitly trying to find an audience for their work. They want as many people as possible to see their work, and to understand their point of view. Another is how people work. People making films often have highly specialized roles, whereas many researchers do a little bit of everything.

However, I think that there are enough similarities to warrant a closer look. In some ways, documentary film-makers have similar aims to a lot of the social science researchers that I work with. They are all working to examine, understand, or change an existing social experience. The scope can be relatively similar, with small research projects resembling guerrilla docs and large research programs spanning the similar timelines, budgets, and team sizes as complex documentaries.

In terms of ‘impact’, it is worth looking at a relatively new role that has emerged in the documentary film-making world – the impact producer:

“Just as films have producers to manage the creative and financial process from script to screen, they also need Impact Producers to take the film campaign from production to impact.” – Meet the Impact Producer, in the Impact Field Guide & Toolkit, by the BritDoc Foundation, 2016.

As I understand it, an impact producer:

  • Has a clear understanding of the background to the issue that a documentary film is addressing. They know the central message of the film, and the impact it can have on specific audiences.
  • Creates a strategy for connecting with others to spread that message widely. Social media will probably play a key role in this strategy.
  • Works to distribute the film in different ways so that it will get to the people who really care. This may involve building a community around the film, or putting it in the hands of lobbyists, for example. It may involve publicising the film through traditional or niche media.
  • Evaluates the impact of the film over time and communicate that impact back to the funders, the change agents, the film makers, and the community.

They often pick up where the producer and director leave off, taking the completed film and giving it a life of its own.

This is a model of impact based on engagement. That is, the documentary gains its impact through engagement with the audience. The impact producer tries to get the documentary in front of the right audience. That might by the policy makers, the people affected, the people who can help resolve an issue, and the people who can fund future development.

How might this work for research teams

I think that this is a great role to consider within a research program. You might have someone who focuses on finding the audience for your research. They might be undertaking science communication, or social media outreach. They might be the person talking to the funders, the policy makers, and the end users of the research.

They need to have a clear understanding of the implications of the research, and the world that the research sits within. They need to have permission or agency to take the research out to the world, and they need to have some good ideas how to do that. It might be by mobilising a mass audience, or by targeting key players. It’s probably going to be a mixture of those things.

The person with this role might sit within the research team, or they might be attached to a larger research centre, providing services to a number of researchers. They might work alongside the research, as part of an advisory committee.

However this role works, I believe that researchers who plan how to create the impact they want will end up having more impact than those who don’t. It may not work out the way you planned it, but the act of planning will help you to understand what the possibilities are. Building an impact producer role into your team might be one way to do that.

Why it might not work

While I think that this sort of role is a good idea, I’m more than happy to admit that it is just that – an idea. There are a lot of differences between a documentary and a research program. In particular, a documentary often has a clarity of view that research often doesn’t (and sometimes shouldn’t).

It will work well for problem-based research. That is, if you are working on solutions to long-term homelessness, then it should be pretty clear how you might think about impact. It probably won’t work so well for exploratory research. If, for example, you are looking at the movement from home ownership to long-term rental patterns, it may not be so clear where you want to make your impact.

Your research may not need further engagement to be effective. You may already be engaged with your key audience. If you are doing fundamental research, your audience may be other researchers and you may already be engaging with them very successfully. If you are doing contract research then your key audience may be the industry partners that are funding the research. No more engagement is warranted. Action research may already involve all the necessary people in a very engaging way. I’m sure you can think of other examples.

Moreover, this approach may not fit well with the #ImpactAgenda being driven by governments through their funding agencies. Different funding agencies have different ways to measure impact. The UK is strongly committed to case studies. Health funders have been fond of the Payback Framework. The approach in Singapore was recently described to me as “How many jobs will this create for Singapore?”. My point is that national governments will define and measure impact in different ways, and this will drive your university policy. The approach described here may not actually mesh with your organisation’s aims or with your funding agency’s measures of impact.

The impact producer aims to create real and lasting impact, regardless of policy. By thinking through how you might work with an impact producer, you should gain a better understanding of how you might make a stronger, longer lasting impact.

Disclaimer: I have no experience of making documentaries. All the information about documentaries in this article may be completely wrong. I developed this article through these wonderful resources:



  1. Whether it’s you or can external hire, to successfully deliver an impact campaign an individual or a team needs to devise strategy fund raise for the campaign work, secure key partners, execute or oversee the execution of the campaign and evaluate the change campaign top to bottom .


    • Thanks, Dimpibhosle.

      I agree that it takes a lot of strategic thinking to make this sort of impact. Often that won’t come from just the research team – it will be in conjunction with external partners.


  2. Thanks for a very useful post, Jonathan O’Donnell: So many similarities. This is a well thought out analogy. Now I think impact producers will be introduced in all sorts of areas where they haven’t been part of the process


    • Thanks, Sam.

      I should say that some people in the documentary world are not convinced by the idea of the impact producer. However, I still think that idea might still be useful in other contexts, such as not-for-profit work or research.



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