Peer Learning + Collaboration Fund relaunches with support for in-place learning, collaborations

We’ve re-evaluated the program to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and more directly support journalists of color

The Peer Learning + Collaboration Fund was launched in early 2019 primarily to support peer-to-peer learning in the U.S. by funding travel for journalists.

Throughout 2019 and into early 2020, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University awarded about $60,000 in travel stipends through the Peer Fund.

By late March, it became clear this part of the program was no longer safe. But we feel strongly, especially now, that peer learning is important and we should hold space — and money—to make it happen. So we redesigned this part of the Peer Fund and expanded it for an in-place rather than an in-person world.

Starting today, U.S.-based journalists and media-makers can apply for Peer Fund money to support virtual peer-to-peer mentorships OR collaborations. That last part, support for collaborations, is new! In total we have just over $40,000 to distribute.

Since its inception, the Peer Fund has aimed to especially support journalists of color, women and those who identify as low-income; our scoring rubric for awarding Peer Fund travel grants was weighted to favor these groups.

The new Peer Fund will continue to do the same. Applicants of color, women and people who identify as low-income will continue to get priority for when applying for support for a virtual peer-to-peer mentorship.

A virtual peer-to-peer mentorship could be as simple as arranging a few Zoom sessions with someone you’ve wanted to learn from. Let’s say you really admire Andre Natta’s work at Resolve Philadelphia. (He is awesome, btw.) You would contact Andre, tell him about the Peer Fund and ask if he’d be willing to spend some time with you on Zoom (or whichever video conferencing program you use). If he agrees, you would apply for funding and name him as your collaborator. If your application is approved, you’d both be paid for your time spent together.

Our parameters for awards to support collaborations are even more specific: The Peer Fund will now support small awards, up to $1,000, for collaborative projects that directly serve communities of color.

We feel this helps us honor the original mission of the Peer Fund and we are choosing to do it at time when racial equity is, as it should be, a major focus for the news industry.

Such collaborative projects could include a partnership with a news outlet that specifically serves the Black community, for example; or perhaps you work at a news nonprofit and want to work with a Spanish-language publication in your state; those efforts could qualify. Perhaps if you teamed up with another journalist or community group where you live or work, you could co-report stories related to the coronavirus better. Or maybe there’s a dataset you’ve wanted to parse but need help.

Judging for Peer Fund applications is done using an objective scoring system paired with subjective scoring by a panel of three external, independent judges. The objective scoring system for peer-to-peer learning is weighted to favor applicants of color, women and those who identify as low-income, as stated above. The objective scoring system for collaborative projects will be weighted to eliminate projects that don’t directly serve communities of color and to favor lead applicants who themselves are people of color.

If you have questions, let us know: [email protected]. NOTE: Please make sure to read our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section below.

Frequently asked questions (updated)

We’ve tried to answer as many FAQs as we could anticipate. If you have a question that isn’t answered here, let us know! Email us at [email protected].

Who is eligible to apply?
As travel restrictions have been put in place, we have made the decision to expand the scope of the grant awards to include virtual mentoring and collaborative projects. The proposed mentoring and collaborative projects should promote knowledge sharing and, of course, peer-to-peer learning. These grants are meant to support working journalists, media makers, freelance journalists, students, and people working for journalism support organizations in the U.S. The grants would provide for stipends to the primary applicant as well as the collaborator/virtual host.

Credentials will be required if you are selected for a grant. Freelancers may be asked to show proof of recent work with a journalism organization. An example of a journalism support organization could be a trade group, like SPJINNLION or ONA, or a university-based organization like the Center for Cooperative Media. If you have questions about eligibility, contact us at [email protected].

I’m a freelancer. Can I apply?
Yes. You can apply for a peer-to-peer mentorship, of course. And you can apply as part of a collaboration if your collaboration directly serves a community of color and involves more than one news or community organization. This part of the Peer Fund is not meant to support freelancers doing work for one news organization, unfortunately. There are funds that support that kind of work, though, and we’re happy to help you find one!

What can I use the money for?
The awards are intended to cover the cost of the applicant’s and co-collaborator’s time, project materials, equipment and associated production/editing costs to complete any virtual peer learning and/or collaborative projects initiated between the parties.

Since these awards are paid out as grants, we don’t need to know the exact details of how you spend the money, but we will want to know your plans and may ask for an estimated budget.

How much money can I apply for?
We’re trying to maintain a similar cost structure as the previous iteration of the Peer Fund. That means that the maximum amount we intend to award to any single project is $1,000, although we expect that in many cases, an equitable payout between collaborators may be $500 each, if there are two collaborators working on a project, for example. Virtual mentoring may only need payouts of $250 to cover several hours of virtual meeting. We will allow the applicants to propose a budget of how the award should be distributed.

I was approached to be a mentor or a co-collaborator. Do I have to apply for Peer Fund support?
We’re asking that only one person — the lead collaborator or relationship initiator — formally apply for Peer Fund funding; on the revised application, mentors and co-collaborators will need to be identified by the lead collaborator. We’ll reach out with a separate survey to those people identified as co-collaborators.

When will I be notified of my application status?
As soon as you apply, you’ll get a confirmation email that includes a copy of your application. If there is information missing from the primary application, you will receive another email detailing what information is incomplete. Once the primary application has been received, the Center will email a set of questions to the proposed collaborator/host. The information received from both the primary applicant and collaborator will be compiled for review.

At the end of the month, all of the applications that have been received are forwarded to a panel of external judges. We will notify you of the status of application by the 15th of the month following the one in which you applied. For example, if you apply on June 10, we’ll notify you by July 15. If you are awarded a grant, you’ll get a grant letter and details on what additional information we need from you.

What paperwork will you need from me to disburse my money?
We will ask for information to verify your identity, if needed, and that you work in the industry. We will also need a W-9.

Will you pay the grant to me or to my employer?
We can pay it to you or your employer, whichever is preferable. If you’re paying for expenses out of your own pocket, or doing the work independent of your company, the grant should be paid to you. If your company is covering some of the costs, we can pay the grant to them. We’ll need to make sure you provide us with the correct W-9 either way. And note that if you get paid directly, the award may have tax implications you should be aware of.

Can I apply to learn from or collaborate with someone in my city, or do they have to live further away?
There are no geographic limitations. Previously when we were awarding travel stipends, it mostly supported out-of-state trips. That’s all different now, of course. And since we are opening the Peer Fund up to support collaborative efforts, we fully expect some applicants to live near one another.

Why can’t you just pay directly for my expenses?
Unfortunately, the Fund is not set up to work directly with vendors. You will need to arrange and pay for all your own expenses. All of our support will be paid out in the form of individual awards.

How will I receive the funds and how long will it take?
You will receive a check in the mail. It should arrive within 30 days from the day we confirm receipt of all the required documents, including your W-9. Note that University systems move more slowly than you may think! It often does take the full 30 days from the day we confirm receipt of your required documents for a check to arrive.

How far in advance of the start of my collaborative project should I apply for funding?
Ideally, you should apply at least three months in advance of your start date, to give us time to process your paperwork and get your money out the door. That doesn’t mean you can’t apply for consideration for a project that is happening sooner than three months out, just know you might not have a decision on your grant before you begin your collaborative project. Note that you can’t apply for a grant to cover a collaborative project that already occurred, unfortunately. To be fair, we can only fund future projects. All projects should be completed by November 1, 2020, and all final reports submitted to the Center no later than December 1, 2020.

Can I apply for more than one grant?
No. To be as equitable as possible, we intend to award only one grant per person.

If I received Peer Fund travel support previously, can I apply now to support a collaborative project?
We knew you wouldn’t make this easy on us! We want to support you but we also want to be equitable and fair, so we’ll prioritize new applicants first but yes, you can apply for project funding and you will be considered.

What if I am denied funding and want to re-apply?
Go right ahead! We’ll try to be as transparent as possible if we deny your application about why it wasn’t accepted. Note that we are using a weighted system that gives preference to applicants who are low-income or identify as part of an underrepresented or marginalized group, as well as those who clearly detail the purpose of their trip. Due to the volume of applications we receive, we likely won’t be able to proactively reach out and ask you to amend your application; you’ll either get funding or you won’t, and if you don’t, we will try to explain why so you have the opportunity to reapply.

What if I need more money than the maximum?
To maintain equity and to be able to support as many individuals as we can during a time of travel restrictions, we can’t support requests for more than $1,000 per project. If you need help figuring out how to rein in the cost of your collaborative project so it’s affordable, we are happy to help! Email us at [email protected].

What are my reporting responsibilities if I am awarded, and accept, a grant?
All parties — lead collaborators and co-collaborators — will be asked to fill out a form and survey reporting on how your work together went and its expected outcomes, and we’ll ask you to take photos or video and share those with us, too. We’ll publish selected reports (we’ll let you know if yours is one of them!) and we highly encourage you to write about your project separately and publish it on your own or share it with your networks.

What happens if our collaboration falls through?
Ugh! We understand that happens. If you’re able to reschedule, that would be best. If you have to cancel the project entirely, we’ll ask you to return the grant but we can work with you on the amount if you’re out money (i.e., if you already had to pay some expenses, etc.).

What if I am a journalist who gets inundated with requests from peers who want to work with me; can you help?
Yes! First, congrats on being a superstar. Second, email us so we can chat: [email protected].

What if you haven’t answered my question in these FAQs?
Let us know! We know we haven’t anticipated everything. Email us at [email protected].

Stefanie Murray is the director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Contact her at [email protected]

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab Fund of the Community Foundation of New Jersey and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit