How COVID-19 is reshaping grantmaking and what news organizations should know
Just when news organizations are feeling the weight of unprecedented audience urgency, the numbing sear of burnout, and the effects of cratering ad revenues, foundations are uncorking millions of dollars in support.
This is a precious moment of opportunity in a precarious time for our industry and the communities we serve. But there are substantial questions about how to make the most of these opportunities, and limited time for wading through grant applications or the intricacies of fiscal sponsorship.
My work includes funding news organizations, advocating for more foundation support of local news and information, and directly coaching for-profit and nonprofit news organizations. In these roles I’ve heard the evolving needs of news organizations, whether through teams I’m coaching or grantees of the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund, and foundations of various sizes and focuses.
These accumulated conversations reveal emerging trends in funding and specific ways news organizations can focus their grant-seeking right now and in the coming weeks.
Like news organizations, foundations have been rocked by the unexpected arrival of this crisis, the depth of community need, and sudden changes in their programs, budgets and existing grantees. Funders are swamped with rounds of funding they’re already managing, and the new demands of our current work-from-home reality.
Regardless of their size, focus, or other characteristics, grantmakers are looking for projects and organizations that square with their governance, bylaws and funding restrictions, and serve their target populations. They’re looking for efforts that meet urgent community needs, and many are starting to think beyond their traditional scope.
In the current environment, three things are becoming clear: an expanded range of foundations are considering local news as part of their funding strategy; equity is becoming a forethought; and funders are focused on community impact.
Local news attracts unexpected new funders
Foundations funding news and information have long cited the knock-on civic value of local news in supporting little-d democratic goals, from ensuring effective use of tax dollars to how many local government incumbents run unopposed.
Quality, credible, trusted local news is clearly more critical than ever, whether judged by consumption patterns or other evidence. The scale and urgency of audience need has underscored the case for funding news like the critical infrastructure it is. (I made this case, in the odd but welcome company of a Maine senator and Vermont’s governor.)
For the first time, funders in public health, community development and rural issues are seeing their priorities aligned with the work local news organizations are undertaking, which is focused on connecting communities, sharing credible information, and providing accountability for policymaking and relief efforts.
This throughline expands the number of funders who are ready to consider funding news and information directly or using their marketing dollars with local news organizations to advance their mandate. News organizations should expand their grant search to include funders whose goals match their work, even if they haven’t funded news previously.
This trend continues to evolve, but it’s moving quickly. There have already been grants made into news organizations to support local COVID-19 news coverage from foundations that normally focus on direct public health interventions by nonprofits.
Funders seek to address structural inequality
Equity is rapidly becoming a non-negotiable for funders, as Lea Trusty outlines in a piece for Democracy Fund’s Engagement Lab.
The emphasis for funders is on equity in the design and implementation of work they fund and in encouraging equitable ways of working inside their grantee organizations. The disproportionate death rate for COVID-19 in the U.S.’s black communities is one reality that news organizations have helped uncover; now there is room to address the roots of that harm. The same attention is trained on service of rural communities, Latinx communities, Native communities, people without broadband, poor people, those who don’t read or speak English, migrants with or without legal documents, and youth. Equity here is about translating justice into grantmaking and grant-funded work, starting with those who are most vulnerable.
The best grant proposals show, rather than tell, a funder why an organization is the right partner to reach communities they want to support in this crisis. Funders will weed out proposals from news organizations that talk about equity without offering evidence of how they are positioned to cultivate it, including whether there is underlying trust between the newsroom and its audiences.
The Best Practices series from the Maynard Institute is an excellent resource for understanding how the dynamics of race, class, gender, geography, sexual orientation and generation play out among your audiences and what you can do right now to address those themes. The series of videos explains the Institute’s Fault Lines framework and offers coronavirus-specific tactics to address each dimension.
Knowing your audiences and demonstrating that knowledge with qualitative nuance and quantitative confirmation will sharpen your grant application. The more precisely you can describe your audiences, and your newsroom’s relationship with them, the better you can articulate that fit with the RFP’s stated goals and targeted audiences.
Funders focus on community impact, not ‘saving news’
Foundations are focused on impact measured in community outcomes, before or in place of a grant’s salutary influence on the news organization itself. The Lenfest Institute for Journalism with The Independence Public Media Foundation (IPMF), The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, for example, launched an information fund built around community need, rather than industry distress. The language of the call reflects their clarity.
For foundations that are already funding news, the notion of media deserts and swaths of unserved communities also surfaces. Unsurprisingly, but still horrifyingly, a Brookings report shows the overlap in news deserts and COVID-19 cases: 50 percent of counties with confirmed cases are news deserts. An additional 37 percent lost their newspapers between 2004 and 2019.
By measuring success and need in community terms and prioritizing underserved communities, funders are underlining the ways news organizations can address harms compounded by a lack of credible, quality news and information.
Showing community impact in quantitative and qualitative ways is grant application gold.
With that lens — and an understanding that selection committees are contending with larger-than-ever application pools — be clear, concise and candid in sharing your approach, what you will achieve for the community and your organization, and the process to get you there.
Articulating impact should address the specifics of what the grant will do, not just for your organization, but for the audiences you will serve. Funders will pay especially close attention to budgets and how line items translate into outcomes. The overwhelming demand for limited dollars from other news organizations and from the wider nonprofit world will pressurize already competitive processes.
Make sure your application clearly answers these questions:
- What does the grant take you from-to in terms of sustainability, audience service, and outcomes for your audience and your team? How will you measure progress?
- How can you use your existing superpowers and relationships with your audience to show your impact?
- How would the grant move you from your current assumptions to a better knowledge of how you can and should serve your audience?
- Realistically, what will this process cost over a specific timeframe? Does that budget pass the sniff test?
Moving forward in the new reality
Grantmaking is adjusting to our new reality, including the underscored necessity for accurate information for all and healthy news and information ecosystems that can survive the economic fallout of this crisis.
Funders are looking for, and a growing number are finding, that news organizations are their best partners. News and information’s central role in our current crisis has opened new possibilities for grants that prioritize community needs, promote equity, and measure success in terms of community outcomes and impact.
The grant dollars can’t come soon enough. Good luck.
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