Most freelancers don’t need to be told twice to follow the money.
In today’s tightening journalism landscape, scoping out grants is crucial to making a living and buying time to pursue ambitious work. Grantmaking organizations are springboards that can propel emerging writers to new heights, as well as enable seasoned journalists to aspire to career-making stories.
The International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) is one such lighthouse. IWMF launched in 1990 to create more robust support for women journalists through training opportunities and awards. The foundation has been recognizing trailblazing journalists through its annual Courage in Journalism Award for 30 years. It has since expanded to offer women journalists across the world support for safety training, professional development, byline opportunities and reporting trips “to allow them to have a seat at the table and provide the reporting that’s really essential to achieving full democracy,” says Jin Ding, program manager at the IWMF.
Momentum has been building for gender parity in journalism — including bylines, leadership roles and coverage (along with overdue reckoning on how these all relate). “At the same time, we’re really coming from a point of lack of gender diversity,” says Ding. “I definitely see our work as even more important at this moment — to do it right, do it correctly and also to do it as fast as we can, to correct the course.”
The D.C.-based organization is committed to elevating international journalists and global stories, across mediums, that expose underreported issues and challenge traditional media narratives. Many nonprofit funders come into the space from a U.S. or Europe-centric focus, says Ding, making them less equipped to fund journalists “writing for news outlets that are not publishing in English.”
Perhaps most striking are the IWMF’s scope and scale: the organization offers 12 different grant programs, with varying thematic focuses and funders. It supported more than 200 journalists in 2019, and several IWMF programs are currently accepting applications.
Ding and I spoke about the nuts and bolts of the IWMF’s offerings — with an emphasis on its largest grant program, The Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists — and discussed what makes a grant proposal glisten in the pile. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What elements of a pitch convince you that a story is a good fit for the International Women’s Media Foundation? How would you describe your “sweet spot?”
A project taking on an undercovered issue and a story that has clear interest from audiences who would not have known about this issue otherwise. It has an impact locally, nationally or internationally in the area where the reporting is done. And then I would say that it advances the conversation on the topic, so we’re not repeating ourselves.
Talk to me about the specifics of some of your most popular programs.
The Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists is our biggest grant. We give out a quarter million dollars a year; the average grant size is between $5,000 to $10,000. The project needs to be innovative. The proposal needs to explain why this topic is important and why it is urgent now. At the same time, the journalist needs to explain why she or they are the person to do this story. We want to see this project reach people, which means it must be published somewhere. We don’t require applicants to have a firm publishing plan, but I encourage applicants to write about where they plan to take this project and where they have already pitched.
What are you looking for in the journalists you fund?
We want to see what you’ve already accomplished in your career that will help you finish this project, but at the same time, we want to know if this is challenging enough. We like journalists to go one step further; if they said, ‘I’ve done great reporting in the past for T.V. and now I’m trying to learn some skills in radio and I want to do this project on a podcast,’ we like that. The Fund for Women Journalists not only funds reporting projects, but also professional development opportunities — for example, drone photography classes or data mining workshops.
What’s the biggest difference between what a reporter would need for a grant application and a one-off longform pitch for a magazine or newspaper, in terms of selling the story?
I want to understand the answer to three questions: Why this, why now, why you? We might have questions about the application, but we have confidence in the project. Then we would advance to interviews. We do an interview round every month, even though it’s a rolling deadline. Many international journalists didn’t grow up with grant writing structures and don’t know how to write them, unless they’re Columbia Journalism School-trained. We give journalists or teams the benefit of the doubt and allow them to explain further on a Zoom call, which helps us understand more about their personality and how they’ll do the project.
What’s the typical timeline from an application, to reporting, to publication?
We usually ask for a timeline of six months to get a project ready to submit to a publication. With COVID, a lot of projects have massive delays and have been given extensions.
When you’re working with early career journalists, do you help them place the story or is it solely the reporter’s responsibility?
The responsibility falls on the reporter — but if we have the connections, we’ll help them. If a journalist has produced work for local publications and wants to try something bigger — but not out of reach — we might look at their work, see whether it makes sense and fund it. Once she has the funding, she can be more aggressive with pitching and tell them she has IWMF support. If we cannot cover the whole budget, we might cover a small portion of it and tell them to pitch somewhere else to get more funding.
When a journalist has been greenlit by IWMF and is publishing in another outlet, who becomes the editorial point person for that grantee?
I don’t in any way interfere with editorial. I give journalists a grant, and trust them to do their job.
Is that grant money intended to support journalists’ travel and reporting expenses or to serve as payment for their time?
It depends on the need of the journalist and whether they want the grant to fund their travel or use some for a stipend. We’re taking into consideration how the industry is nowadays. A lot of outlets pay upon publication. That means months and months of waiting. Many pay very little for a story that requires a lot of work. We pay 100 percent of the grant up front, once their proposal is accepted. The majority of our grantees are freelancers. I want to make sure they can make a living and don’t need to carry credit card debt in order to get there.
What’s proportion of women journalists you fund are based in the U.S. versus overseas?
In 2020, 35 percent of grantees have been North American journalists, from the U.S. and Canada.
What percent of your grants or programs focus on global reporting versus U.S.-based reporting?
This year is very different because of COVID. Traditionally, U.S. reporting has been a very small portion of our grants — probably about 20 percent. Local grants are going to be a big portion of what we fund for the foreseeable future because travel is out of the question. As we focus on local reporting, we’re encouraging journalists in one part of the world to collaborate with those in other parts of the world.
How solvent are you in the context of this recession? Are you assigning more or fewer projects?
We have at least another four-year commitment to the Fund for Women Journalists. We’ve also opened up other opportunities. We gave out $400,000 in COVID relief emergency grants during the first three months of the pandemic and recently raised more funding. That’s for journalists who literally need to pay next month’s rent and food. We have hundreds of applications in the queue, but don’t expect to be able to meet every request.
Though we have a lower number of international fellowships this year due to the pandemic, we’ve actually given out more grants this year because of these new emergency programs.
We have a United States Journalism Emergency Fund, funded by the Craig Newmark Philanthropies, which funds journalists within the U.S. to cover protests, civil unrest and the election. This supports mental health services, protective gear, destroyed equipment, legal support and all that. Our traditional IWMF Emergency Fund also supports journalists who need urgent psychological or medical services, temporary relocation in the event of threat or crisis, and legal aid. There’s the Black Journalists Therapy Relief Fund, a new emergency program we recently absorbed.
What’s the ratio of grant applications you receive to those you accept?
We accept about 5 percent for the Fund for Women Journalists. Last year, we accepted about 25 journalists into that program. I really don’t want anyone to feel discouraged about that. Receiving rejection is so normal. If you’ve gotten rejected twice, apply again. Anyone who reaches out to me for feedback will receive it.
IWMF has a ton of different grants. How does each grant program shape what you look for in pitches?
The Fund for Women Journalists has its own committee. We have international committee members from different backgrounds, including members from South Africa, India and Malaysia. We are working with global journalists or editors with experience in those regions to consider those implications.
There might be a pitch I read and think is interesting, but a committee member might say, ‘This is in my country and this is not a topic. Or this is something we have read many times in a local media outlet.’ I read a majority of the Fund for Women Journalism pitches as a screening process for eligibility, but I’m not the one making decisions.
For the Kim Wall Memorial Fund, we work with Kim Wall’s family. For other reporting grants, interviews are done and grants are judged within IWMF. Our IMWF program team is also diverse and comes from underrepresented groups. I’m Asian; we have journalists who are Sudanese and Latina. It’s interesting to see people who come from different backgrounds have completely different takes on project pitches. That’s very valuable for us.
What types of stories would you love to see more of?
I really want to see women journalists challenge themselves in their reporting. If they are pairing up with someone and submitting as a team, our committee loves to see a mentorship component where a veteran journalist is working with a less experienced journalist, and is helping to guide her in the process of getting the story published. We also love local stories. I want to see journalists report on stories that have an impact on the community, especially with COVID happening. We see the value of local reporting that really can drive conversations on a lot of topics.
Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.