So you want to apply for a grant?

Erin Millar shares her grant writing secrets

Lauren Kaljur Lauren Kaljur  - April 26, 2021

I bet you never thought your independent journalism career would lead you to 10-page funding applications with multiple addenda — but here we are.

I don’t need to tell you grant writing can be depleting. But I am here to tell you grant writing can get easier.

Whether grants make up a big or small part of your funding strategy, more opportunities are out there for journalism outlets of all sizes. And in Canada, nonprofit news outlets can now seek qualified donee status, which opens even more doors. I touched base with Indiegraf co-founder and CEO Erin Millar to surface the key points you need to succeed.

Think about your funding strategy

There are a lot of opportunities out there, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense to apply for all of them. Millar says there are two ways to think about grants: as part of your revenue or as seed funding.

Nonprofit media outlets that aim to have grants make up a portion of their annual revenue will want to build relationships with funders for the long haul and work to have grants renewed year after year. For other outlets, one-time grants should be considered investments for growing targeted aspects of the business (membership, audience etc), not as a source of revenue. Select your grants accordingly.

Talk to someone 

Pick up the phone and talk to a program officer, advises Millar. There’s always a decision-maker behind the screen, often assigned to assist people with exactly the questions you have.

Just because you think the grant is a perfect fit doesn’t mean you’re eligible. Or, the way you describe your work does not fit within the context of the funders theory of change (more on that later). “They don’t want to waste your time. They don’t want to waste their time. They want to help bring forward really strong applications for their funding,” says Millar.

Even if you learn you’re not eligible, you’ve made a potential contact that can prove useful down the road. If you later apply and don’t get it, they might be more inclined to give you constructive feedback. Just call.

Be up front 

Have a conversation about journalistic independence and the terms of involvement off the top, especially for funders that don’t typically support journalism.

It may be tempting to want to contort yourself to serve the needs of a funder, but ethics must always come first. “If they get cold feet about that, it’s way better to surface that before you put a bunch of energy into writing up a proposal or getting involved in a project,” Millar says.

Also, be very clear about what you would need to produce in order to fulfill the grant so there’s no surprises. This will also help you determine the actual investment required on your part.

Look at the actual costs

Beyond the time and energy it takes to get a grant out the door, keep in mind that, unfortunately, most grants do not cover basic operational costs like tech, labour and accounting. They’re most often project-focused. And while a grant may seem like a lot of money, it might not be once you account for actual costs from start to finish.

“I think there’s a risk of putting together a budget for a project, and then getting that project and then feeling like you’re even broker because you actually don’t have the full capacity to deliver on it,” Millar says.

Be cautiously ambitious in your promises so that you’re not ultimately putting a financial burden on your organization to get the grant. Make sure it serves your organization in the long run.

Articulate the impact of your work

Remember that grants are a transaction often in the form of impact for money. It may be obvious to you that your work is important and in the public interest. “But ultimately, the onus is on us to explain why journalism is a worthy impact investment of this grant,” says Millar.

This is not the same task as describing the specific things you’ll produce (known as deliverables). This is about using the power of storytelling to explain what exactly the stories you plan on producing will do for the community you’re trying to serve, Millar explains. The more narrative-driven, descriptive and evidence-based, the more you’ll capture the imagination of referees and stand out from the rest.

In doing this, use your research skills to your advantage and figure out what motivates the funder. Most nonprofits have a clearly outlined theory of change, which articulates (often in the form of a diagram) how they aim to achieve their goals. If they use specific key words, use them, too.

Expand your network 

“I think it all comes down to relationships a lot of the time,” Millar says. “Invest more time into building out your network and asking for advice.” If grants are a big part of your funding strategy, Millar recommends putting together some kind of advisory board made up of funders who can help with networking and strategy.

“Sometimes the best way to get money is to ask for advice,” Millar says. Ask yourself who your ideal funders are and ask them to help you develop your strategy before asking for money.

Final hot tip: Save your application. You can often repurpose content from previous grant applications, but only if you’ve documented your late-night efforts. Since many applications are submitted by online form, be sure to copy the text to your own records before you hit send.

For more tips on grant writing, check out this guidebook produced by the News Media Alliance. They also produce a list of grant opportunities.

In the news

Have a tip, pitch, question to ask, link to include, or opportunity you want to promote? Send it to me!

And one more thing…

Poynter’s Kristen Hare has put together a list of newsrooms in Minnesota you can support.

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