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How to navigate 5 misconceptions about grants to support your journalism

While it’s normal to feel uncomfortable asking for funding to support your work, journalists are well-suited to be grant-seekers – ready to research and write for clarity.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. 

This piece features tips from media consultant Jane Elizabeth. Jane participated in the Gannett-McClatchy Table Stakes program in 2019-20 when she was managing editor of The News & Observer and The Herald Sun, and she previously wrote about grants on BetterNews.org and appeared on the It’s All Journalism podcast.

It’s normal to feel uncomfortable about asking for funding to support your work, especially if you’re new to the process of applying for grants and unsure how to navigate funders’  expectations and requirements.

In February 2024, Jane Elizabeth spoke to a group of alumni of the Table Stakes Local News Transformation Program and demystified the process of finding and applying for journalism grants.

Journalists are well-suited to be grant-seekers because they’re already equipped with skills that funders value: good research and concise writing, she says. Think about the grant application process like journalistic due diligence, a job application or an award submission.

Here are 5 common misconceptions about applying for journalism grants and how to navigate them:

The more applications I make, the higher my chances are for success. 

How many grant applications are enough? While it’s tempting to try for “everything that you can,” it’s more effective to be selective and targeted with your time and choices.

Elizabeth advises local news organizations to place community foundations at the top of the list when starting a funding search. Community foundations are nonprofit organizations that not only award funds, but also manage philanthropic accounts for individuals or organizations.

Funders can change missions and objectives over time, so being “as precise as you can” about your project’s objectives will help identify whether they would be interested in the proposal.

According to a 2023 study by NORC at the University of Chicago and its partners, 74% of funders surveyed said they fund journalism that addresses a specific topic or problem. About 150 foundations and grant-making institutions responded to the study’s survey for funders.

A good place to start is to check if a letter of intent is required. Writing this brief document can help determine whether the grant opportunity is a good fit for your news organization and whether it’s worth the time to apply.

Lastly, “if you don’t understand something, you can call” the organization, Elizabeth says. Program officers at the funding organizations are usually able to help by answering questions.

All funders understand the media business.

Even if you’re not applying for grants yet, Elizabeth suggests building a presentation (slides, language or talking points) that can highlight relevant information about the state of the journalism industry and how it affects your organization. You can illustrate, for example, what news organizations are not able to cover because of a lack of funding.

Facts and figures on challenges, like news deserts or industry-wide staff reductions, can help educate funders on pressing issues and the potential for impact.

For-profit news organizations may be able to receive funding through a “pass-through” or fiscal sponsor – like a community foundation or a journalism support organization – or by partnering with a non-profit organization for a joint project. 

I finished the application process and got the grant! Cheers, I’m done!

After you’ve been awarded a grant, it’s important to figure out manageable ways to measure impact by tracking examples and narratives for required reports, especially if renewal is an option.

“It’s better to have too much than too little,” Elizabeth says about saving data and examples for grant reports.

She recommended setting calendar reminders for regular (weekly, monthly or quarterly) data gathering practices to monitor the key performance indicators for the specific grant. Setting up a metrics dashboard can automate some of this for you and your team.

Publishing what you learned from tracking data and examples can show funders and your audience the value of the news you produce. Not sure where to start? Read about how the Detroit Free Press uses an annual impact report to show how its journalism drives change.

Elizabeth recommends being transparent with staff about how the funding works for the news organization. Clear communication about funding relationships to readers is also important. While public announcements are standard practice, some organizations have held community meetings to explain the grant and take questions from stakeholders.

I got the grant and now I have a pile of money to use exactly how I want! Yay!

General operating grants that can help pay overhead costs are more challenging to secure than money designated toward a specific project. Knowing how to read and decipher contracts is key to making the best use of a grant within the funder’s requirements.

The different types of grants that are common at community foundations include:

  • Field of interest funds: Funds used only for selected issues, such as the environment or health care
  • Unrestricted funds: Used to meet a community’s sometimes unexpected needs such as natural disaster relief or health crises
  • Designated funds: Only specific organizations can receive these funds
  • Scholarship funds: For education and training
  • Agency funds: Nonprofits’ own reserve funds or endowments, managed by the community foundation

Recently, news organizations have gotten funding to cover immediate needs for important stories, like safety equipment for field reporting at protests or during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the case of extenuating circumstances, Elizabeth said to keep the conversation open with funders, to see if some of the money can be applied for a different purpose than what was initially outlined.

NewsFuel.org is a searchable resource for journalism grants, awards, fellowships, and training opportunities. First developed by Jane Elizabeth in 2019, the database is now overseen by the Local Media Association. Browse the list of current opportunities here.

If the funder rejects my application, it’s all over between us.

If you don’t get the grant, understand that it’s not a personal rejection. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll get a clear explanation of why your proposal wasn’t chosen unless you ask.

Elizabeth says that a call or email to a program officer at a funding organization to ask, “What could be done better and what is the process of applying again?” can help you stay in touch and determine whether it’s worth the effort to reapply.

She suggests putting together an “after-action report” based on your research about the process, and making sure that notes are readily shared with staff. This helps widen the circle of colleagues who can contribute to the grant-writing process. The lessons learned can also help your team fill out the next application and decide what can be done differently for future funding opportunities.

Additional resources: