Nearly all funders have guidelines explaining what they fund — and what they don’t fund. Read them. It will save you a lot of wasted effort.
To receive a grant (that is, dollars that were donated for charitable purposes), you must be an official non-profit, not just a project that doesn’t make any money. Commercial or for-profit entities are not eligible for grants, although sometimes they may receive awards or contracts.
Among my pet peeves are journalists who inaccurately refer to everything J-Lab funds as grants. Be precise or just use the fallback term funding.
Be sure you have attained non-profit status before you seek a grant; saying you filed your application with the IRS isn’t good enough. It can take up to six months for the IRS to issue its determination, and there are no guarantees. One way around this is to find a “fiscal agent,” another non-profit that will sponsor your project. The fiscal agent will receive your grant dollars on your behalf but also has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the dollars are appropriately spent. Fiscal agents will often take a percentage of the grant — 5 to 10 percent — for their grant administration services.
Then, in your proposal, hew to the funder’s guidelines. If a foundation says it doesn’t fund youth media projects, don’t pitch training for high school students. If the guidelines limit grants to accredited journalism schools, you won’t make the short list with a proposal for a hyperlocal site unless your fiscal agent is an accredited journalism school. If a funder asks about frequency of updating, you’ll have a stronger proposal if you plan daily updates vs. monthly. A funder will almost always ask how you plan to sustain your project after any grant ends. Be prepared with an answer.
Some foundations solicit pre-proposals, with deadlines for Letters of Inquiry. These are short pitches, one to two pages, for your idea. If your LOI appeals, you will be invited to make a full proposal. Research these LOI deadlines carefully. They only come a couple of times a year.
Once you get a grant, pace yourself on a number of fronts:
•Thank your funder.
•Deliver on time everything you said you would.
•Collect data on participation, outcomes, impact, Web traffic. It’s best to collect this information as you go along rather than try to re-construct it a year later.
•Monitor your “burn rate,” the rate at which you are spending down your grant dollars. You certainly don’t want to overspend, but you also don’t want to underspend or you will need to return unspent funds. Many funders require you to stick within a specified range, often 10 percent, of your proposed budget categories. If you find your spending significantly differs from what you proposed, you’ll need to seek a formal budget modification.
•File your grant reports on time. Better yet, communicate regularly any good news and successes as they occur.
Good stewardship of grant dollars is often rewarded with more grant dollars.
Jan Schaffer is executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism at American University’s School of Communication. She is a former business editor and Pulitzer Prize winner for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.