The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Apr 14, 2011

Helping foundations get past their “fear of fire” when it comes to media grantmaking

Posted by Andries Vaisman

Written by Mary Lou Fulton & cross-posted from The Media Optimist

Mary Lou Fulton

What will it take to get more foundations to give money to support news and information projects? 

This was the subject of a standing-room-only panel (see archived chat) at this week’s Council on Foundations annual meeting, where funders from across the country gathered to learn and talk about a new Knight Foundation guideoffering ideas and inspiration for how to get started in journalism and media grant-making. 

The guide highlights a range of media grant-making examples, and I’m honored that work of The California Endowment was featured.   But the questions and conversation at the panel discussion, ably moderated by Eric Newton,  made me think that another guide may be needed:  “How I talked my board of directors into making media grants and lived to tell about it.” 

I say that because while foundation representatives clearly understood the media industry crisis and the need for high-quality news and information, there is still much anxiety about supporting independent journalism that a foundation can’t control.   There is fear of what they see as the worst-case scenario, such as a media outlet writing something negative about the foundation or one of its board members, or disagreeing with the approach to a story. 

As one person said during the discussion, media grantmaking feels like “giving out fire.” 

Fortunately, many ideas were offered news and information projects that did not involve as much risk as creating an investigative reporting startup.  Among them:

  • Hold a contest to find new voices, focused on a specific theme or purpose.  The Minnesota Community Foundation created the Minnesota Idea Open focused on obesity prevention ideas, with an award of $15,000 to the winner.  A filmmaker who attended the panel discussion said documentary film contest are attractive to filmmakers not just because of the money but also the public attention that contests create.
  • Support the creation of databases. Information itself is neutral, and by creating databases that allow for apples-to-apples comparisons among localities, you can provide inspiration for a range of stories. This excellent idea was suggested by Chris Daggett, president and CEO of the Geraldine R  Dodge Foundation, which supported the database for the purpose.
  • Call a meeting (which in the foundation world, I have learned, is called a convening).   Bring local media leaders together for a conversation about what’s missing in the local news and information landscape.    This can generate ideas for new projects and ways to collaborate.
  • Educate boards of directors by bringing in guest speakers to talk about the media landscape and the journalism and information funding strategies of other foundations.  Many examples are available via the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge that offers matching grants for news and information projects at place-based foundations.  (Disclosure:  The California Endowment won a grant through this program to support our youth-led media network).
  • I thought of another easy idea after the panel:  use a crowdfunded platform like to suggest story ideas that are compatible with the focus of the foundation, and then match community donations.  Or, look on or for an existing project idea that sounds appealing.  One that every foundation would love is the Storytellers for Good project in Oakland.

I also think that news media organizations seeking funding should be aware of the anxieties foundations have and do a better job of addressing them.  I used to work in the media industry, so I understand how newsrooms work and am not afraid to ask questions and talk through potential areas of concern.   Some questions media grantees should take the lead in addressing include:

  • How will the news organization define the beat, or topic of coverage, that a foundation is interested in supporting?  The California Endowment funds coverage of community health, and as part of the grant-making process,  I typically ask prospective media grantees to provide me with a list of a half dozen story ideas that reflect their understanding of the beat.  These ideas are not guarantees that the stories will be pursued, but rather are a way to make sure there is a common understanding of the approach from the start.
  • How will the news coverage that the foundation is supporting be visible online? If you are funding health or education reporting, will be there be a specific section of the site or tag to aggregate all the stories so they can be viewed all in one place?  Could a blog be created to further highlight the topic?
  • How will the news organization assess the impact of its work?This question often leads to a useful discussion about readership and impact metrics, which can help provide a way to assess the return on investment for the grant.
  • What is the news organization’s  marketing and distribution strategy? Outstanding content that nobody sees doesn’t help anyone.
  • What is the mix of in-depth projects, daily stories, blog posts that the news organization anticipates? There’s no right or wrong answer here, but if a foundation is expecting a blockbuster investigative project every week, that is simply not realistic and it’s better to clarify that up front.
  • How can the foundation best share research and other information with media grantees? This can be a little sticky, because of the appearance of impropriety or influence by the funder.  However, most foundations are subject matter experts in their areas of focus and it behooves both parties to figure out unobtrusive ways to share reports and information with media organizations.  Typically this involves designating a particular editor as the primary newsroom contact for information coming from a foundation, after which that information should be impartially assessed for its news value.   Another idea I am considering along these lines is a “background briefing” series for our media grantees where health subject matter experts hold noontime brown bag webinars to talk about the release of a new report or data set that might offer interesting story leads.
  • Last but not least, what is the process if the funder has a concern or complaint about the coverage?   If you know in advance that you have an editor who can serve as the primary contact, this can help ease concerns about possible “worst case scenarios” because you can articulate what you would do if you encountered a major problem or disagreement.  Despite the worry, this situation actually occurs very rarely if you have spent the up-front time with media grantee to clarify mutual goals and expectations.

I’ll wrap up with a couple of requests for my grantee and foundation colleagues. 

News and media grantees, please be understanding of these concerns and help foundations think through and make the case for supporting you. 

Foundation colleagues, I do understand and respect your worries about news and media grants.   But I would ask you to go beyond free-form anxiety to identify specific risks to really get to the heart of the matter and see if there are ways to address those issues.  Test the waters by just starting a conversation with a prospective media grantee and see what happens. 

And I would ask you to consider this:  perhaps the worst-case scenario is communities without reliable and relevant information sources that are needed to help residents make good choices and hold public institutions accountable.   If foundations can do their part to help in this area, our communities and our nation will be richer for it.

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