Finding Funders: A User’s Guide to Foundation-Backed Journalism

January 15, 2014

Freelance Files


Radio journalist Karen Schaefer on the job at a cow barn at Vander Made Farms near Sherwood, Ohio. Photo by Chris Kick, Farm and Dairy.

As a public radio journalist, I’ve worked on grant-funded projects before. But until a couple years ago, I’d never considered pursuing a grant of my own.

Like many journalists who got the pink slip, I’d started freelancing. I’d done it before and figured I could do it again. But I soon realized there weren’t as many paying outlets as there were the last time I freelanced back in the 1990s.

Living from pitch to paycheck wasn’t working and after a year and a half I hit a wall. I needed a big income boost – and I didn’t have a clue where to look.

Fast forward to Cleveland a month later.

At a conference I stumbled across a retired environmental science professor I’d interviewed many times. He was a new board member of the Burning River Foundation, a small non-profit named after the infamous Cuyahoga River. The foundation, he said, had just started offering small grants of up to $10,000.

My tired brain lit up.

“Has the foundation ever offered grants to journalists?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “but I don’t see why we wouldn’t consider a proposal. I’ll send you an RFP application next month.”

A month later, fresh from the SEJ Lubbock conference, my head was filled with ideas for a grant proposal. When the request for proposals arrived in my inbox, I was ready.

Creating the proposal

I decided on a series of six radio stories I would offer free to both of the Ohio public radio stations I had worked for in the past, and to the statehouse news bureau which disseminates content to other Ohio NPR affiliates. I knew I had the good will of my former stations to air whatever I produced, provided it offered content that didn’t duplicate their in-house work. Most of all, I knew good quality free content would be welcome.

The Burning River Foundation had only two requirements about content: the proposal had to be about water quality and it had to be locally-sourced. I wrote up my proposal, enlisted three references and submitted to the foundation.

In early February 2013, I found out I had won. I was guaranteed enough money to keep me afloat for almost the first half of the year. I could do some good, useful work. I was ecstatic.

But there was a crucial first step that hadn’t been discussed. While the Burning River Foundation was prepared to front me three-quarters of the money, I needed to find a fiscal agent – someone who could watchdog the money and file appropriate documents with the IRS – before they could send a check.

I mulled it over and emailed SEJ Executive Director Beth Parke. She said yes. In less than a week, I had a fiscal agent at a cost that was feasible – eight percent of my total award. I was lucky. Many fiscal agents charge a standard 15 to 20 percent.

Bumps in the road

So finally, I was off and running. The check arrived in early April. I had just under three months to get the work done.

I spent a week contacting state and federal agencies, only to be stalled a month later by officials who couldn’t offer me the onsite interviews I needed. Then one story idea had to be switched for another.

In mid-May, with many interviews still pending, I was offered an opportunity to produce a pair of radio stories for a Michigan station. So for weeks, I juggled two jobs, traveling hundreds of miles. In the meantime, my grant-funded clock was ticking.

As June approached, I was still waiting for site visits delayed by weather and I discovered one crucial news conference wouldn’t take place until July. That’s when I realized I wouldn’t be able to meet my June 30 deadline.

I emailed the foundation and confessed my dilemma. To my relief, the board granted me a three-week extension.

Long hours in front of the laptop, very little sleep, and I was finally done. On July 26, I took myself and my laptop to the Burning River Festival in Cleveland, where I talked with festival-goers about my project.

Within days, the series I’d produced began airing. My two target Northeast Ohio stations broadcast a selection of my stories. SEJ member Dave Poulson offered me another public media venue at Great Lakes Echo, which eventually posted the entire series. A news aggregator – the Great Lakes Information Network – picked up my work from there.

Then a station in Columbus, Ohio, asked about airing the series. But first, the station needed to know about the transparency of my journalism. That was when I realized I had missed an important step.

Lessons learned

I quickly reviewed my process and realized I had a lot to say about how my stories had been produced and could demonstrate that they were fair, balanced – and totally un-influenced by the funders. I wrote a detailed transparency statement – and the Columbus station went ahead with the broadcasts.

By early August my project should have been finished. But I found myself keeping daily track of where stories were airing and reporting back to the foundation. The board members expressed themselves delighted with the exposure. But I was exhausted. I hadn’t anticipated the many unscheduled hours of paperwork, the delays, the time-eating presentation for the festival.

I hadn’t planned on fiscal agent fees. So when I completed my final grant report, I was over-budget. On the plus side, I’d gotten paid for work I wanted to do; but I wound up working hard for a lower rate of pay than I’d anticipated.

Looking back, I can see some pitfalls to avoid.

First, timing. My grant had a deadline that, given the seasonality of news on Great Lakes issues, wasn’t realistic. Next time I’ll set deadlines that better fit the news cycle – and anticipate delays.

Second, budgeting expenses. I can estimate how many hours it will take me to do interviews, log tape, write stories and produce them. But I’ll need to better estimate time spent communicating with potential vendors, getting edits, and sharing content on all the various platforms journalists are now expected to employ. And I’ll include the cost of a fiscal agent.

Third, journalistic transparency. I realize now that editors may be leery of grant-funded journalism, so I’ll build in transparency from the start.

Unearthing potential funders

I started with folks I knew and who knew my work. If you don’t have those connections, you’ll have to start from scratch. Try small foundations in your region. Acquaint them with your work, give them a broad outline of what you’d like to do and urge them to think outside their usual funding box. It will be your job to convince them that funding your journalism provides a big benefit – having their name on your good work.

Here’s one place to get started. Check the SEJ website for more grant-funding opportunities. And then go wider. Maybe a health foundation would fund an environmental health series. Or a national foundation might underwrite stories for a national publication that can’t afford to hire you – but would take your work for a reduced rate.

So would I do it again? The short answer is yes. In fact, I’m already at work on next year’s grant applications – and this time I know what I’m doing.

Karen Schaefer is a freelance journalist and independent radio producer based in Northeast Ohio. A veteran of two Ohio public radio newsrooms, she has won more than 65 awards for her work, more than half for her coverage of environmental issues. These days she focuses on Great Lakes issues, with recent work appearing on public radio stations and public media outlets in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, including the six-part grant-funded radio project she completed last year.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2014. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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