Articles

To write a grant, I was both brave and naive: Here are five things I learned.

August 27, 2018—Editor’s Note: Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is the founder and CEO of Lantigua Williams & Co., a podcast network whose original shows include 70 Million, Latina to LatinaDemocracy in Color,and Shot Caller. 70 Million premiers August 27, 2018. The network’s new show, Key Conversations with Phi Beta Kappa, will premiere September 10, 2018.

Shortly after starting her production company, she took another leap of faith by applying for a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Read on for her top five tips on getting that grant.


By Juleyka Lantigua-Williams

First, a confession: the grant that Lantigua Williams & Co. received from the Safety & Justice Challenge at the MacArthur Foundation was the first grant I applied for mere weeks after starting the company. Applying came down to equal parts courage and naivete, which I now believe is the necessary combination for asking anyone to financially support your ideas.

1. Study and take notes.

I covered criminal justice as a staff writer at The Atlantic, a role that was funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation which I helped write. There I became familiar with the very high standards that the Foundation sets for its grantees and the work they support. So the first thing I did was study everything on the program’s websites: every funded proposal, every municipality, and every specific program supported by the Foundation. I focused on themes and intersections, on areas of common ground and places where grantees differed—all with the intent of giving shape to 70 Million, our open-source podcast about criminal justice reform.

Soon I began to see openings where a meaningful intervention could be made, one that brought together reporting, technology, and education. Naturally, I wanted something I could pitch as audio since I’d just started a podcast network. I began jotting down ideas as I learned more about the programs already being funded. I cross-referenced those ideas with podcasts formats that I enjoyed and that I could see myself producing. I wrote several trial pitches and read them aloud to test how they may come across, and I poked holes in them along the way.

Things I asked myself included: Who would listen to this? How would I get the podcast to them? Would it be opinion or reporting? Would it have a mission or just be “edutainment”? How many people would I need to make it happen? Would someone other than a foundation support it? Would people who listen to similarly themed shows listen? The questions never really stopped.

After several weeks of this back and forth with myself, I got the courage to send an email to someone I’d met two years earlier who was connected to the Foundation. The message was simple: a greeting, a brief reminder of who I was, a mention of the company I’d just started, a nod to the current work the Foundation was funding, and a hint at an idea I wanted to run by her.

Then I took a depressive nap.

2. Identify and cultivate the right contacts.

When I heard back from the contact, I was overjoyed and so thankful. She was gracious and suggested a call in a few weeks. I think it helped that she and I had had several interactions in  which we spoke at length about criminal justice reporting and reform. I was not just someone who’d asked for her card that one time. Repeat contact, even if it’s brief, can go a long way. A good way to meet people in any field is to attend conferences and symposia sponsored by foundations or other similar organizations. There’s a lot of good will shared at those events since everyone has similar goals in mind.

As far a making an impression that the person will recall later on when you follow up, I suggest knowing something about their work or past accomplishments. A compliment is never wasted. I also suggest asking people who the best person to talk to at their organization might be. Doing so takes a little bit of the pressure off of them since you appear to be asking for guidance and not a favor. That person may not be the best contact for what you’re trying to achieve, but an intro from them could go a long way.

Admittedly, being a journalist helps in overcoming the natural fear of speaking to strangers. But, as any reporter will attest, nothing beats preparation. If you know you want to talk to a keynote speaker or a panelist at a conference after their event, read up on them and pay close attention to their presentation.

3. Know your project by heart.

Once a date was set for our phone conversation, I went to work preparing to answer every imaginable question about my idea and about podcasting. In the process, I gained so much knowledge about the industry and its mechanics. I also defined and refined my initial idea as I tried to strengthen it with research, organization, and a timeline for making it happen. Again, another reporter skill came in handy: anticipating a subject’s answers and preparing follow up questions.

In this case, I tried to forecast questions and prepare answers. Questions included: How would you distribute this podcast? Where would you report it? Who would report and produce it? What would the format be? Are there other similar shows already? What resources would you need? How much time would this take? How would you get it to people already in the field (researchers, activists, law enforcement)? What organizations might partner with you to spread the word about it? How will you measure success? How will you track usage? How much would the whole thing cost?

4. Practice the concept paper and application process.

When I was invited to submit a concept paper, I had no idea what that was. As soon as I hung up the phone, I learned all about the concept paper, its components, and best practices. I also read a few papers in similar fields to get a sense of the language I’d need to use. I discerned that it had to be a hybrid of light academic and smart marketing language.

Writing the 10-page concept paper took two weeks. I wrote and revised. And did nothing else. I read sections aloud as I paced in my home office. I tried adding pictures and graphs, but in the end it was the narrative that was the most compelling. Writing the concept paper was one of the most important exercises as a new creative business owner because it forced me to interrogate my ideas and my intentions. I had to set them all down for other people to review and, basically, assign a value to them. So I pushed myself to be clear and concise, to illustrate with facts and explain with analysis. Everything had to appear feasible, scalable, and finishable.

After I submitted the concept paper, some weeks passed by. Thankfully, I hadn’t stopped trying to get clients and other work for the company, so I was building a roster at the same time. Weeks later, I received an email saying that I was formally invited to apply for a grant.

I took another depressive nap.

I was overwhelmed by happiness, absolutely. But I was also fearful that I would not get a grant, that, after months of writing and submitting, I would end up right back where I started. So I told no one (just my husband since I had to explain the late nights at my desk). Now that I have applied for other grants, I can share that all of them require some essential elements: a very thorough and detailed budget, a realistic timeline, a description of all the roles necessary, a plan for disseminating the work that results from the grant, any supplemental financial support that will be available, an explanation of why you are the right person to lead this effort, and sample work as evidence of having completed similar projects. For a couple of months I went through the Foundation’s incredibly thorough proprietary application process. More weeks went by before I learned that we’d been approved. That day I cried.

5. Take care of yourself.

Getting that “yes” was one of the first substantive indications that the huge leap I’d taken in leaving my career to start Lantigua Williams & Co. was worth it. That I was not just a dreamer with a big idea. That other people saw some of the same potential I saw in producing a solutions-journalism series that celebrated the residents and communities doing their part to mitigate the damage wrought by the systems of criminal injustice in the US.

While I waited to hear back, I dove into work on other projects. That was the only way to continue building the company. I had to ramp up my efforts in meeting clients, sending pitches and writing proposals, and reaching out to friends in media for referrals. The daily to-do list cloned itself every morning, but I was happily exhausted and loving every minute of it. When I wasn’t at my desk, I made time to play UNO with my kids, make nice dinners for my family, go for walks by myself, and call far-flung friends to hear about their lives. All of it added up to finding a north star to follow as I thought about how else might I fund my podcast idea. After writing the full grant application, I was so committed to it that I was ready to keep looking for a way. Thankfully, the Safety and Justice Challenge honored the proposal with their support.

And so today, August 27, 70 Million premieres and I will probably take a nap from all the stress that will be released after over a year of hard work with the most amazing team of collaborators I could dream of: Jen Chien, Luis M. Gil, Mitzi Miller, Kate Krosschell, Oluwakemi Aladesuyi, Amy Alexander, Jesse Alejandro Cottrell, Ruxandra Guidi, Heidi Shin, Maria Murriel, Nissa Rhee, Ryan Katz, Liza Veale, Nadege Green and Daniel Rivero. We’d love to hear from you: hello@lantiguawilliams.com or @LanWilCo.


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