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October 30, 2014

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.