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Where Are the Funds for Engaged Journalism?

Money makes the world go ‘round is a saying that we have all heard before, but what we maybe haven’t been told is where to look for money and how to access it — especially when it comes to finding money for engagement work.

Engaged journalism builds and maintains relationships within communities, and that approach requires consistent financial and human resources. How can engaged journalists access funding? Where should they look? And who should they talk to?

These are the questions I explored while researching funding and foundations for Gather’s July topic of the month. But before we get into the answers, let’s talk about Gather’s July 10th Lighting Chat on funding.

Last month’s Lightning Chat invited three very special guests to talk about their expectations as funders and to answer one very important question: What should engaged journalists know about applying for funding opportunities?

Our three guests were Molly de Aguiar of the News Integrity Initiative, Karen Rundlet of the Knight Foundation and Paul Walters of the Democracy Fund.

The News Integrity Initiative, Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund are all foundations that share a mutual goal of strengthening communities by funding engaged journalism. As part of this shared goal, all three organizations have supported Gather, and we are thankful for their commitment to journalism.

The conversation about funding ongoing engagement work can be difficult. But as each of our guests reiterated, it doesn’t need to be. Before diving into the not-so-difficult conversation about funding, here’s some background information on our guest and their foundations.

The Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund are two of many foundations funding the News Integrity Initiative (NII) at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. NII is a 14-million-dollar fund that strives to connect communities and journalists in order to cultivate meaningful conversations, accurate information and an inclusive news environment. We can see a similarity among NII, Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation: They all offer funding for practices that align with and define engaged journalism.

All three organizations have worked with the Lenfest Institute to create the Community Listening and Engagement Fund (CLEF). CLEF subsidizes the cost of engagement tools such as Hearken and GroundSource, making this fund an amazing opportunity for any journalist passionate about engaging with their community on a budget.

Now that we have the context, let’s dive in! I’ve outlined the major highlights from the lightning chat below and hope these pieces of advice encourage you to find the financial opportunities out there. (If you’d like to check out the entire lightning chat, you can do so here.)

Highlight 1: Timing and Aligning

Timing is everything! This may seem obvious, but finding perfect timing can be difficult, especially when it comes to applying for funding from organizations with only so many resources to go around. Thankfully, our speakers offered their advice on how to time it right.

Karen, for example, stressed that there is a science to timing things: “It is very much an art. I think there is a lot of science to it, a lot of data to it and a lot of measurement of the work and projects.”

She explained that you can use the right information to time your project so that a foundation is identifying a gap at the time you are delivering your project — perfect timing! Karen went on to say, “Sometimes an idea is just to too far ahead of where the funder is or too behind where the funder is.” In these cases, the timing is imperfect and consequently, the project isn’t aligned with the foundation.

Speaking of alignment, a foundation’s trajectory or direction influences who and what they fund, and understanding where a foundation is and will be can be helpful in getting successfully funding, according to Paul.

“So much of our funding is around buckets and there are specific things that we are looking to fund at any given time,” Paul said. “I think that organizations that can translate their work well into the strategic framework that we are operating under tend to do a little bit better.”

So, what does that mean for us? It means that by recognizing the foundation’s trajectory, we can identify the ‘buckets’ that are receiving funds and align our projects to that ‘bucket’ for the best chances of having our project be a fit for the organization.

Highlight 2: Funders are people first. (And just like people, funding organizations are all different.)

Foundations don’t run themselves: like any organization, they are managed and operated by individuals. As engaged journalists, we are all about making connections with the people in our communities, and the same principle should apply to foundations and the people behind them. As Molly said, “You need to build connections with your local funders as best you can.”

Connecting with funders shifts the experience from transactional to relational and demonstrates your level of commitment, motivation and interest, which can carry you and your project a long way. When you connect with funders, you are building a relationship that will help define you and your project, in addition to distinguishing you from other potential applicants.

Just like the people that they’re made up of, individual funders are unique and often very different from one another. Just as we don’t assume that everyone we meet is the same, we shouldn’t assume all funders are the same. As Molly put it: “Once you have met one funder, you have met one funder.” If you do your homework, you will come to realize that there are so many different funding foundations, focus areas and funding pools out there, and no two are alike. Some may be more similar than others, but each individual foundation has different requirements and objectives.

Having a conversation with a funder can feel difficult, but just remember that it doesn’t need to be. Again, funding organizations are made up of people, and most of the people reading this probably talk to people for a living. If you remember that the next time you’re discussing a project with a funder, it should help make the conversation or first connection more natural and comfortable.

Highlight 3: Do your Homework!

Doing your homework shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, given that it’s something we practice every single day as media professionals.

Whether we’re researching for an interview, story or project, we do our homework because we want to deliver the best version of ourselves to the people we engage with. We also come prepared so that we can have deeper, more meaningful connections with people, and as that last highlight emphasized, making connections with the people behind foundations can help distinguish your project from the rest. But we also do our homework because including the right details, small or big, demonstrates our interest in the foundation.

It can also give you an opportunity to build a stronger relationship with your chosen organization by uncovering the story of the foundation, which can reveal more about who and what the foundation is looking for (and can lead to a better fit when you’re pitching a project to them). As Karen said, “There is a story within the foundation and that is evident in our strategy and it tells you what we are thinking.”

To simplify this highlight: You should also do your homework because a funder wouldn’t want to give money to someone who knows nothing about their foundation or doesn’t seem interested. A funder would prefer to give money to someone who is enthusiastic about the foundation and eager to advance the foundation’s interests as well as their own.

Non-journalism foundations that offer funding for community/engaged journalism

Seeking funds for journalism, especially engaged journalism, from large foundations can seem intimidating and distant. Organizations such as the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) and the Knight Foundation receive a lot of inquiries from interested journalists and newsrooms, but there are so many other foundations that offer financial support for engaged journalism. We will explore these other foundations out there and what they have to offer for engaged journalism.

We’ll start with civic-oriented foundations that aren’t specifically oriented toward journalism. Often these foundations are equally as interested in funding community-focused journalism as their journalism-oriented counterparts, yet they are regularly overlooked because of their indirect relationship with journalism.

They shouldn’t be, though: these non-journalism foundations often prioritize their community and support programs, projects and initiatives that strengthen, connect and engage communities. Sound familiar?

For example, according to their web page, the non-partisan private charitable Hewlett Foundation “advances ideas and supports institutions to promote a better world.” Promoting a better world is something we strive for as engaged journalists, and is a value we share with foundations like the Hewlett Foundation.

Although the Hewlett Foundation is not a journalism organization, they have offered funding opportunities to journalists and news organizations who have demonstrated a commitment to strengthening communities through journalism. The Hewlett Foundation has financially supported the Solutions Journalism Network, National Public Radio and ProPublica, to name a few.

I want to take the time to emphasize that just because a foundation isn’t journalism specific, it doesn’t mean that the foundation doesn’t have funds to offer. Most of the non-journalism foundations I researched funded, supported and advocated for civic engagement.

As we know, engagement journalism and civic engagement are directly related practices, and oftentimes non-journalism foundations will explicitly announce civic engagement funding. When funding for civic engagement if offered, it is up to us as engaged journalists to demonstrate how our approach to journalism aligns with and enhances the civic engagement goals of the foundation.

Another interesting pattern I saw among the non-journalism foundations I researched was a mutual goal of preserving American democracy. While there are numerous ways to preserve the democratic process, most of the non-journalism foundations reckoned that journalism plays a fundamental part in protecting the institution.

As stated on their website, the Rita Allen Foundation “seeds new ideas and approaches in the field of civic engagement, believing that aware, informed and engaged citizens are our greatest assets for solving the most critical problems in our communities.” The Rita Allen Foundation, along with the Hewlett Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and Ford Foundation, believes that a strong and vibrant democracy starts with a healthy information ecosystem. As journalists, we have some first-hand experience with the truth of that belief, and engaged journalism can be the bridge that connects communities to the information they are looking for.

Engaged journalism has elevated journalism’s purpose through community engagement. As we know, engaging with and listening to communities has been a successful approach to strengthening community relationships, and funders have also noticed. My research suggests that foundations gravitate towards journalists and newsrooms when offering funds for civic engagement, even when not specifically offering journalism funding. Why? There is more of a financial incentive for foundations to fund a project with a successful approach. Engaging and listening to communities has yielded high quality journalism and even higher quality community relationships. Take a look at four newsrooms who were highlighted in API’s newsletter for engaging with their audiences through focused listening.

So, if you are an engaged journalist seeking funding, I recommend expanding your search to include non-journalism foundations because they are useful financial tools that can accelerate your project while simultaneously fulfilling their own civic engagement objectives.

There are region specific funding opportunities

In addition to the funding from large, national foundations, there are region-specific funding opportunities that exist for engaged journalists.

For example, according to the Huffington Post, the Knight Foundation has partnered with community foundations to promote community engagement in specific regions. The Philadelphia Foundation and the Knight Foundation worked together on a new pilot initiative, On The Table Philly, to engage residents in conversations and strengthen Philadelphia communities. On The Table Philly is a part of the Knight Foundation’s national strategy to foster community engagement in 10 cities: Akron, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; Columbus, Georgia; Detroit, Michigan; Gary, Indiana; Lexington, Kentucky; Miami, Florida, and Long Beach and San Jose, California. The On the Table initiative has funds to offer for engaged journalism, but their funds are reserved for certain cities (for our sake, “regions”).

Another example of regional funding can be seen with Michigan Radio’s Curious project. If you’re a member of Gather you might have seen this case study, but if you haven’t, MI Curious is an initiative that encourages the public to participate in the process of selecting news stories and invites community members along for the reporting process. MI Curious had many funders, but there are two regional funders that are particularly interesting: the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the Michigan Humanities Council. These two foundations caught my eye because they offer funds to people, projects and programs in Michigan state. Community foundations, like the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and Michigan Humanities Council, are great resources for engaged journalists because they offer financial support to projects that strengthen their communities and fulfill their community goals.

When it comes to funding, it is very important to identify and research local foundations. There could be foundations that offer funding specifically to your region and your region only — which, in addition to potentially meaning less competition, could also make for a better fit. As with national foundations, some regional foundations can be more obvious than others, but take a look at the community foundations in your area and show them how engaged journalism accelerates their community goals!


Last but certainly not least are fellowships. I’m sure fellowships aren’t the first things to come to mind when you think of funding, but really, fellowships are just grants that allow you to receive funding while pursuing a specific aim — in this case, engaged journalism.

More specifically, in case you’re not familiar with fellowships: As a fellow, you can receive funds for studying and/or practicing engaged journalism, and the funds are generally in the form of a stipend. Because there is often an academic aspect to fellowships, they can carry an element of academic prestige and can be more specific than typical foundation funding. In addition to funding, fellowships can help with your professional development by providing you with the opportunity to work with and be supported by experts in your field. I highly recommend fellowships to any engaged journalist looking to pursue engaged journalism in a more formalized framework.

Final Thoughts

Funding doesn’t have to be this scary thing we don’t talk about. Instead, it should be something engaged journalists consistently discuss and explore. Just like we do for the people in our communities, engage with the people within foundations! Our communities respond well to engagement and the same goes for foundations. Molly, Karen and Paul would all agree. I hope this piece answered any unanswered questions, filled in any gaps and left you feeling more confident about funding and foundations.

Funding opportunities roundup:

Description: CLEF is a fund that subsidizes anywhere from 25–75% of the total cost of using newsroom tools such as GroundSource and Hearken in order to help news organizations listen to and engage with their communities. CLEF is a grant-making organization established by the News integrity Initiative, Democracy Fund, Knight Foundation and Lenfest University.

What they fund: CLEF funds U.S. news organizations that are ready to adopt the practice of listening to and engaging with their community. Preference will be given to newsrooms who demonstrate the highest need for and commitment to community engagement.

Description: The Challenge Fund supports projects that experiment with best-practices to teach journalism, engage with communities and cover local stories.

What they fund: The Challenge Fund offers funds to teams led by a faculty member from a U.S. college or university. A for-profit can partner with a U.S. college or university to be a part of their team.

Description: The Leadership in Democracy Award gives $10,000 to an individual or organization whose work demonstrates values of community focus, developing new leaders and giving people a voice.

Who they award: Individuals and organizations with work that has fostered community participation, included the marginalized, encouraged new and diverse leaders or that has produced positive community change.

Description: The Fulbright Fellowship offers teaching and research awards in in over 100 countries. Fulbright supports a myriad of different project subjects, and fellows receive funds for researching, teaching or a combination of both.

What they fund: The Fulbright Fellowship program offers funding to journalists with empowering project proposals that offer solutions to relevant issues. Must have U.S. citizenship.

Description: The News Integrity Initiative (NII) is a $14 million fund at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. NII has helped to establish other community engagement funds such as CLEF.

Who they fund: NII funds journalistic organizations, projects and programs that connect the public sphere with journalists in order to cultivate meaningful conversations, accurate information and an inclusive news environment.

Description: MJ Bear fellows develop a journalism project that experiments with the latest technology and approaches to explore the bounds of digital news. The MJ Bear fellowship supports and guides their fellows’ project and professional development.

Who they fund: The MJ Bear fellowship is offered to journalists under 30 who are leaders in digital media and involved in a digital journalism project.

Description: The Knight-Wallace Fellowship recognizes journalists and covers the cost of one academic year of study and collaborative learning at the University of Michigan.

Who they fund: The Knight-Wallace Fellowship is available to accomplished journalists who are enthusiastic about the industry and who want to develop professionally.

Description: The Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship at Harvard offers individuals the opportunity to be a part of projects that advance journalism. All fellows will present their findings to the Nieman Foundation at the end of the fellowship.

Who they fund: The Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship is available to U.S. and international individuals interested in improving journalism.

Description: The MacArthur Foundation offers grants to independent journalism organizations in order to strengthen American democracy through fostering informed and engaged citizens.

What they fund: The MacArthur Foundation funds nonprofit reporting organizations, nonfiction multimedia storytelling organizations and civic media by individuals and groups.

Description: The Democracy Fund supports journalism that is community focused and strives to strengthen democracy through informing and engaging citizens.

Who they fund: The Democracy Fund supports projects, organizations and initiatives in journalism that improve the information ecosystem within a community and preserve democracy.

Description: The Knight Foundation supports the best practices in engagement.

What they fund: The Knight Foundation funds journalism projects, initiatives and organizations that foster informed and engaged communities.

Description: The European Journalism Centre launched its Engaged Journalism Accelerator, a program that will support the efforts to incorporate an engaged journalism approach in 10 European newsrooms.

Who they fund: The Engaged Journalism Accelerator, with support from the CUNY J-School’s News Integrity Initiative, offers funding for European newsrooms dedicated to engaged journalism.

Description: The Rita Allen Foundation supports ideas and approaches in civic engagement that preserve democracy by fostering engaged and informed citizens.

What they fund: The Rita Allen Foundation funds journalism organizations that can demonstrate their commitment to strengthening communities through journalism.

Description: The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation supports ideas and organizations that encourage a healthy information ecosystem.

Who they fund: The Hewlett Foundation funds individuals and organizations that engage with local and diverse communities.

Description: The Ford Foundation supports individuals and organizations that use civic engagement to preserve a healthy democracy.

What they fund: The Ford Foundation funds individuals and organizations that close the information gaps in communities and promote a more inclusive news environment.

Gather, a project + platform to support community-minded journalists and other engagement professionals, is a collaborative project led by the Agora Journalism Center. Project funders include the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund.

Content Developer for Gather and Outreach Director for the Daily Emerald.