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​How (NOT) to win a journalism grant? Or most common mistakes when applying for a journalism grant

Producing complex journalistic pieces which require travelling and a higher investment of time and money may be difficult without the support of a grant. In a scenario where media outlets face decreasing revenues and journalists have their options of production limited, grants appear as a valuable source for those who aim to develop comprehensive projects. But how to get them?

Taking into account that for each grant opportunity many other qualified journalists will be competing with you, it is essential to define a strategy and prepare yourself properly before submitting your grant proposal. “If you want to win 15 thousand dollars, you better make an effort for it. Nothing is for free”, points out Wilfried Ruetten, the director of the European Journalism Centre.

During the 10th edition of the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Wilfried Ruetten gave a talk on How not to win a journalism grant, in which he touched upon recurring errors candidates commit when applying for a grant. He also gave valuable tips on how to overcome these pitfalls and make the most of your application. We share in this article the main topics discussed during his session.

© Cliff, CC BY 2.0

How to stand out and differentiate yourself from the other two hundred applicants? Here is what to avoid:

1. Not reading carefully the terms and conditions of the grant

According to Wilfried Ruetten, of a total of about 3.000 applications that the Innovation in Development Reporting (IDR) Grant Programme received in a period of three years, approximately 25% of them were not eligible. Most part of these premature declassifications could have been prevented if candidates had read closely the terms and conditions of the grant and the FAQ.

“Read it 20 times, mark it and question it”, he suggests. Frequently, it also happens that applicants read the rules and do not grasp completely what is written there. Donors tend to use in their texts lingos which come from their own background and may not be so clear for journalists.

A good strategy to make sure you understood the message that is being passed is to discuss the text with colleagues. By making questions to each other and comparing your perceptions, you will be able to know whether you are on the right track or not.

2. Using the wrong approach

Being too broad about your skills and the way the project will be conducted is a mistake that candidates repeat time and again when writing their applications. Vague statements will not demonstrate why you are qualified for the grant. Specify the approach you will use to tell the story, the skills of the team, what you already know about the locations and other details on how you will develop the production.

An important point is to assure the donors that you are able to conduct the project. As the grants come at about 20.000 euro each, it is essential to convey a sense of confidence and trust that you will deliver on what is promised. Show that you have worked with similar projects in the past or that you have the right people in your team who know what is behind the production of complex journalistic projects. By doing that, you also prevent donors of thinking you are ‘grant-eating’ or, put it differently, that you are interested in the grant just because there is money involved.

Your choice of words is also important. “Do not write things like ‘I hope I will’ or ‘if everything goes well I might be able to report’. No, you will go, you will do the report and you will be back on time and deliver it on deadline.”, emphasises EJC director.

At the same time, you need to be humble and not pass the impression that you think the production process will be easy. You may face problems with security, travels or government interference. Let us know that you are aware of the risks and difficulties involved in the development of your project. “Do not say no problem, I can wing it. No, you cannot wing it. You have to be diligent about it”, adds Ruetten.

3. Applying in the last minute

Most candidates submit their applications on the very last day, but you should not join the club. A number of unforeseen events can happen, some as trivial as technical issues: problems with the Internet connectivity or a computer break down.

In some cases, you will be required to fill an online form for your application as well. Explore its specifications in advance in order to not be surprised and find yourself running out of time. Besides gathering the required material, check the formats and volumes that are accepted, since you may need to convert and compact your docs.

“Do not rely on a best case scenario for a deadline”, says Ruetten, who suggests applicants to have all things settled at least one day before the deadline.

Tips on getting a grant

Now that you know what you should not do when applying for a grant, here are five tips from our director on what you can do to increase your chances of being selected.

  • Talk to previous winners. They can give you invaluable advice on what made them successful and what they have learned during their application process.
  • Integrate part of the language used by the donor in your application. It will give the impression that you have assimilated their message and that you are harmonising your project with their needs.
  • Adapt your CV according to the grant you are applying for. CVs are an important criteria of selection and you can emphasise that you have experience with the topic of your application by adding a few sentences about it to your standard CV.
  • Show your application to others. By doing that, you will be able to know whether the way you explain yourself makes sense to people who are not experts in your subject area.
  • Learn to deal with disappointment. Do not get too frustrated if you are not selected for a grant. Sometimes you can be awarded with an application that you think is not so impressive, while other times you believe you have a great project, but it is not selected. Keep on trying!

Thinking about applying for an IDR grant? You can do so online here. But make sure to check first the eligibility criteria and our FAQ section.

The idea for the session was developed together with Eric Karstens, consultant, grant writer, lecturer. He has also written an article on this topic. This article has been written by Sarita Reed, intern at the European Journalism Centre. Sarita graduated in journalism at UFRGS, in Brazil, and is currently a Master student in Media Culture at Maastricht University.

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