How specific are funders about the content they want to finance?

General operating support grants, which allows a nonprofit media organization the most freedom regarding how it spends funds, was the most common type of grant cited by the nonprofit media organizations surveyed.

Most foundations (57 percent) also said they had given grants to help nonprofit media build capacity in a particular area, such as beefing up their fundraising.

At the same time, a majority of funders (59 percent) also said they make grants to fund more specific subjects, fracking as an example rather than the environment in general, or specifying coverage of breast cancer rather than women’s health in general. And 61 percent of funders say they have funded investigations into specific problems or to do a particular series of stories.

This level of specificity, as essayists Richard Tofel, Dan Green, Kathy Im and Peter Slevin all note in their essays, can be more complicated than if the money were earmarked for more general subject areas, or as unrestricted general operating funds. Would this coverage have been done had the funder not specified it? Does this kind of specificity get near or cross lines of journalistic independence? And what kind of firewalls or lines of communication are needed to make sure it doesn’t?

While these grants may be more complicated as they become more specific or targeted, most of the nonprofit media organizations surveyed said they accept them. In all, indeed, only about 20 percent of nonprofit media organizations said they do not accept grants tied to specific content.

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Perhaps the most specific kind of journalism grant is one that pays for an expose or investigation into a specific problem. In all, 41 percent of nonprofit media outlets said they received offers from funders to conduct specific investigations of this sort. Of those, more than 80 percent said they accepted such offers.

Of the 12 single issue media outlets that have been offered funding for a specific expose or look into a specific issue, all but one of those surveyed accepted the offer.

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The money also played a role in the grantees’ decision-making process. Some media organizations accepted the specific project funding saying it was important for their sustainability. Some said they had a good relationship with the funder, or wanted to establish such a relationship. A few other organizations said they initiated the specific request, or the project was already underway. Another organization said foundations often ask for proposals on specific topics, and the group applied and won such a grant.

Of the 31 nonprofit media organizations in the survey that accepted such funding, half said they have written guidelines that determine who they will accept money from.

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A smaller percentage turned down such specific project funding for various reasons, ranging from the fact they never accept funding for specific investigative stories, to a previous experience with the funder that led the news organizations to turn down the offer. Other reasons included not having the capacity to do the work at that time and the fact that the funder was such an advocate on the issue that it felt like a conflict of interest.

The small number of nonprofit media organizations who told us they turned down grants for specific content tended to be the better-financed media grantees. One respondent said their organization refuses funding for specific projects but tries to negotiate the offer into funding for a more general reporting beat that they are comfortable with. This is also the practice of ProPublica, as Tofel writes in his essay, and it has been successful making such a trade to fund its beat structure.

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