As traditional news organizations do less, community and place-based foundations are becoming more willing to make grants in support of news and information projects. Still, their resources are not limitless and I often run into journalist entrepreneurs who have highly unrealistic ideas about what might get funded.
As 'Knight Foundation launches a new round of its'Knight Community Information Challenge, I asked foundation officers and grantees to share their experience with grant making for news and information. (Disclosure: I am a consultant to this challenge but I play no part in evaluating projects or determining who gets a grant.) 1. Don't be surprised if a foundation doesn't immediately embrace journalism
While a few foundations such as Knight and McCormick are long time funders of journalism, most foundations traditionally focus on community needs such as hunger, homelessness, education and health.
The good news is that foundation interest in news and information projects is growing, according to recent'studies by Knight.
Temper that with the understanding that foundations'may face a learning curve about news and information and particularly about journalism independence.'Be sure to test assumptions in discussions of a grant.
"Identify a person you can communicate well with at a foundation who has some decision-making influence -- and make sure it's someone who understands and appreciates the value of independent journalism, as opposed to someone who sees supporting journalism as an extension of public relations," advises Paul Bass, editor of The New Haven Independent, which won a Community Information Challenge'grant in the first year of the initiative.
Foundations may be particularly ill at ease with funding for-profit start ups, says Vivian Vahlberg, manager of Chicago News Matters, a project of'The Chicago Community Trust, a two-time challenge'winner, that, among other things, funds small non-profit and for-profit news sites.
"Entrepreneurs seeking foundation funding need to understand just how rare - and uncomfortable -- it is for foundations to even consider funding for-profit organizations. It's not their business; they normally fund nonprofits that are set up, like foundations are, with a mission that contributes to the public good. The idea that precious tax-advantaged foundation dollars might help private businesspeople make money makes them really uncomfortable - particularly given all the pressing human needs that are competing for scarce foundation dollars. They consider it only because the old news business model is currently broken - and they realize that it might take a period of time before new business models will generate enough money to support the information that our society needs.'' So for-profit companies need to position their requests as bridge funding - and need to demonstrate that they have a promising plan and a timetable for becoming self sufficient," Vahlberg said.
2. Do your homework about the mission of the foundation
We journalists may see journalism as the end unto itself. But many foundations are more likely to be asking how news and information fits in with their main mission.
"Asking for general operating support - 'just give me money so I can do good journalism' - is not as effective as'aligning your request with the mission and strategy of the foundation. Put yourself in the shoes of the funder and give them good reasons to support you. Look at the lists of other grants they have made to get a sense of the funder's issues and priorities and how those priorities relate to the journalism you want to create." says Mary Lou Fulton, a former executive at the Bakersfield Californian and now a program officer at'The California Endowment. The endowment makes numerous grants to organizations to increase coverage of the foundation's key issue - health care.
Fulton says some journalists believe this could compromise their journalistic integrity, but she disagrees. "I think that's a short-sighted way to think about it.' There's plenty of common ground in proposing the funding of beats, as we have done with community health, and also in thinking about the civic engagement strategy that accompanies the reporting. Good journalism is public service, and public service is the fundamental mission of foundations."
Similarly, the Knight'Community Information Challenge has a very specific strategy. While broadly supporting innovation and experimentation in news and information, Knight has created this matching grant program specifically to engage community and place-based foundations in supporting a healthy flow of news and information in the localities they serve. If you're a journalist interested in information challenge funding for this program,'you must have a place-based foundation partner who is the official applicant. 3. Think ahead: A plan for sustainability is critical
Foundations are unlikely to see their role as funding a news site or information project indefinitely. More likely,'they want to help it get started and then see it rely on community connections for ongoing support. So a sustainability plan is key from the outset.
Renee Baiorunos, a senior consultant with Community Wealth Ventures, which consults with Knight Foundation on revenue models for larger online news sites, underscored that point.
"It's critical that entrepreneurs provide foundations with an overview of their sustainability plan when asking for funding.' Many foundations have been funding innovative and new ideas in the journalism space for the past several years.' Now they are focused on how the best ideas can be self-sustaining.' While the request for funding may still be for an experiment, it is increasingly important to show how that work will eventually tie back to your long-term sustainability."
Laura Frank, who is director of'I-News, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, (and an alum of KDMC's'News Entrepreneur Boot Camp, says she believes her sustainability plan was key to her receiving a'KCIC grant with sponsorship by'The Community Foundation Serving Boulder County.
A big part of the reason that I-News was so successful so quickly in getting foundation funding was this: It was clear we weren't asking for funding forever. The magic word we used in our grant applications was "sustainability." We had an earned-income plan that would help us reach sustainability. And it was reasonable. We knew it wasn't going to happen overnight. (Foundations know that, too.) But we showed that as much research and planning had gone into what we'd do after their grant as we had done to get the grant in the first place."
(Cross-posted at Knight Digital Media Center's News Leadership 3.0 blog.)