Five ways microgrants help fund journalism

byMargaret Looney
Jan 30, 2012 in Journalism Basics

Million dollar ideas can yield tremendous results, but the cash-strapped world of journalism is catching on to the fact that thousand-dollar thoughts are nothing to scoff at.

The Knight Foundation joined forces with the Institute for Higher Awesome Studies, a nonprofit that funds projects that are just that - awesome, everything from extra large hammocks in parks to rooftop apiaries and now - news. The collaboration provides US$1,000 grants monthly for local news initiatives.

IJNet followed a live chat organized by Poynter and came up with these few reasons why microgrants are where it's at for entrepreneurial, freelance or professional journalists.

  1. It's okay to think small. US$1,000 doesn't seem like a lot of money compared to most gargantuan grants nowadays, but not everyone has the macrogrant spark or the resources to carry out ideas on that large of a scale. Microgrants are meant to be incubators or catalysts to give seed ideas traction or they can supplement grants when you need just a little more support. UC Berkeley graduate student Bo Hee Kim is using microgrant from the New Media Women Entrepreneurs program to create a mobile site prototype for the journalism school's three hyperlocal sites.

  2. But be prepared for big results. Chancellor of the Institute for Higher Awesome Studies, Christina Xu gave the lowdown on microgrants to the Poynter Institute in a recent live chat. She explains that a microgrant is "enough to encourage someone with a great idea to build a prototype which they can then show to bigger funders.” That's exactly how the Serval Project worked out, a project that started with a US$1,000 Awesome grant to build a Mesh Potato mobile network giving off-the-grid communities a voice, especially in natural disaster events. The prototype garnered ABC's attention in Australia and the project's founder earned a US$360,000 grant to continue research.

  3. No restrictions. You'll need a hefty pair of scissors to cut through the red tape that is the bureaucracy of most grant-giving foundations. Between criteria abounding and the proposal process turning nightmarish, your great idea could become stifled. Massive nonprofits can afford to take on large grants, with the resources to make sure the money is spent on schedule, but the low-pressure approach of small grant models like that of the Awesome Foundation carry little to no restrictions with a high sustainability level.

  4. Take on side projects. Venture off the traditional journalism path and try something new without getting bogged down with deadlines. Xu said microgrants can benefit journalists in this way because "it gives them a space to experiment with other models of getting a story out there other than the traditional route, or even with other ideas of how news can circulate in a community." Not many journalists have the time or resources to hand out sandwiches to homeless people in exchange for stories, but this microgrant-funded project did just that.

  5. Pay it forward. Microgrants open philanthropic doors to the general public, aside from wealthy individuals and foundations. If grants are funded from trustees as per the Awesome Foundation model, each donor only needs to contribute US$100 a month for a project with high potential for success and small risk for failure. Journalists could contribute to stories they may not have time to pursue but that need to be told.

Do you think the microgrant model is a sustainable solution for entrepreneurial journalism?