Grant Writing Tips for Nonprofit News Organizations


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If you are a nonprofit news organization you are most likely familiar with the world of fundraising and grant writing. Whether you are a newbie or veteran to this process, this week I provide some tips to help you in your adventures on the grant-writing road.

When it comes to grant writing you must have these three things:

  • Patience
  • Time to reflect and write about your organization, your goals and needs
  • Time to seek the grants and funds needed

Each of these are important to the process and without any of them, your grant writing work will be for naught.  Grant writing requires a lot of patience. It is not an overnight process. It takes time to find the right grant that suits the projects and initiatives you want to pursue.

I had the opportunity to talk with Investigative News Network Development Consultant Irma Simpson who assists INN and its members on a variety of fundraising and grant writing initiatives. She shared with me some bits of wisdom that can help nonprofit news organizations along the grant-writing road.

Write a Case Statement

First of all, before you start looking for any kind of grant, make a case statement. Simpson states that the case statement should summarize what your organization is, what it does, what your goals are, what your needs are and your parameters for meeting those needs.

“It summarizes and outlines the entire mission of the organization,” Simpson says. “Make sure you have that down pat and make it compelling.”

Simpson also says that the case statement is a document that should always be updated as new initiatives, awards and other important accomplishments or achievements are made in the organization. This will make it easier later on when you need to send a Letter of Inquiry or grant application with the latest information from your case statement.

What Should Be in the Case Statement?

Your case statement should have the following components, according to Tom Ahern.

  • Welcome statement
  • Introduction
  • Organization’s History
  • Organization's Philosophy
  • Why Your Mission Matters
  • The Vision
  • The Call to Action
  • Closing Thank You

Once you have your case statement written, it’s now time to search for funds.

Search for Grants Through Online Databases

Simpson has an excellent list here from a past INN article on places where you can search for grants. She recommends the Foundation Center as the first place a nonprofit news organization should go and pay for access on a short-term basis, you can go from month to month as you need it and cancel when you want. It can be a very worthwhile investment and doesn’t tie you down to long-term contracts.

Simpson suggests that if you are short on time to search for the funds, you can consider having an intern in the newsroom assist you in this area by spending time going through these databases and identifying those grants that are applicable. You can have them build a funding spreadsheet that be a quick reference to see all the possible grants you could apply for and the grant deadlines.

To Write or Not to Write the Grant

You may be a publisher or editor of your news organization and may not have the time to write a Letter of Inquiry or a grant to a foundation or organization. Should you hire someone to help you with this? Simpson suggests no.

“I don’t think a start-up needs to do that,” Simpson says. “I think you can manage that in-house. Once you have your case statement written, then you can send out many LOIs based on that.”

LOI and Proposal. What is the Difference?

If you are new to the area of grant writing, you will notice that several organizations and foundations will request a Letter of Inquiry (LOI) before you can send them a full proposal. It’s important to know the difference between the two.

LOIs are meant to be summaries of what you do, what you need and how you can fit within that foundation’s grantmaking goals. LOIs should not be more than a few pages and should be succinct.

“Keep it really short,” Simpson says. “They want to know what your organization does, what the need is, what your project is if there is one, and how much it is going to cost. Those there are things you have to put into a LOI.”

Simpson states that having your case statement completed can make writing the LOI easier as you can take parts out of your case statement and apply them to the LOI as necessary.

It’s important that when you are writing the LOI that you make it compelling to attract the funder. Keep in mind organizations and foundations receive perhaps hundreds of LOIs daily so getting one that stands out based on a compelling story can make a difference.

“Make it compelling,” Simpson says. “Write like you are writing a feature story. Tell a story with your request."

The same principles above apply to the full proposal. Often, full proposals will require detailed information on the specific grant requested and why. Simpson states the two important aspects to keep in mind when writing the full proposal is being able to tell your story and how this grant will fulfill a need. Simpson says imagine what would happen if your organization didn’t exist and how would that impact the community you serve and why this grant is important to fulfill that need. That can help guide what you state in the proposal and how you ask for the funds to support your organization or projects.

What is in a Full Proposal?

Most grant proposals will expect the following information:

  • Executive Summary
  • Need Statement
  • Goals and Objectives
  • Project Design and Schedule
  • Evaluation and Measurement of Project’s Success
  • Project Sustainability
  • Organization Background Information
  • Budget

The Foundation Center has a simple tutorial that guides one through the process of writing a full grant proposal and it can be helpful start if you are new to the process or it can be a nice refresher if you are a veteran to the grant writing process.

Put Everything in One Egg Basket?

If you are a new nonprofit news organization, you may wonder if you should keep your grant proposal to one foundation or organization at a time. There is no reason that you can’t go to multiple entities and ask for support for the same project. It’s expected that you will by most grant-making institutions.

Simpson suggests that if you are going this route, that you disclose in your LOI or full proposal that you are seeking funds from other places and that they may not be the sole provider, and if you do have a grant from another funder already, disclose whom they are and how much they are giving. By being clear and transparent about this, the better off you will be.

Competition is Tough

Nowadays, for-profit and nonprofit news organizations are both seeking the same funds in some cases from the same foundations and organizations. This can increase the competition pool by just a bit. How do you differentiate your LOI or full proposal from the rest?

It comes back to doing your research of the specific foundations and organizations you are interested in submitting your grant idea to.

Simpson says look at the funder’s grant list, look at the specific websites of those projects they have funded and what they are doing, and try talk to the people at the foundation to find out if your proposal would be a fit before you submit it.

If you do a good job in researching the right funders for your projects or initiatives, it will show when you submit the proposal or LOI and your case is the strongest in the bunch because it matches to the kind of projects or initiatives they want to fund and support.

No Grant, What’s Next?

If you don’t receive an invitation to write a full proposal after submitting a LOI, keep seeking other places for funding. Don’t give up.

If you file a full proposal and are rejected, you can try to contact the funder to see if there is a time you can chat with them about your proposal and advice they may have about the project. Although this depends on the foundation or organization if they are open to talking with those who had their applications rejected.

Don’t give up hope. Go back to the drawing board and revisit your list of other grant opportunities. Review your case statement and see if you need to edit it or update it.

Also, look outside your front door and in your community. There are many community-based and family foundations that may also be potential places to seek funds to support your projects and initiatives.

Look Outside Your Doorstep

It’s important to realize that when grants are given, the funders want to know the people behind these projects. The less they know of you or about you, the more difficult it may be for them to see the potential about your project to fund. It’s important to get out into your local community and meet community foundations and find out about them. Let them get to know you. In the process of doing so, the chance may arise for you to find out about a grant opportunity through networking events or apply for a grant through the community foundation directly. Don’t neglect the immediate community around you that you serve. They may be the first place to consider.

For INN Members

If you are an INN member (or plan to become one), there are several grant writing resources available to you:

  • Join Basecamp. It’s a special area for INN members to access documents that are helpful for the grant writing and fundraising process.
  • Join the INN monthly conference calls. There are conference calls about fundraising and marketing for INN members monthly when members share best practices and learn new things about grants, fundraising and more.
  • Contact Irma Simpson directly for one-on-one guidance, a special benefit for INN Members only.

As stated earlier, it takes patience and time to jump into grant writing and finding the right grant that will support your organization. Don’t short change the process in any way as it will result in a poor result. What you put into the grant writing process is what you will get out of it.

Additional Resources

For more information on case statements, grant writing and grant proposal tips, see these articles:

About Amy Schmitz Weiss

Amy Schmitz Weiss is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University. Schmitz Weiss is a 2011 Dart Academic Fellow and has a PhD in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. She teaches journalism courses in basic writing and editing, multimedia, web design, data journalism, and mobile journalism. She is also the 2011-2012 Recipient of the AEJMC Bridge Grant with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that led to the creation of a mobile news app, AzteCast for the San Diego State University campus population in spring 2012. She also is a former journalist who has been involved in new media for more than a decade. She has worked in business development, marketing analysis and account management for several Chicago Internet media firms. Her research interests include online journalism, media sociology, news production, multimedia journalism, and international communication. She is also a regular blog contributor to the Investigative News Network, a resource center for community-based and nonprofit journalism.