CAMP 2013: Funding your dream project

How do you fund your dream project? These journalists offered their ideas.
How do you fund your dream project? These journalists offered their ideas.

By 2013 JAWS Fellow Jackie Zubrzycki

Lauren M. Whaley, new JAWS president, hosted Laura Amico, Erin Polgreen and Habiba Nosheen, three journalist-entrepreneurs, to talk about how they planned, funded, and executed three very different and very awesome projects.


Polgreen founded Symbolia, which combines comics and investigative reporting. Symbolia provides content and consulting to other news sites. Amico founded Homicide Watch in Washington, D.C., but has expanded her business by sharing the program Homicide Watch uses to track homicides. And Nosheen recently produced “Outlawed in Pakistan.”

Some of their tips:

Have a Partner, and Define Your Roles

Amico worked with her husband, Nosheen with a classmate, and Polgreen with a friend. All three said that having a partner made the work more manageable and fun. Finding great people for your team matters.

But it’s important to define roles and responsibilities. Nosheen and her partner set a one-pager that outlined things like what happens if the project fails, how hours and responsibilities are split, etc.

Although none of the three presenters used it, helps people find likeminded potential entrepreneurs.


“Bootstrapping” means making a personal investment of time or money in order to get the smallest possible version of your project running so you can show it to funders. All three of these projects began long before any funders got involved.

“You need to show people something before they’ll open their wallets,” Nosheen said.

Nosheen and her partner bought their tickets to Pakistan themselves, and then slowly began to find funds from various foundations, and only way later got PBS/Frontline involved.

Amico and her husband ran HomicideWatch and built its community and capabilities for years before they got any funding.

Another benefit of bootstrapping as long as you can: It allows you to get the project to a certain point without external deadlines.

Know your project inside and out

You need to be able to answer the three whys, Amico said: “Why this, why me, why now.”

Research your project’s potential reach and its natural partners. For instance, Nosheen’s project on Pakistan was funded by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and a group focused on Asia.

Connect with the people who love what you do

You also need to know your audience and what they need.

“Know the need. Understand how your user wants to interact with you,” Polgreen said. “Connect with the people who love what you do.”

Have something concrete to show

Nosheen and her partner made trailers and a short video about their project and were well into the reporting before they started presenting to funders. She said having something to show is much more convincing than having to describe the story in words again and again.

“It was easier for us to go, shoot something, and bring it back, instead of sitting in an office and writing pitch after pitch,” she said.

Have a One-Pager

Be sensitive to other people’s time. Yes, we know that there’s a lot more to the story, but, Nosheen said, “they can always ask more questions – and they will.” Nosheen and her partner had various one-pagers they could show to funders and outlets.

Have a business model.

Know your bare minimum bottom line. Polgreen talked about knowing your project’s “whole milk, chocolate milk, and skim milk budgets.” What do you need to scrape by? To thrive? She recommended Business Model Generation, a website and book that outlines business models.

Polgreen suggested avoiding nonprofit status and rather getting affiliated with a 501[c]3 or having a nonprofit branch.  Her business is set up as a for-profit S corporation.

And don’t be daunted by the idea of starting an LLC or a business. Yes, it’s complicated, and yes, you need to pay attention to deadlines, but you’ll figure it out as you go. It’s possible.

Assume you need multiple funding sources.

You should assume that you will need to find support from a variety of sources. “If we had just one funder it would’ve been pennies–nobody has that kind of money,” Nosheen said.

Polgreen suggested looking for philanthropy, subscriptions, education, ecommerce, ads, consulting, licensing or syndication. University fellowships, accelerators/incubators, angel investors, and grants can all also help beginning entrepreneurs. Sometimes private companies can help with editing or other work along the way–they like being affiliated with good projects.

Stay nimble

“Start small and be experimental for as long as possible so you don’t sink yourself,” Amico said. But, she said, there is a moment when a project turns into a business.

Set a day rate

When you’re throwing your own time into a project, set an hourly or day rate for your work – and track it.

It shows that you “value yourself in a certain way – your time is worth something,” said Nosheen. It also allows you to concretely demonstrate to funders how much you’ve invested.

Tax benefits

There are tax benefits for home businesses and working for yourself. Find them, and take advantage of them. Your home office is a write-off.

Set boundaries

All three projects were clearly labors of love. But maintaining balance of some sort is necessary.

This is where having a partner can come in: Polgreen said that she and her partner have an agreement that they do not work on Sundays. Nosheen said that having a partner as hardworking as she was allowed her to relax sometimes. Amico set mental rules and made other commitments, like tennis at 6, to help stay sane.

Invest in PR

You may think you can do the outreach yourself – but having someone to manage that part of it really works. Diane also recommended investing in media training.

Also, all three agreed that Kickstarter is WAY more time-consuming than it seems.

Some recommended funding sources: