Hazel Sheffield was working as the business editor of the Independent when she got her first grant. “Since then, I have basically funded the last three years of my journalism through grants,” she said during the March meetup of Hacks/Hackers London, where she shared her experiences of funding journalism through grants and some tips for securing funding.
Sheffield is a freelance journalist and was recently profiled by the Financial Times for her Far Nearer project, a map of local economies in the UK. Far Nearer has been launched thanks to a £45,000 grant from the Friends Provident Foundation, an organisation with a focus on resilient economies. Sheffield has already won her second round of funding to continue working on the project.
“I’ve learned that grants and foundations are a really good way to get money to do creative and exciting work at a time when newsrooms often can’t afford to support that,” she said.
You can watch Sheffield’s full speech on our YouTube channel or read below for our main takeaways.
What are journalism grants, where to find one and what can you get funding for?
A journalism grant is a financial aid awarded by an organisation or a foundation to fund the development of a journalism project for a particular purpose. There is a number of fellowships and grant schemes in the UK, EU and the US to fund a variety of projects, often focused on underreported topics, communities and regions.
“With a grant, you can get funding for pretty much anything,” Sheffield said.
There are two ways of looking at grants, Sheffield explained: “Either you have an idea and you need some money, or you have found a funding opportunity and you need an idea. Both are really valuable, but think big because you will have to convey a lot of passion, probably spend a lot of time on your application and then lots of time on your project if you get the money, so you need to think of what you really care about. If you could do anything, what would you choose to do?”
If you don’t know where to start to look for funding, check Hacks/Hackers London’s Twitter list of accounts to monitor for journalism grants.
How do you write a good application?
When applying for funding you have to “think of grants as a job,” Sheffield said. “You need to come up with a year-long project, so don’t give just some vague ideas about what you might like to do or what you have done in the past.”
To write a good application you need to convey a clear and strong idea of what your project is about. To do so, Sheffield’s suggestion is to do your homework and:
- find out what your story is about;
- give a lot of details about it;
- identify your sources and talk to them;
- ask lots of questions to the funders, they might tell you something they didn’t write in the application;
- talk to someone who has already had the grant.
“Don’t be half-baked. People will back you if they think you are going to succeed, so show them that you can.”
Think about collaboration
In the last nine months, Sheffield has been working with the Bureau Local (a team part of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism) on Sold From Under You, an investigation in partnership with HuffPost UK that reveals for the first time the scale of what has been lost to local councils under austerity. For the first time, Sold From Under You let readers search their council and see the public spaces that have been sold by using a map, which was created in collaboration with the tech co-operative Outlandish.
As Sheffield reckoned, the project benefited from the collaboration with people with different backgrounds and skills like Bureau Local’s data journalist Gareth Davies.
“You can achieve so much more by working with other people,” Sheffield said.
Some grant schemes demand that you collaborate with someone to develop your project. Some of them, like the European Journalism Centre, encourage applicants to work in international teams with people from different countries.
The magic word for funders: impact!
The key to the perfect application is finding what funders care about the most. “As journalists, we know what we are trying to achieve — we are going to write a story and publish it. But funders think about journalists in a completely different way,” said Sheffield.
The magic word to bear in mind is: impact. “Funders want numbers, page views, people who attended to an event — they want reach figures. They want proof that their funding has been worthwhile.”
When Sheffield applied for funding from the Friends Provident Foundation, she knew their mission was to make local economies more resilient: “I had to somehow prove to them that by funding a journalism project that would happen. For this reason, there’s a button on Far Nearer that says “Take action”. If you click, it takes you to different non-profits and other foundations that can help people who come across these stories to replicate them.”
But are funders more interested in the idea itself or the person who will do it? Probably neither, according to Sheffield: “The funders are just interested in one thing: that you can do something for them and you need to figure out what that is. If you can nail that by talking to other people, by talking to the funders, probably it doesn’t matter who you are. If you know what they want and you proved you can deliver it for them, that works.”
Top tip: be brave and pitch!
Sheffield has a long relationship with fellowships and grants: “I funded my way through my master at Columbia with fellowships and scholarships. I didn’t have a good network and that was out of necessity.”
“You have to be very brave: find out who has money and pitch to them! I don’t think I am special in any way but I did apply. A lot of people do not apply for this kind of things. But do apply! Especially when you see something where the deadline has been extended, definitely apply!”
A previous version of this article reported that the European Journalism Centre requires applicants to work in international teams. They actually just encourage international teams to apply for grants.