Funders Confidential panel in International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy in early April attempted to expose the often-mysterious process that is how funders and foundations choose which projects they are willing to support. The panel, organised by the European Journalism Center, consisted of four panelists from foundations across the globe. Stephanie Reuter, Director of the German Rudolf Augstein Foundation, presented the viewpoint of a smaller family foundation. Molly de Aguair, Managing Director of the News Integrity Initiative, spoke about the experiences of the American-based project. Nienke Venema, Managing Director of the Democracy and Media Foundation (Stichting Democratie en Media), a Dutch foundation, and Miguel Castro, Strategic Media Partnerships Officer from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke towards the interests and processes behind funding that comes from larger foundations. The hope of the panel was to facilitate transparency and a mutually- beneficial conversation among funders and grantees.
Panelists were asked to shed light on what the methods of selection at their respective organizations were. Both Reuter and Venema worked for foundations that accepted open calls and applications at various times throughout the year, while Castro, at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, accepted proposals from a variety of intermediaries with open calls or from grantees directly. Castro highlighted the importance of spending an abundant amount of time outlining the goals, potential risks, and parameters of a project that a foundation is interested in funding. He stated that, unlike some of the small foundations represented on the panel, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation can take up to a year conversing with grantees, developing a mutually beneficial relationship, and defining the framework of a project. He added that this sweet spot of mutual benefit can only be reached, in his opinion, when a project is owned 50/50 by a funder and a grantee. All agreed that this initial relationship building period is essential, although not all projects or funders have the capacity to take a year to complete it. All four panelists then clarified that the initial decision to fund a project should be made quickly, and the relationship building and parameter defining phase should follow, and be lengthier, if time allows.
The funders in the panel also delved into what in an application for funding makes a project or grantee stand out. Venema highlighted the importance of being aware and open about the potential risks a project may entail. To her, this demonstrated a knowledge of the potential scenarios for projects. Similarly, Reuter mentioned the importance of the people behind the project as well: diverse teams with bold ideas, who are passionate about the subject being addressed, are solution oriented, and come with a network behind them. She went on to say that knowing one’s place among other projects with similar aims is highly valued. De Aguiar highlighted the importance of being an excellent collaborator as a grantee. She mentioned that projects that have failed to receive renewed funding for in the past have mostly suffered from teams that are not good collaborators. Castro mentioned that he is impressed when a grantee moves beyond merely promising to produce high quality work at a large volume. He mentioned that grantees may work to include their ultimate goal, who the project will impact, and how will they produce the large numbers of content promised. When grantees do the legwork, Castro surmised, “We are already halfway there.”
Funders are looking for diverse teams with bold ideas, who are passionate about the subject being addressed, are solution oriented, and come with a network behind them.
There was a lengthy discussion as to how funders could go above and beyond usual funding practices. Venema has described the “funder plus approach” that is seen as a hot issue in the current European funding world. It suggests that funders should go beyond merely giving money and provide their grantees with other resources and potentially beneficial network connections. When asked how funders could best employ this approach, de Aguair stressed their “power to convene” among potential possibilities. She claims that because funders are often in close contact with government officials and other funders, they could bring all parties together to help facilitate future interactions or policies to be made. Reuter mentioned a funder’s ability to provide grantees with the resources that they may need to ensure their project’s success, but that this could only be possible when honest conversations between funders and grantees are made possible. Venema reported on her foundation’s practice of “meetups” with grantees and other funders, but highlighted the potential tension between funders, who feel obligated to provide these extra resources, and grantees, who feel obligated to attend events solely because they are receiving funding from the organisation offering them.
Additionally, funders discussed the potential difficulties that they face internally. Both de Aguair and Venema mentioned how grateful they were to be surrounded by a supportive board and to have the autonomy to make decisions themselves, but acknowledged the difficulties that internal processes can pose. Reuter highlighted the importance of keeping in mind as a grantee that a board may be more risk averse than a project manager, and the potential struggles that this risk poses to those trying to fund as many projects as they can. Castro noted the complexity of navigating the legal systems and requirements that giving large grants can entail. As Venema mentioned during this conversation, funders felt that, “Giving money is a lot harder than you’d think.”
Members of the audience also inquired about the percentage of each foundations grants that are given to new grantees instead of renewals. Statistics varied with each foundation, but all except for Castro cited a number close to, or over, half of their portfolio. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation cited that roughly a quarter of their grants go to new grantees each year. Funders also listed resources for knowledge sharing among journalism organizations, and discussed the current issues being addressed in Africa including the need for more media funding in an area where simply satisfying basic needs often takes precedence in the world of charity and grant giving. Finally, the panelists addressed questions regarding what they believe to be “coming next” in journalism philanthropy. Venema suggested that there may be room for an infrastructural change that would promote the funding of activism in journalism.
Overall, lighthearted conversation allowed funders to illuminate the workings of their internal processes in terms of grant applications, review boards, and desired actions from grantees themselves. In turn, grantees were given ample opportunity to inquire about and come to understand the grant giving process.