3. Donor engagement

Module three of the GFMD MediaDev Fundraising Guide.


Large agencies invest significant time and effort into attempting to influence the donor community and to set the agenda for donor funding.

What makes this particularly challenging is that donor programmes are usually long-term and fairly inflexible.

Being able to have an impact on the decision-making process is sometimes a question of being at the right place at the right time.

Increasingly, however, donors are consulting the development community about current needs and priorities and some commit considerable resources to conducting regular needs assessments and mapping exercises.

One caveat about donor engagement is ensuring that you keep a proper distance from the actual formulation of Terms of Reference or programmatic documents. Other agencies are quick to cry foul if they perceive that a competitor has had undue influence over – or previous insight into – a specific funding programme.

pageCall for proposals & terms of reference

On paper, donors claim to be open and transparent. In practice, many are reluctant to engage too closely with hopeful grantees and prefer to keep them at arm’s length.

Often the challenge is reaching anyone within a donor agency who has real decision-making powers. Desk officers rarely make strategic decisions and their job is to implement procedures established by senior stakeholders at headquarters.

Types of donor

Not all donors fit neatly into categories but in broad terms, the following types of donors are relevant to the media development sector:

Government agencies

These donors are often linked to (or part of) the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the given country.

Their job is to fund programmes that reflect or complement the national foreign policy and this funding is either channelled through diplomatic missions or disbursed through regional programmes.

There was a time when government agencies gave the bulk of their funding to organisations of the same nationality but this is no longer the case. However, it is true to say that they are often more accessible for organisations from the same country due to existing networks and physical or professional proximities.

The government agencies most active in the field of media development are:

The two key US agencies which support media development are worthy of special mention:

Increasingly, USAID appears to be reverting to its time-honoured practice of offering very large, multi-year grants, primarily in Eastern Europe. However, it also runs grant-giving programmes through US Embassies.

There has long been a perception that the lion’s share of the larger grants go to a handful of US agencies but there are signs that this situation is changing.

Most applications are made through the US government portal and applications tend to be complex and time-consuming.

For media development agencies, the most relevant State Department programmes are those channelled through:

  • The Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor (DRL)

  • The Global Engagement Center (GEC)

The GEC is a recent addition to the donor firmament and has launched a series of ambitious programmes with a strong focus on tackling disinformation and state-sponsored propaganda.

Generally speaking, the volume of work attached to writing DRL and GEC applications is relatively small.

pageGovernment agencies


As a rule, foundations are more approachable and maintain a closer relationship with grantees than government agencies.

It is fair to say that their priorities and spheres of interest are more consistent than those of state-funded bodies since they do not answer to political paymasters.

That said, programmes run by foundations tend to be oversubscribed and (with the exception of the leading players such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) the size of grants they offer is usually modest.

Some play a vital role in supporting local organisations over a period of many years and enjoy high levels of credibility due to their local knowledge and expertise.


UN agencies

For media projects, the most common ports of call are:

Many disburse grants through local missions, focusing on areas such as training, advocacy and programme development.

The funding ceilings are generally modest and the administrative burden can be disproportionately high.

Some of the calls for proposals are unrealistic about what can be achieved for the amount of funding on offer.

pageUN agencies

Other international bodies

International organisations such as the OSCE and the World Bank are known to give small amounts of funding for needs assessments, training workshops and projects focusing on legal or regulatory frameworks.

These sometimes come as a result of direct approaches and sometimes through calls for proposals.

pageOther international bodies

European Commission

In its Multiannual Financial Framework (2021-2027), the European Commission has proposed the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI – also known as ‘Global Europe’) which aims to combine funding for different fields of EU external action in one single instrument. With a budget of just under €80 billion, it is likely to have four components:

  • Geographical: with a focus on promoting the rule of law, human rights, democracy, good governance, peace, security and sustainable development in the European Neighbourhood, Asia and the Pacific, the Americas and the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa.

  • Thematic: focusing on actions that are linked to specific themes from the Sustainable Development Goals (promotion of human rights, civil society, stability and peace as well as health, education or sustainable and inclusive growth).

  • Rapid response: aimed at the prevention of conflicts and (re)building peace efforts. This will support the financing of individual measures or one-off action plans.

  • Flexibility cushion for responses to emerging crisis situations: aid in case of armed conflicts or natural disasters.

The European Commission is currently working on translating this agreement into an EU regulation. It is expected that the European Parliament will vote on the final legal text in the summer of 2021.

All calls for proposals and tenders are announced through the TED tendering portal or the International Partnerships (formerly EuropeAid) online platform.

Applications are made using prescribed templates and, for the most part, submissions can be made online.

Smaller organisations often say that they find the volume of paperwork required for some EU bids unmanageable. Others are discouraged by the perception that these funding programmes are something of a lottery. Very little feedback is given for unsuccessful applications.

pageOther international bodies

Technology companies

The latest entrants into the funding scene include Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund while Luminate is the latest incarnation of the Governance & Citizen Engagement initiative at the Omidyar Network.

Some do not accept unsolicited offers and future grantees need to be recommended first.

Others run highly competitive calls for proposals, although the workload involved is relatively light.

pageTechnology companies

Other donors of note

There are a number of donors who do not fall into any of the above categories but who are long-standing supporters of media development work.

They include:

All have a reputation for being approachable, flexible and keeping the administrative burden to a minimum.

pageOther funders

Mapping donors

This is a useful exercise for any agency, large or small, and the bulk of research can be done on the Internet.

Some donors are better than others at presenting the priorities of their programmes and the procedures for accessing funding.

The European Commission with its broad constellation of funding programmes is particularly bewildering.

In addition to the desk research, it is worth talking to other organisations working in the same field to get the full story behind the corporate blurb – and, while competitors may be wary of sharing jealously guarded information, they are usually happy to recount individual experiences.

A donor mapping exercise should focus on:

Programmatic priorities

Consider what kind of themes the donor is interested in and its wider philosophy. These can be very broad and are not always well articulated.

Very broad priorities are, perhaps, the most daunting since it can be hard to link them to specific areas of work.

It is important to look at examples of what the donor in question has funded in the past since this is key to understanding how to position yourself strategically.

Geographical priorities

Not all funding programmes have target countries but most do and the majority of formal calls for proposals are linked to specific territories.

Once you have determined the geographical priorities, it is worth doing some research into what the donor has actually funded in the countries in question.

Funding ceilings

These should be taken seriously.

Where the ceiling is specified, it must be respected. Where broad parameters are given, you should have a look at previous grants to get a sense of the average amount awarded.

You do not necessarily damage your chances of success by aiming for the top of the funding bracket – most of the large donors would rather fund two or three large grants than ten small ones – but funding agencies are also keen to spread the available funds between several agencies where possible, thereby preserving their reputation for equitable treatment.

Contact details and URLs

The web address used to publish calls for proposals is a key piece of information to include in your mapping exercise.

Log personal contact details where they exist but be aware that most large agencies have a regular turnover of staff, so these details may need to be updated.

Upcoming opportunities

Note when the next formal opportunity is scheduled to be launched and create an alert system, ensuring that you receive a reminder well in advance of the proposed date.

Comments and conclusions

It is worth providing an assessment of the chances of success with any particular donor and the relative complexities of applying for funding.

For national agencies, it may also be helpful to note which other organisations in your locality have already received funding from this source.

A good place to start is the MediaDev donors mapping section of the Guide.

page+ MediaDev Funders

Approaching donors

The key to approaching donors is understanding their areas of interest and their general philosophy with regards to media development. These approaches may shift over time but it is still true to say, for example, that:

  • The European Commission tends to bundle up media development with support for civil society and human rights defenders (HRDs), however in recent times traditional capacity-building and access to information programmes have seen a resurgence

  • USAID continues to believe strongly in media professionalisation and has traditionally supported the development of commercial media (as opposed to public service media)

  • The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office favours projects that faciliate the sharing of British and international expertise in areas such as public service broadcasting, media legislation and programming for minority or vulnerable groups

  • The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a strong focus on the media's ability to promote and protect human rights by holding governments to account

  • SIDA continues to prioritise democratic accountability, human rights, rule of law, and freedom of speech. It also champions gender equality and women’s empowerment

  • The Agence française de développement views media development as a tool for promoting social cohesion and reducing inequality

  • The German Ministry of Foreign Affairs works to promote media viability as well as the development of legislative and regulatory frameworks

  • UN agencies link media development to their various fields of work with the exception of UNESCO which supports projects aimed at enhancing the enabling environment for free and independent media

Pitching ideas

On rare occasions, you may get the chance to pitch ideas to donors.

It is true to say that most donors, like publishers, are on the lookout for the Next Big Thing and want to be across new ideas and innovations.

These can be dropped into conversations and can lead to direct approaches.

It is a good idea to have an “elevator pitch” – an idea that can be summed up in a few sentences and is directly linked to the donor’s priorities.

Cold calling

Contacting donors out of the blue and sharing an idea that seems to be relevant to their interests and priorities can work – although it depends very much on the donor.

The major institutional donors are likely to simply refer you to their websites and funding guidelines – if you are able to get through the right person at all. Writing to generic "info@donor.org" emails on their websites is usually a fruitless exercise.

Cold calling can work if you have a very strong idea and are absolutely sure that the donor in question (a) has a track record in supporting work in this theme/sector and (b) has some flexibility to award funding on an ad hoc basis.

It is probably fair to say that desk officers live in fear of cold calls and certainly do not encourage them. But this does not mean that the approach should not be tried.

Engaging successfully with donors

Donor engagement requires resources, experience and strong diplomatic skills.

Introductory meetings are undoubtedly useful for bringing the work of your organisation to a donor’s attention and exploring potential funding opportunities.

It is not a good idea to be too pushy or persistent but it is certainly advisable to build relationships over time.

This process can be facilitated by the following elements:

Strong presentation

Have a strong presentation that includes illustrations of your work (case studies). After a meeting, make sure that you leave a copy behind.

Common interests

Find areas of common interest and common reference points. Conversations should be exploratory rather than a hard sell. You need to be looking for areas of overlap between the funder’s agenda and your own.

Thematic focus

Avoid wasting donors’ time by pitching ideas that do not reflect their programmatic priorities or core areas of interest. You will not convince them to strike out in a new direction by sheer force of personality.

Follow up

Follow up on ideas shared at meetings by sending over concept notes, presentations, research findings or examples of previous work.


Help donors to make connections with end beneficiaries. Desk officers are eager to garner intelligence from the ground and hear about successful approaches from the horse’s mouth. Organising meetings with beneficiaries or site visits to projects can help to inform and shape their internal strategies and development processes.

Staff and roles

The individuals who work for donor organisations are in a privileged position and field approaches from prospective applicants on a regular basis.

There is considerable value in building a relationship with these individuals that positions your organisation as a unique provider of services or expertise. You can bolster this reputation by sharing the results of your research or making introductions that are of mutual benefit.

The focus should be on demonstrating that you have the contacts, resources and vision to bring ideas to fruition and that you can be relied on to do a good job.

Note that, within donor organisations and foreign embassies, responsibility for media development and democratic accountability may lie with very different departments/sections. For example:

  • In EU Delegations, this area can come under the remit of the Political Section or, in some cases, of press and information officers.

  • Some French embassies have a media attache but responsibility may also lie with a cultural officer.

  • In British embassies, the portfolio can sit with Political Secretaries or with communications officers.

  • In US embassies, this can be a role for staff working in Public Diplomacy.

International organisations

For international organisations, the parameters are very different and the focus is primarily on maintaining a privileged relationship with national donors who provide these organisations with the bulk of their support.

Lobbying in the European Commission is a tougher proposition since direct responsibilities for grant programmes are unclear and the evaluation committees are heavily bound by procedure and protocol, which are there to ensure that their decisions are impartial.

Nevertheless, organisations can benefit from regular attendance at EU-funded conferences and from carving out a reputation as thought-leaders in their chosen fields.

Last updated