The John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University posted these tips written by one of its fellows, investigative journalist Djordje Padejski. The blog item was republished by INN with permission in 2015, and the advice is still current (with minor updates made to avoid broken links).
15 tips on how to prepare a grant proposal for a journalism project
Many journalists trying to advance their innovation ideas look for grant money. Even though it is a writing task, crafting a proposal for a grant officer can be a tough job for a journalist. We have a tendency to use our charismatic storytelling skill, but grant writing is not creative writing. It’s not poetry. Ideas need to be presented clearly and concisely so it’s easy for grant funders to quickly know exactly what you want to do. Here are 15 tips on how to prepare effective grant from a journalistic perspective.
- Be a reporter.
Research the issue you are addressing. Act like this is your reporting job and you are covering a story for your news organization. Find similar projects, look for their pitfalls, failures and successes. There are some really great tools you can use beyond Google to research grants and funders, such as the Pivot alert (subscription) and from Candid, the Foundation Center search tool (subscription) or Guide Star (free). Understand the funder’s perspective – learn and take notes!
- Read the grant guidelines.
Carefully read the instructions before you even submit a proposal. Maybe the funder you are looking at is not a good fit for you. Get a better sense of the funder through the projects it has previously supported. Sometimes you can tailor the idea to fit the specific requirements; sometimes you cannot. It’s like working with different editors in the newsroom: There always will be ones who don’t like your stories.
- Word of mouth.
Do you know someone who won a grant from the foundation you are thinking of approaching? Talk to them. Ask for an interview. Maybe you can even get advice. Grantees will always have insights on the funder’s dos and don’ts. People like to talk about their work, especially with a journalist.
- One-sentence rule.
Keep your project description to one sentence no longer than 15 to 20 words. Think of it like the lead of your project. Even the most innovative projects can be defined briefly and described clearly. What exactly do you want to do or to develop? Do you plan to produce an iPhone app, launch a series of events or grow your audience in Europe?
- Define a problem or a need.
Clear definition of the problem being addressed is the key to explaining any great proposal. However, don’t take up more space discussing the problem than your solution. Funders like to hear what problem inspired your idea, but they are also very interested in how you are going to tackle it.
- Link your solution logically with the problem.
It sounds so simple, but not connecting the problem with the solution is a common grant proposal flaw. Think about how your proposed solution answers the problem you defined. Don’t emphasize issues you won’t address with your proposal. You don’t need to present the whole picture and that’s very different from journalism.
- Clearly identify the competition.
There is no harm in mentioning organizations and projects that are similar to yours. Demonstrate you are familiar with the challenges. Make sure to explain how your approach is different from what already exists. If you are building on previous ideas or others’ work, that’s OK. You’re not expected to reinvent the wheel. Also, it’s highly advisable to refer to a similar project funded by your targeted funder.
- Examples, examples, examples.
Refer to things people are familiar with. The tagline for my crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter was: “FOIA Machine is like TurboTax for government records” — and it was clear that the project guides users in filing FOIA requests like TurboTax guides people through filing their taxes. Usually, you will be presenting abstract ideas, so it helps to illustrate with concrete examples.
- Include visuals & links.
Attach visuals whenever you can. Add links to wireframes or illustrations that will help the reader to get a better sense of your project. Now, instead of footnote you can add hyperlinks to backup your points.
- Key activities plan.
Break your idea into phase, be realistic about what is possible for different stages of your project. Naturally, every project has a beginning, middle and end, like a journalism piece. Leave enough time to kick off the project and, for example, hire a developer for the project. The end phase should include collecting and reporting feedback. If you are building a prototype, thoroughly explain the phases. If you are putting on an event, think about all of the things you need to do beforehand: book a room and speakers, draft an agenda, send out invitations.
Be realistic about what you really have and what you really need to execute your project. Do you need five or 10 people on your team, full-time or part-time? Your friends may be a great asset, but don’t be too optimistic that they will all come to help you at the end. Find the balance to ensure you can deliver on your promises. Do not overpromise, do not underpromise.
The funding you’re requesting should match the activities you are planning and resources you will need. And it should add up! Don’t forget to include all the costs, but double check work; budget exaggerations and math errors will undermine your position. If you are the principal, make sure to pay yourself, but do not spend half of the budget on your salary.
Be as meticulous and exact as possible. Use strong and active verbs. Write in simple language. Avoid phrases such as “could become” or other ambiguous language and abstractions. Use facts, data and straightforward language.
- Best person & team
You need to convince reviewers that you and your team have the necessary skills and background for the project. Some funders are very clear that, as the Knight Foundation once put it, they “won’t fund a proposal to build a tool for journalists or reinvent the government procurement process if no one on your team understands those spaces.” Therefore, make sure to note your related work or references. Attach letters of support; ask your supporters to discuss why your idea is important.
Try to integrate your overall vision into the proposal. Be careful not to overpromise. Few projects are likely to “start a revolution,” or “change the world” all by themselves.
RESOURCES: Local News Lab: Unlocking the Secrets to Foundation Funding
Media Impact Funders (The Knowledge Network for Media Funders, maintains a searchable database)
Getting a Grant: How, Where and Why to Apply for Journalism Funding (News Media Alliance links to Guidebook and continuously updated Grants Directory)
Racial Equity and Philanthropy: Disparities in Funding for Leaders of Color Leave Impact on the Table (The Bridgespan Group, 2020)
Overcoming the Racial Bias in Philanthropic Funding (Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2020)