November 1, 2012

I’ll let you in on a secret: most of my career thus far was built with other people’s money.

I’ve conducted research in Cuba and Oman, lived in Singapore and England, and traveled around the world — all thanks to full or partial support of grants. Without those grants, my resume (and, more significantly, my life) would be pretty boring.

These days, grants are an amazing and invaluable way to boost a journalism career. There are hundreds of grants, and they are incredibly diverse. There are small grants to fund specific short-term reporting projects, and larger grants to fund months or even years of work. There are grants for every beat, interest, region and medium; you just have to know where to find them.

Here are five ways to get grant money:

Be specific in your application

Think of a topic, project or proposal that you are excited about. Then make it more specific. Then make it even more specific.

When I first began to design my Fulbright grant application, I knew right away that I wanted to look at portrayals of Shakespeare in Singapore. As I read samples of past successful applications, though, I realized that idea was still way too broad. So I started to narrow it down.

By the time I submitted my final grant application, I was proposing to examine three specific Shakespeare plays and their relationship to one single aspect of Singaporean culture. It was specific almost to the point of absurdity, but I loved the detail. As it turned out, the Fulbright Commission did, too.

Like a good reporter, do your research

Once you’ve chosen a proposal, seriously investigate the organizations that are most likely to care about your work.

“Really study what the foundation is interested in,” said Derek Willis, who (along with Serdar Tumgoren) won a Knight News Challenge grant for an Open Elections database project. “Tailor your idea and application to those topics, and pitch an idea that fills an existing need.”

Eve Fairbanks, a writer who’s currently working on a book about South Africa, also emphasized the importance of research.

“Instead of flooding the zone by sending the same grant pitch to a lot of organizations, target a few and research the hell out of them and do a really sharp, targeted application for that particular grant,” Fairbanks said via email. “When applying for both my grants, I tracked down and talked to a number of people about the application process and the grant itself — that was invaluable.”

Putting together a grant application takes time, energy and effort — so don’t waste your hard work. If you devote some of that energy toward researching the organization you’d like to receive funding from, your grant proposal is much more likely to succeed.

If a grant is only available to organizations, don’t get discouraged

A huge chunk of grants are designed to support nonprofit organizations but, as it turns out, there is a way for strong individual applicants to take advantage of them anyway.

“If a foundation is interested in giving you a grant, but they only fund organizations, you can go through a fiscal sponsor,” Kira Kay, executive director of the Bureau for International Reporting, said by phone. “They provide you with the administration and legal legitimacy of a nonprofit, so you can harvest foundation grants that aren’t normally available to individuals.”

Here’s how it works: Fiscal sponsors are official 501(c)(3) public charities that are eligible to receive nonprofit grants, but can pass their sponsorship onto individual grant applicants. By going through a fiscal sponsor, individuals can seek grants and solicit tax-deductible donations in the same way that nonprofit organizations can.

Consider grants that aren’t specifically for reporters

Grants that are specifically designed for reporters and writers, such as Alicia Patterson Foundation grants for print journalists, are an obvious first choice. But don’t stop there.

“Look for opportunities that may not be specifically just for reporting, but can get you overseas,” said Kay, who has used grant funding to support her work in Abkhazia, Burma and other places around the world. “They can enable you to base yourself for awhile and do that work while also doing your journalism.”

If you’d like to do an international project, look for grant funding from NGOs, aid organizations, or research foundations that focus on your country, region or topic of interest. For example, the Luce Scholars Program offers grants for projects in Asia, while Inter American Press Association Fellowships fund projects in Latin America and the Caribbean.

If you work in multimedia formats, consider grants for photographers, radio producers and filmmakers, such as the Aaron Siskind Foundation Grant or National Press Photographers Association Grants. Even broad grants that fund general research projects, like the Fulbright, can be great ways to subsidize long-term freelance reporting work.

Demonstrate potential for success

Here’s the best news for young and early-career journalists: I’ve found that if a project proposal is strong enough, many grant organizations don’t care how long you’ve been in the workforce; they just want to see that you can do what you’ve proposed to do.

“Grant organizations want to know that your project will succeed,” said Jina Moore, a freelance journalist who has used grants to fund several international reporting projects. “Sometimes convincing them that you can succeed means showing them that you’ve done it before.”

So for journalists who don’t have a well-established portfolio of clips (or don’t have clips that are relevant to their grant project), examples of self-published work can be just as useful.

“I’m a big believer in producing a project that you believe in that showcases your skills and putting it on your own website,” Moore said by phone. “People who are interested in funding don’t care whether your project has appeared on NPR — they just want to know that you can get a project done.”

If you already have the talent and drive to build a solid journalism career and all you lack is the funding, get busy. Develop a project proposal, send out a few applications and look for grant money to start flowing your way.

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Jillian Keenan is a freelance writer in New York with interests in press freedom, Shakespeare, international human rights, theater, and travel. As a 2010 -…
Jillian Keenan

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