Grants & Funding

How I Got That Grant: IWMF’s Fund for Women Journalists Grant

August 13, 2018

By David Walker

Since 2015, the International Women’s Media Foundation has been awarding two dozen grants per year, averaging nearly $10,000 each, to women journalists working in all media. Awarded in two rounds each year (spring and fall), the grants are supported by the Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists. “I like to say it’s a fund for anything and everything under the sun,” says IWMF’s senior program officer Ann Marie Valentine. In addition to providing support for specific projects, the grant is also available for professional development, including workshops, classes and conferences.

Past grant winners include Sim Chi Yin, Amanda Rivkin, Daniella Zalcman, Shiho Fukada and Tanya Habjouqa. Last fall, IWMF awarded photojournalist Julia Rendleman of Richmond, Virginia, $7,650 to support work on her project about the effects of the opioid crisis and anti-drug policies on women and families.

Valentine says Rendleman’s proposal showed that she had the trust of her subjects, which “would enable her to approach the story in a compelling and nuanced way.” Rendleman was also realistic about the challenges she faced and how she would tackle them, and she communicated how her work would stand out from other work about the opioid crisis, Valentine says. (Read the full text of Rendleman’s proposal here.)

Rendleman says she was originally working on a story about an affordable housing crisis in her own community, when she realized that the opioid crisis was a roadblock to affordable housing for many families. Having seen stories about the crisis by photographers embedded with police and EMTs, Rendleman says she wanted to approach the story from “the point of view of people who were suffering from dependency, specifically women.” And she wanted to avoid the usual images of needles and people nodding out, she says, “because [a subject] I was following said, ‘I’m not my addiction. I’m this whole person. It has totally taken over my life, but I was so many things before this addiction.’ And that resonated with me.”

Rendleman says she applies for eight to 12 grants per year. She has previously won grants from Getty Images and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The more specific her story idea is, the more successful her grant application is likely to be, she says. “I’ve learned to be more specific and educated about my story before I apply for the grant. I know what I’m going to be reporting on and I’m knowledgeable about the subject.”

© Julia Rendleman

While two of Deborah Crowder’s daughters are in jail because of heroin addiction, she cares for four grandchildren in her three-bedroom apartment. Another daughter, along with the daughter’s fiancé and his three sons, also live with Crowder. © Julia Rendleman

Rendleman has also started hiring a freelance copy editor to proofread her applications. When grants attract hundreds of applicants, jurors are looking for any reason—including punctuation and spelling mistakes—to narrow the choices. Rendleman also relies on a copy editor to make sure her proposals start with a compelling lead. “You need to start with something strong and get [jurors] who are slouching in their chair after reading 200 applications to say, ‘Wait, this is interesting.’”

IWMF puts a 650-word limit on its Fund for Women Journalists grant proposals. Rendleman started her proposal with anecdotes about the lives of specific women. But what really made the difference in her application, she believes, was her phone interview.

“From the time I applied to the time I did the phone interview”—which was about six weeks—“I never stopped working on my story. There had been huge developments. Instead of just working on women’s stories involved in the opioid crisis I was [by then] embedded in jail, where women were going through a recovery program. I was following two sisters. And so I think I demonstrated that I was committed to this story, regardless of the funding…and it demonstrated how much tighter my focus had become.”

During the 35- to 40-minute phone interview, Rendleman was asked about coverage of the opioid crisis by other photographers, and how her story would be different. She was also asked why she needed funding for a project she was already working on without outside help. Her response was that the grant would free up time by helping her cover childcare costs and enable her to decline freelance assignments that interfered with the project. Rendleman was also asked during the phone interview about precautions she was taking on a story that posed risks to her personal safety.

The phone interview also gave Rendleman the opportunity to tell jurors that was interested in publishing her story, and Everyday Incarceration wanted her to do an Instagram takeover. “At the time I [submitted] the application, I didn’t have a commitment to publish. It is a question on the application, and I definitely wanted [IWMF] to hear that had changed,” she says. (One of Rendleman’s contacts at Open Society Foundations had put her in touch with an editor at who happened to be looking for a story like Rendleman’s about the opioid crisis.)

Valentine says IWMF awards grants to a lot of applicants who don’t have commitments from publishers. But she says, “The commitment from publishers always makes applications really strong.” Asked if there are common mistakes applicants make, Valentine says, “We get a lot of proposals that try to do a little too much without demonstrating a track record of completing a project on a big scale.” A proposal to produce a series of stories, a website, plus videos and photos and start a podcast “shows the idea needs thinking through a little more,” she says.

Her advice to applicants is to explain clearly what they want the outcome of the project to be, why the project stands out among projects about the same subject, what audiences will be interested in the project, as well as what the challenges will be and how applicants will handle them. And she adds, “The best thing [applicants] can do is look back at what we’ve funded before…We’re looking for applications that are fresh and bring new ideas.

“We like to see projects that are collaborative, that have a good sense of who the audience might be, that are ambitious and focused on under-reported stories, [and] that take a big global issue like climate change and break it down [to show] how this big issue affects communities on local level. A lot of our programs focus on supporting project that challenge the traditional media narrative about something, so those are projects that stand out as well.”

Valentine also says persistence can pay. Some grantees have finally won substantial grants after applying “three or four times.”

The deadlines for IWMF Fund for Women Journalists grant applications are in April and August. More information about the application process is available at the IWMF website.

Related Articles:
How I Got That Grant: The $5,000 Inge Morath Award

Q&A: How to Get Funding From The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Sexism in the Photo Industry: Can’t We Do Better?

Photographers and Photo Editors Strive to Foster Diversity in the Photo Industry

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