What you need to know about the $1 million INNovation Fund

Nonprofit news publishers are true believers, committed to informing the public and strengthening democracy. But they are also business owners who have to meet the same economic reality facing for-profit media and technology organizations.

At Knight Foundation and the Investigative News Network, we believe that innovation is key to sustainability in the nonprofit news and public media space. So together, we have launched the Knight-funded INNovation Fund to help online news providers diversify their revenues, invest in their businesses and experiment with technology innovations to help increase their prospects for long-term viability.

We hope that this fund will encourage experimentation, collaboration, lesson sharing and above all increase the ability for these organizations to have long-term, positive impacts on the communities that they serve.

The fund totals $1 million over two years. Below is a Q&A to help you decide if the INNovation Fund is right for you.

Q: Who can apply?
A: Nonprofit, online news organizations in the United States and public media organizations. Organizations that don’t have their own 501(c)(3) exemption but operate under the fiscal sponsorship of a 501(c)(3) can also apply.

Q: What about projects that are not in the US?
A: Projects must be part of a US 501(c)(3) nonprofit or be a fiscally sponsored project of a US 501(c)(3) project.

Q: How much are the grants?
A: We will accept grant proposals for around $35,000 but expect grants to average about $25,000.

Q: Will you fund content projects?
A: Grants will be limited to investments in sustainability and initiatives that show how audience engagement can translate into revenue. We’re open to all ideas, but proposals must stipulate how the innovation will help the organization increase and diversify revenue, or increase audience size and engagement.

Q: What are the deadlines?
A: The online application form and its deadline are posted on the INNovation Fund page and on the front page of Journo.biz.

Q: How should the projects measure success?
A: In each case it will be up to the project to determine what metrics make sense.  The metrics must be quantifiable, verifiable and sharable for future guidance on similar initiatives. For instance, if a project aims to increase audience engagement, it could track the number of people who sign up for newsletters or attend events, not just general Web traffic.

Q: How can a recipient spend grant money?
A: The grants can be used to help an organization cover hard costs for any “shovel-ready” project that they believe may help them diversify their revenues either in the short or long term.  In this case “shovel-ready” means projects that have already sourced necessary resources and secured firm estimates of costs.

The types of projects we expect to fund include but are not limited to:

  • Events: e.g. money to hire an event coordinator, to secure space, for marketing and to cover costs of selling tickets
  • Technology: e.g. money to build a mobile app, as well as market it
  • Sales Development: e.g. money to hire a sales consultant to develop a corporate sponsorship or local advertising sales offerings and materials
  • Services development: e.g. money to develop and create a data or news application or development services for third-party paying customers
  • Membership development: e.g. money to hire a street team to go to local civic events to garner sign-ups for a newsletter or membership product
  • Operations development: e.g. money to hire a business consultant to review internal costs or to develop a plan to reduce overhead and third-party expenditures

Q: Who will decide the winners?
A: INN’s management team will review the applications and make recommendations to the INN board to pick winners.

Q: Will my project be made public?
A: If you are selected as a winner of an INNovation Fund grant, INN will document on its website and possibly on other platforms a public profile of your project, and update it at the end with “lessons learned” and results. You will be expected to share your experiences and results, the good, the bad and the ugly. We learn a lot even when we fail.

Q: What about the intellectual property created by the INNovation Fund projects?
A: All intellectual property  for any work, including technology or systems developed under this fund will be shared with INN and open sourced for use by the sector.  Example: if a new piece of software or mobile app is developed, the source code for them would be posted publicly and available for use under an open source license.

Q: What questions should my application answer?
A:  Applications will only be accepted via the online form, which you can find here.  The application includes such questions as:

  • What are you proposing and how does it fit with your organization’s sustainability plan?
  • What do you hope to learn from this experiment?
  • How will you know if the initiative is successful?  And how will you measure success (please provide specific objective metrics)?  Where have you seen this idea work before or is this new?
  • What resources (internal and external) do you need to conduct the initiative?  Have these resources done this type of work before?  Do you need assistance in locating resources to make this a reality?
  • Please provide a line-item budget (you may provide a standard profit and loss template for this)

Q: How can I apply?
A: Complete the online form at INNovation Application Form, where you can also download a PDF version of the application and budget template.  Keep in mind that we will need as much detail as possible. Should INN need more detail a representative will contact you.

Q: What if I have questions?
A: Submit questions online via a form at http://InvestigativeNewsNetwork.org/INNovation. You may also request an appointment to speak with someone at INN about your proposed project.

Q: How can I talk further with the INN and Knight teams about the INNovation Fund?
A: Representatives from INN and Knight Foundation will be available via a live Google Hangout upon request.

Please submit questions online or via Twitter using the hashtag #INNFund.