Programs/Publications

Feature Article from the November 2012 AIRblast

Digging for Dollars

By Amie Miller

Back in the early 1980s, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting helped form an independent nonprofit called Development Exchange, Inc. — now just DEI — to help public radio stations build and expand their fundraising capacity. Today, DEI assists stations in all aspects of fundraising, from pledge drives to major giving.

Last spring, AIR partnered with DEI to offer fundraising mentorships for independent producers. DEI's Amie Miller has more than 20 years experience working as a grant writer and consultant with independent producers, stations, and national networks. This year, she mentored four AIR indies, helping them understand the grant-seeking process. Here, she's distilled some of her advice.


Hardly anyone becomes an independent producer because they love to fundraise. And yet, independent producers who like to pay the bills have to find ways to raise money. Foundation grants can be an important part of the funding mix.

If you haven't done it before (or even if you have), seeking a grant can feel daunting. But the good news is: as independent producers, you already have a lot of the skills you need to secure grants.

You know how to dig. Let's say you have a project that you want to do. So, you research the story angles and the potential sources. You gather as much information as you can before you go out into the field. These are the same skills you need to identify potential funding sources. You'll need to research which foundations might be interested in your project and then learn as much about them as you can before making contact. You'll want to gather answers to questions including:

• How does the foundation describe itself and its work?

• What does the foundation actually fund? (Some foundations list their grants on their website; in other cases, you'll need to look at their 990 tax form, available at sites such as the National Center for Charitable Statistics.)

• Are there geographical restrictions or other restrictions — e.g., will the foundation make grants to fiscal agents or must you have 501(c)(3) status?

 • How big are typical grants? (You don't want to ask for $50,000 from a foundation that typically maxes out at $15,000.)

• Does the foundation have deadlines?

• Does the foundation take phone calls or letters of inquiry?

• Even if the foundation has not supported media in the past, has it funded organizations or projects that are "like-minded"?

• Who is on the foundation's staff and board?

This research isn't hard to do, though it does take some time. Happily, there are some great resources to help you along the way:

The Grant Center, a CPB-funded collaboration between DEI and the Association of Public Television Stations, works to connect public radio and television stations with grant opportunities nationwide. The Grant Center has created nearly 400 online profiles of foundation and federal grant opportunities relevant to public media and also distributes a monthly newsletter with information about upcoming grant opportunities. It also offers webinars, such as Understanding Grantseeking and a six-part series, Strategies for Grantseeking Success. The Grant Center's webinars are open to independent producers as well as stations, and all past webinars are available via the online archive. Finally, the Grant Center offers a free, custom, foundation prospect research service that can be requested by stations.

The Foundation Center, which compiles information about foundations and grantmaking nationwide, has "cooperating collections" based in many public libraries across the country. These collections offer free access to online search tools, print directories, and, of course, knowledgeable librarians.

You know how to talk to people. Independent producers travel the country and the globe talking to all kinds of people. You know how to ask questions. You know how to listen. These are key skills in grantseeking, where success often hinges on building strong relationships with funders. Sending a letter of inquiry or a proposal cold is much less likely to result in a grant from most funders than sending something after you've made a personal connection.

So, how do you get those connections? In some cases, you can contact a foundation staff person directly and ask for a meeting or a conversation. If that's not an option (e.g., if the foundation won't take calls or unsolicited proposals), then talk to the people you already know. Look at your network of contacts and their network of contacts. Consider who might know someone who could open a door for you. I worked with an independent producer once who developed a social relationship with a (well-connected) local woman who had a keen interest in the producer's work. After having coffee one day, this woman whipped out her BlackBerry and sent emails to people she knew at a couple of national foundations telling them about the producer's great work and asking them to have a conversation with the producer. This is the way to open doors.

Another great way to cultivate relationships with foundations is to tap their expertise. Large foundations, especially, are often staffed by content experts. Because of their grantmaking, they are well-acquainted with the players in the field, including people and organizations doing some very innovative work. Not only can they provide insights, but they may also be able to help you connect with other organizations that can extend the reach and impact of your work.

When you do gain access to a foundation, talk with them about your project, of course, but also really listen. Your goal is to build a relationship — so listen to what they're interested in, what they like about public media, how they'd like to see the community more engaged, and what information they want to see in a proposal. (But be sure you've read the guidelines first, so the foundation knows you do your homework!)

You know how to tell a story. This is a huge advantage. Many grantseekers are not skilled at telling a compelling story about (or making "the case" for) the work they do. Fundamentally, grantmakers care about one thing: how will our grants make the world better? Your job is to tell the story of why and how your work will do this. But remember: just putting good radio out into the world is usually not enough. You need to be able to explain why your work matters to real people in real communities — and how it converges with the specific goals and interests of the foundation. How does your work tie to important community issues? How does it fill a need? How will you reach and engage people? How will you know that you've had an impact?

What's more, nothing makes a foundation happier than a strong story of how their grant made a difference. Too often, grantseekers get a grant and then neglect to engage the foundation again until it's time to ask for more money. Grantseekers also often forget that many foundations want (and need) to share the stories of their impact with their own constituencies — which may include board members, donors, family members, policymakers, and the broader community. You can help them meet their needs and make your relationship even stronger by:

• Seeking out opportunities to stay in touch with the funder during the course of your project. This could include, for instance, inviting the funder to events associated with your production or simply sending them occasional links to your content.

• Providing the funder with updates and an engaging narrative report about what you did and why it mattered. Consider the report something of a production in itself.

You're persistent. And this is critical. Getting a grant can take a long time. Sometimes the process is straightforward and can move as quickly as a few months. Other times, it takes a few years. But a strong, long-term relationship with a grantmaker is worth the effort. As one development officer at a statewide radio network said recently about foundation grantseeking, "No doesn't mean never." In the grantmaking world, "no" often means "not now." If you have researched the foundation and think that your work is a genuine fit, then keep looking for opportunities to engage.

You can live with ambiguity. There were moments during the mentorships when I got a little embarrassed by the number of times I responded to questions with the phrase, "It depends." But it is a fact that very little about grantseeking is set in stone. Certainly, there are good practices to follow, but there's also a lot of variation, a lot of ambiguity, and a healthy dose of serendipity. Sometimes a foundation that looks like a great match doesn't pan out, or sometimes, despite your best efforts, you just can't gain access. Sometimes, a door opens up through a chance acquaintance. Some foundations like phone calls; others hate them. Some say they don't fund media, but actually do. One of the mentees I worked with made contact with a funder and discovered that this contact was a regular listener to her production and happened to be a former journalist. They met, talked, and the producer wound up getting a $25,000 grant. This was partly good luck, but it is not atypical of how grants often happen. The truth is that foundations are just as quirky as people and that's why it's so important to get to know the people who run them.

The bottom line? Grants are a viable funding option for independent producers — if you are willing to sink some time and effort into conducting research, telling your story, and building strong relationships with funders. It may be slow (and frustrating at times), and grants will probably never cover all of your funding needs, but they sure can help. And you'll meet some interesting people along the way.

AIR welcomes inquiries about republishing this feature article in its entirety or in part. Please contact us at airblast@airmedia.org.