Unlocking the Secrets to Foundation Funding


For media and journalism organizations, understanding how to get and keep funding from philanthropic foundations is often a mystery.

Part of the problem is that foundations on the whole need to be more transparent. Period. This post – in fact this whole website – is one of the ways we’re trying to be more transparent.  But also understand that to be open and communicative as institutions with deep pockets is to expose ourselves to overwhelming demands on our time and resources. Many program officers and directors care deeply about transparency and building strong relationships, but we also have limits to how much we can accommodate inquiries and requests for meetings.

Another problem is that there simply aren’t enough funders focused on supporting media and journalism. So there are huge demands on the ones who do, and not nearly enough money to fund all the good projects and organizations out there.

Having just visited with several New Jersey nonprofits (news organizations as well as arts, education and environment organizations) in our current grants cycle, I want to share some thoughts and hopefully shed light on some of the things you should be doing if you are seeking funding, what you shouldn’t be doing, and frankly, what you have no control over.

What you should be doing:

  • Show us the possibilities! Make us excited to support your work – make us believe we’d be MISSING OUT if we didn’t support your work.
  • Have a clear mission and vision. Map out the route to achieving your goals, and convince us that you are going to get there.
  • Be smart about revenue – show us how you’re thinking about diverse revenue streams, especially earned income. Show us that you understand we can’t fund you indefinitely.
  • Convince us that you collaborate enthusiastically with others (bonus: if you collaborate with other organizations we already fund.)
  • Be honest with us about the challenges in your work, but embrace those challenges as opportunities. No one wants to fund an Eeyore.

The no-no’s:

  • Do not skimp on doing your research. Really try to understand what we currently fund, what we care about, and what would resonate with us. We know this is not an easy task. We know you are not mind readers.
  • Do not submit a cookie cutter proposal. We can tell when you do.
  • If our answer is no, let it ride for awhile. We may not be shutting the door for good, so don’t be so persistent that we start to avoid you.
  • Even if you don’t understand why the answer is no (shame on us) do not jeopardize future opportunities to be funded. Foundations should be held accountable for our work and for communicating better with you, and we welcome ongoing conversation, but it should be framed as an opportunity to understand each other better, not as angry complaints or criticism.  I say this, because you’d be surprised how many complaints we get directly from applicants and current grantees, and how much criticism we hear through the grapevine.
  • Do not avoid measuring the impact of your work or talking about the impact of your work. We know this is hard. We know it’s even scary, because it forces you to explore whether your work matters — which is all the more reason to evaluate and understand if what you’re doing is making a difference. You have to be clear in your mission, and you have to be honest about measuring your impact against that mission. It’s not unreasonable for foundations to ask whether supporting your work is having any meaningful impact on communities or on people’s lives.

What you have no control over:

One of the hardest things for applicants to understand is this: even if you are a perfect match for our guidelines, we may not fund you – we may not even request a proposal. There’s a funny notion people seem to have that if you meet the guidelines, you should get funded. But grantmaking is complicated and it’s not always as logical as you would want it to be. It also may be that:

  • There’s no money left in the budget for this cycle or this year. Sorry – it happens all the time.
  • Another organization is already being funded by us doing the same or similar work. This is a very common issue.
  • It’s just not the right timing. There could be a thousand different reasons why now is not the right time, but six months or a year from now might be the perfect time.

A couple of final points:

Ask yourself what unique value or idea or way of doing your work that you have to offer. Or what gap you are proposing to fill. Also, how is your work impacting the ecosystem within which you operate? That is, how well connected are you to other organizations, businesses and individuals, such that a grant to you would have a powerful impact on them as well? If you are operating as an island, don’t expect to get funding.

Feedback? Questions?

I welcome your questions and feedback, and also comments from other foundation program directors and officers who can add their own perspective.


Photo by Flickr user Teresa Stanton, used via Creative Commons.

Freelance Journalism and Small Newsrooms: Best Practices, Links and Resources

What are the best practices for small hyperlocal news start-ups to ethically cultivate a network of freelancers and community contributors?

This question has been gnawing at me for awhile and I haven’t yet found a good answer, so I want to share with you what I have found in hopes that you will help add to this list of resources.

Here at the Local News Lab we are working closely with six partner news sites who are at various stages from start-up to sustainability. Some are just getting off the ground, others have almost a decade of experience behind them. But across the board all of them are working with freelancers and contributors of various kinds to help cover their communities. And without fail they all want to do so in a way that is ethical, safe, and supports the people they rely on.

So I began collecting tools, resources and best practices for small one and two person newsrooms working with freelancers on issues like contracts, training, intellectual property, safety and security. Continue reading

Local Fix: News in My Ear, Mixed Message on Mobile and Algorithmic Ads

Subscribe to the LocalFix. Each week we look at key debates in journalism sustainability and community engagement through the lens of local news, starting with one good idea… 

One Good IdeaEngage diverse communities through creative partnerships. WNYC, The Daily News, and local NBC and Telemundo stations are relaunching the NYC educational data and reporting project called SchoolBook.org with articles appearing across platforms, a weekly email and research tools for parents in English, Spanish and Chinese.

Put The News in My Ear

4808475862_6129039fa8_oA flurry of articles this week take a fresh and optimistic look at the state of podcasting in America. In the Washington Post, Cecilia Kang highlights how podcasts are leveraging multiple revenue streams including donations, subscriptions and sponsors. Not only are more podcasts finding profitability, she notes, “the connection that people can feel toward their favorite podcasts is exactly the sort of relationship that many media companies are trying to build with their users.” In another article, Fast Company explored how podcasters and longtime public radio players are creating new networks to sell sponsorships across a range of podcasts. And NiemanLab asks why the popular public radio program This American Life is creating a podcast spinoff, serializing investigative reporting. But it isn’t just NPR personalities who are making podcasts pay, everyone from Slate to Snooki are getting in on the podcasting push.

This trend if worth watching for local newsrooms because of the intimacy and deep fan base podcasts have cultivated, the networked approach they are taking, and the multifaceted revenue streams they have developed. If you want to try adding audio to your site there is no better resource than Transom.org. It’s worth noting that SoundCloud just began rolling out ads and revenue sharing for creators too.

>>> A few months back there was a good debate about why audio never goes viral. Ethan Zuckerman thinks that might be a good thing, and NPR highlighted some viral audio experiments.
Continue reading

Journalism Must Meet People Where They Are

Last weekend Larenellen McCann gave a terrific talk about community, technology and how we can and should build for “inclusive community participation.” As I watched the video, she kept talking about “civic tech” and “civic hacking” but I kept hearing “journalism” and “reporting.” The failures she is describing and the challenges she sets forth are as relevant for journalists and newsrooms as they are for technologists working in the public interest.

I have written before about the need to reorient journalism around community by building more reciprocal relationships between newsrooms and communities, relationships rooted in listening, empathy and creativity. McCann’s talk hits on similar themes but gets even more concrete about the steps we need to take to transform our work in collaboration with our communities. Be sure to read her longer, follow up blog post.

In the spirit of civic hacking, I asked McCann if I could “fork” her talk and replace her references to civic technology with journalism as an experiment in context. My goal was to change as little as possible to make the piece speak specifically to journalism. Below is the result. I think it captures a lot of what we are working on with community news sites here at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Continue reading

Local Fix: Transparency, Time Travel and New Multimedia Tools

Subscribe to the Local Fix. Each week we look at key debates in journalism sustainability and community engagement through the lens of local news, starting with one good idea… 

One Good IdeaShare What You Are Reading. The New York Times is putting curation on the homepage. With itsnew “Watching” feature it “will keep an eye on developing and breaking news from The Times and other sources.” From Billy Penn to the BK Bridge, more newsrooms are becoming trusted curators, helping their communities find the most relevant and important information and stories from beyond their own pages.  Continue reading

How Newsrooms Can Make the Most of Their Archives

(This post builds on slides and research by Debbie Galant, Joe Amditis of the NJ News Commons, where the post originally appeared)

In 1950 William Faulkner wrote “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” in his novel Requium for a Nun. However, the quote gained renewed attention in 2008 when then-candidate Obama gave a major speech on race in America. Obama was tapping into the archives of American culture to add context to the news of the day and connect that moment to the long and troubled history of race in America.

The Internet has made this idea of the past living alongside – and interwoven with – the present more true now than ever. Today, even relatively new newsrooms have vast and quickly growing archives of work to tap into and build upon. These archives hold huge potential to add context to current events, fuel community engagement and even serve as a new revenue stream. In fact, the New York Times innovation report said that taking advantage of archived content was one of the big missed opportunities for the Times.

On September 18, Debbie Galant, Joe Amditis and I did a training at the NJ News Commons on how to tap into news archives for “fun and profit.” You can see our slide deck here and check out the guide for turning archives into e-books here. Below are our notes and presentations from the training, with links to additional tools and readings. Continue reading

Local Fix: Trust, Disasters, Diversity and Twitter Investigations

Subscribe to have the Local Fix delivered every Friday. Each week we look at key debates in journalism sustainability and community engagement through the lens of local news, starting with one good idea… 

One Good IdeaBe OptimisticThe Washington Post has a new weekly newsletter, “The Optimist,” that features “part feel-good, part success-against-all-odds” stories. The topic aside, what stood out for me is how many different newsletters the Post has developed around various themes. Each of themes emphasizes meeting the specific needs of their readers.

When A Twitter Investigation Goes Right

After watching social media investigations around breaking news events go terribly wrong, I was more than a little curious this week when one seemed to go right. Within a few hours after Philly police released video of suspects of a recent hate crime Twitter users had tracked down the suspects’ identities. However, rather than turning into a witch-hunt the search was handled respectfully and carefully. Melody Kramer traced how the evidence was collected. It is a useful overview for local newsrooms thinking about mining social media for information and collaborating with communities online. TLDR, the blog and podcast from the team at WNYC’s On The Media, followed up with a good interview with the Twitter user at the center of the effort.

For a counterpoint, it is worth looking back at the Atlantic’s “Anatomy of a Misinformation Disaster” from the Boston Marathon bombing and Slate’s chronicle of mistakes made in the days after the bombing. I collected much of the writing about breaking news, social media and verification in the wake of the marathon bombing here. Finally, Mike Ananny’s meditation on social media, breaking news and the value of silence is a must read.

>>> Facebook announced “Facebook Media” this week pulling together all of its advice and resources for journalists into one place.    Continue reading