» Funding Covering the Business of Nonprofit and Independent News Thu, 12 Mar 2015 19:10:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Steal this crowdfunding playbook for your news nonprofit Mon, 16 Feb 2015 20:39:23 +0000 A year ago, American Public Media decided to place the crowdfunding site on hiatus and conduct an assessment of the platform and its potential. We completed that evaluation in the spring, took a few months to digest what we learned, and decided to sunset effective [Feb. 11.]

The things that didn’t work about’ back end were significant, and it would not be possible to scale the platform or improve the user experience without completely overhauling the code base. Doing this would be expensive, and given the other crowdfunding options that are available to journalists today — both general interest and journalism-specific – it became clear that we could not offer a fundable service that would benefit audiences, journalists or public interest media more than what already exists. Our analysis also showed:

  • Most projects were funded by friends and family, as opposed to community members with an interest in or a need for that information;
  • The majority of funders gave once and never returned;
  • The market for crowdfunding journalism projects in general, as based on actual donations, is tiny, accounting for just .13 percent of the $2.8 billion raised in FY2013.
  • Journalism projects have a 63 percent failure rate compared to 56 percent for all projects.
  • There are few successes, business model-wise, for scaling and sustaining a crowdfunding platform. proved that crowdfunding can help support independent, local journalism, especially that of freelancers. It was an important early innovator in the field, and many of the platforms available in 2015 owe a lot to founder David Cohn and the community of users. (We are archiving the code and the stories that make up, so the world won’t lose them.)

Its legacy also includes a large body of research, including the assessment we commissioned fromCarlson Ventures Enterprise (CVE) at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

As Cohn so often said, “was an experiment in pushing the boundaries of transparency and participation in the process of journalism.” And it is in that spirit that we would like to share with you some of CVE’s other findings, specifically those that will help to write a new chapter in the crowdfunding playbook.

Large crowdfunding platforms can help grow your audience and test new ideas.

Kickstarter boasts 7.9 million users, including 2.3 million who have backed more than one project. Indiegogo, meanwhile, touts 15 million monthly visitors. (Donor stats were not immediately available.)

These large-scale platforms introduce users to projects via genre recommendations, making it possible for you to reach new audiences with an affinity for the kind of content you are making, even if they’ve never heard of you before.

“That is the purpose of public media: to provide educational, great content that betters families.” – Sara Robertson, KLRU’s vice president for production and technology

In 2012 and again in 2014, Austin’s public television station KLRU used Indiegogo to raise money for its educational “BBQ with Franklin” web series featuring Austin BBQ master Aaron Franklin. The first campaignattracted 241 donors and helped grow the station’s YouTube channel to 32,000 subscribers. The second campaign met its $20,000 goal in just three weeks and inspired a dramatic jump in views to the show’s YouTube channel.

Weekly views of KLRU YouTube channel before and after launch of second BBQ campaign. Image courtesy of KLRU.

Weekly views of KLRU YouTube channel before and after launch of second BBQ campaign. Image courtesy of KLRU.

Sara Robertson, KLRU’s vice president for production and technology, said the first campaign helped prove that there was an audience and a community ready to support the series, something that was critical to getting the attention of major TV underwriters.

It helped to have a BBQ celebrity whose advice is widely valued, Robertson added. But viewers also appreciate – and regularly comment on — the relevance and helpful nature of the videos. “They teach their sons how to [make BBQ], using the videos. To me, that is the purpose of public media: to provide educational, great content that betters families.” The series is available on and is coming soon to TV.

Crowdfunding can grow your donor base and, with proper planning, increase membership.

Crowdfunding does not cannibalize donors, a concern of crowdfunding critics. Instead, it segments them, according to Gabe Bullard, director of news and editorial strategy at WFPL in Louisville, Ky.

WFPL ran a successful campaign on Kickstarter in Spring 2013 for “Unbound,” a new program focused on short works of fiction. The station slightly exceeded their $4,000 goal with contributions from 150 backers. For the 70 backers who were already members of the station, the Kickstarter donation was an additional gift and didn’t reduce subsequent gifts.

“Get the fundraising team involved early on in the process, so that things run smoothly.” – Kelly Wilkinson, WFPL membership manager

But WFPL only was able to convert three of the new donors into members.

“They just fell off our radar because they were such a small group, and we had all these larger groups we were managing,” said WFPL Membership Manager Kelly Wilkinson. The lesson? “Get the fundraising team involved early on in the process, so that things run smoothly.”

That’s what KLRU did with its “BBQ with Franklin” campaign. In fact, the station treated all of its crowdfunding backers as members, inviting them to events (especially to anything BBQ-related), to receive station newsletters, and to connect on social media.

“Success at this fundraising method requires a shift away from thinking about crowdfunding as simply a gathering of small gifts. It’s more akin to joining and building a cohesive funding community,” explains public media consultant Richard McPherson in a 2013 commentary on

Observing Radiotopia’s recent successful Kickstarter campaign, Josh Stearns of agrees: “Throughout the [Radiotopia] campaign there was an intentional and ongoing recruitment effort to keep people engaged not just as donors but as part of the team.”

Of the 241 people who backed KLRU’s 2012 “BBQ with Franklin” campaign, all but eight were not current members. Twenty-five percent of those donors stuck around as members (including 10 as major donors) for more than one year, and 20 percent are still active today.

According to KLRU Membership Director Susannah Winslow, their success has made KLRU “stop and think about being more strategic about how we touch our prospective donors,” and that crowdfunding creates “more of a connection to the production and then to the station, whereas pledge is a transaction.”

Pubmedia producers want a playbook for planning crowdfunding campaigns.

Again and again, we’ve heard from stations (and our own internal producers, too) that they want a playbook for public media crowdfunding. This blog post and anything I’ve linked to should help you start to get an understanding of what works. We can also offer you a timeline and checklist of what to do when in order to conduct a well-run and well-organized campaign. This timeline was created by the CVE team working with us, and informed by interviews with staffers from nine public media organizations.

First, you should be able to answer YES to at least two of these questions:

  1. Is the program/content very specific and well-thought-out?
  2. Does the program/content have an engaging & relevant purpose for target audiences?
  3. Does the program/content have a charismatic or well-known person as the lead or central player of the campaign? (Not necessary, but it certainly helps.)

Next, make sure you give yourself enough time before and after the campaign. It’s smart to break up the project into four segments of work, which can potentially comprise a year-long project:


Planning (allot 30-90 days)

  • Content brainstorming & refinement.
  • Assess proposed content with organizational strategic fit.
  • Plan & set pre-promotion activities/targets.
  • Evaluate crowdfunding platforms (Indiegogo, Kickstarter, etc.)
  • Empower internal champion to align and manage all activities related to the campaign.
  • Seek partner organization.
  • Carefully budget entire programming.

Pre-promotion (allot 60 days)

  • Solicit pledges from known persons & entities likely to commit to supporting content.
  • Request to use their gift as marketing leverage.
  • Seek organization (perhaps existing partner) to pledge matching funds.
  • Define social media strategy during campaign.
  • Secure “tent-pole” donations to announce during campaign.
  • Select rewards to give to donors.

Campaign (plan for 14-30 days)

  • Balance messaging (emails, tweets, etc.) between announcements, solicitations, & developments.
  • Announce pre-planned/pre-timed donations & matching grants to maintain urgency and enthusiasm.
  • Implement social media & marketing strategy to raise awareness of campaign.

Production/Follow-up (expect up to 180 days)

  • Announce completion of campaign on all messaging channels.
  • Ship outstanding rewards to donors.
  • Begin production of promised programming.
  • Keep donors and followers informed of production status.
  • Manage all communications to keep buzz alive for the programming.

Joellen Easton is the Business Development Manager at the Public Insight Network. This post originally appeared on the Public Insight Network blog and has been republished with permission.

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For crowdfunding success, ‘simplicity and specificity’ is king Tue, 10 Feb 2015 17:40:17 +0000 When you ask for just $5,000 to crowdfund your journalism project but end up getting more than $13,000, you’re definitely doing something right.

And that’s what happened last month, when the nonprofit raised $13,648 from 215 backers in a Kickstarter campaign to photograph the entire Arizona-Mexico border. Two challenge goals resulting in $3,000 in matching donations helped the news nonprofit reach that goal. 

In fact, the sum is much higher than that, all thanks to a $1,000 donation from a donor outside Kickstarter.

Under Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing policy, campaigns must hit 100 percent of their goals by a given deadline or they receive nothing. Impressively, the site reached 100 percent of its $5,000 goal in the first two weeks, said editor and publisher Dylan Smith.

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 2.12.02 PM

While much of its support came from Tucson residents and people directly concerned about border issues, the “magic of the Internet has led people from all over to back us: the UK, Australia, etc.,” Smith said.

Given that the news nonprofit managed to score more than double its asking amount, the lessons it learned in pulling it off could prove valuable to those looking to fund their own journalism ventures.

For one thing,’s secret ingredient was simplicity. Its project boiled down to this: Take at least one photo of every single mile of the Arizona-Mexico border.

That’s it. 

“We worked to focus it just on this particular project—not that it won’t have benefits for the rest of our work,” Smith said. Just asking people to “give us money so we can go report on the border and stuff” would be too vague to catch people’s interest.”


Credit: Joseph Oland /


“We’ve had this project in the works for a long time,” he said, “and it seemed to be a great peg for a Kickstarter campaign. It’s finite and focused, has broad appeal, generates concrete rewards that are directly related—we’re not offering stickers or T-shirts—and is something that only we are crazy enough to tackle.”

Even then, it didn’t come easy. It took a lot of hard work—and some mistakes.

The Kickstarter project required more than a year of planning and some preparatory reporting, Smith said. Much of that was supported by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

“Our biggest mistake was launching with a long title—your URL on Kickstarter is generated from that on launch, so we’ve got an unwieldy address,” he said.

But while URLs can’t be changed, titles can. For anyone who wants to try it out, he advises launching a campaign with a short, punchy title, so you get a concise URL. Then immediately change the title (not the URL) to anything you want, with particular emphasis on keywords.

If you feel brave enough to launch a Kickstarter campaign for your journalism project, Smith has the following advice:

Having a Kickstarter is by no means a “set it and forget it” prospect. “It’s work and requires a steady stream of promotion, responding to potential backers who have questions, and keeping the Kickstarter page updated.”

Do not put all eggs in one basket. Nearly three-fourths of the support for the project thus far has come from backers who found it in places other than the Kickstarter site itself, he said. “Counting on people to just run across you on that website won’t cut it—you’ve got to get out and promote the project and have enough of an existing base which you can draw from.”

Offer tangible rewards. “ plans to publish both paperback and hardback copies of a book stemming from their work, as well as offering photographs from the project,” he said. “Many of the rewards offer an experience, rather than something you can hold in your hand. Some backers will have dinner with the reporting team, others can play “editor for the day” while having input on which photos make the cut for publication, and three high-level backers will have the opportunity to fly along as the border is documented from the air.”

Even with a low ask, prepare to go big. “While many of those who contributed would likely have supported the project regardless, having a compelling case to make for a higher level of donations was helpful,” he said. “We explained how we’d be able to expand the project, and spurred more backers with matches for hitting a monetary goal and a donor count — along with sweetening the rewards a bit for nearly everyone.

One final note. The project was originally backed with a $3,500 grant by the Fund for Investigative Journalism, and Smith said “support from a respected funder may have prompted more people to back the Kickstarter, or to do it at a higher level.”

“Rather than being a completely unknown startup, having a track record and having other reputable organizations backing the project couldn’t have hurt, at least,” he added.

All of the reporting for the project will be made available for free on’s website.

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Need funding? Hot tips on getting through our grant process Tue, 03 Feb 2015 18:17:57 +0000 Irma Simpson

Irma Simpson

Does your nonprofit news project involve interacting with and growing your audience, with a potential for making money?

Does it need funding?

If so, the INNovation Fund— a partnership between the Investigative News Network and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation—wants to hear your pitch. Its third grant round is now open and we’re looking for innovative, experimental and replicable ready-to-go projects promoting audience engagement and creating gateways to business sustainability.

You can access the application for Round 3 here. Heads up: Applications must be submitted by midnight (pacific time) on Monday, March 2.

Sixteen projects have already been funded out of nearly 200 applications over the course of two rounds in the last 12 months. Not every proposal is a home run, but we hope to share some tips that could help your project land on top of the pile.

  • Think outside the box. We try to choose projects that are truly innovative. If your project is an iteration of something that’s been done before, we want to know how it will be different and why you expect to learn something unique. Two key words to keep in mind are experimental and replicable.  We are looking for ideas that have the best potential to work and will be adaptable in other nonprofit news organizations.
  • Identify clear and quantifiable goals. Nothing spells conviction more than a clear set of goals aligned with the purpose of the grant: engagement and business sustainability. Tell us how you plan to measure success and independently verify it.
  • Be clear and thorough in your budget. How exactly will every dollar will be earned and spent? If the cost of your project is beyond your asking amount, be clear and transparent about where the rest of the money is coming from. Projects that lack a plan to fund the entire project or anticipate funding not yet secured will likely be rejected.
  • Aim for business ideas, not just journalism: The INNovation Fund is looking for experimentation in engagement and sustainability. Many journalism projects merit funding, but we’re looking for those that enhance and hopefully advance the business side of nonprofit news.
  • Get advice from past winners. Review their summaries and check their progress to date on

Irma Simpson is a fundraising consultant to the Investigative News Network. Follow her on twitter.

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Kevin Davis: 5 things we’ve learned from a year of INNovation Fund grants Tue, 03 Feb 2015 18:09:01 +0000 INN CEO Kevin Davis

INN CEO Kevin Davis

This week marks the opening of the third round of the INNovation Fund, a micro-grant program managed by the Investigative News Network to help with business experimentation in nonprofit and public-media newsrooms across the country.

The program is made possible by a $1 million commitment by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation over two-years to invest in business experiments that look to drive audience engagement or experiment with new revenue streams.

Unlike for-profit organizations, nonprofit news organizations do not have equity to leverage when seeking capital for business investment. Furthermore, most grantmaking puts limitations on the amount of overhead allowed on any given grant.

Yet nonprofit newsrooms are expected to iterate and innovate to increase the amount of engagement with their target audiences, reduce their dependence on existing funders and diversify their revenue streams to become sustainable.

In its first year the program funded 16 business experiments; applications for the third round are now available with a deadline of March 2, 2015. We will announce winners on April 15.

Here’s what we’ve learned from the experiments we have funded so far:

  1. Accept this for what it isand for what its not. We understand the need for nonprofits to secure as much funding as possible. We also understand the frustration when a nonprofit has funding needs that are more pressing than business experimentation. The INNovation Fund grants are not a good vehicle to address those pressing issues; it is designed specifically for organizations seeking diversification of funding but who do not otherwise have the wherewithal to experiment with diversification. We have received many proposals from great organizations that unfortunately are either not in a position to conduct experimentation or who look to leverage these funds into a larger fundraising drive that makes it difficult for us to determine what the experiment is, and how we can measure the impact of our investment.
  2. Do your homework. Every winning INNovation Fund grant proposal can be found at, including copies of the original proposal and budgets. In addition, the Investigative News Network publishes information about all of the other programs that we offer to support nonprofit newsrooms. When we see grant requests for projects that are materially the same as what we have previously funded or are covered under current programs we already offer (i.e. a mobile-ready, WordPress CMS and Web services), it’s unlikely that we’ll fund your proposed project.
  3. Leave the kitchen sink out of it. Paying for overhead continues to be a big challenge for nonprofits. And it is reasonable to include some level of overhead—less than 10 percent—in a budget proposal. But adding budget line items for resources or costs that are not directly related to or working on the proposed projects is a no-no.
  4. Focus on achieving one or two desired results using one or two independently verifiable metrics. Impact measurement and metrics are an important yet evolving topic. With this program, we intentionally left the definition of what metrics will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the business experiment up to the nonprofit to avoid imposing anything arbitrary on top of the work. However, defining metrics has proven to be tricky for some nonprofits. For example, many proposals were submitted previously with upwards of 10 different proposed metrics. Instead, think about the one or two ways you personally will measure the success of your experiment. In this case, less is definitely better than more.
  5. Be open to unexpected results. As a society, we often frown upon failure or see anything less than what was expected as a sign of weakness. In business, however, organizations often pivot because the realities on the ground can be very different from expectations. We urge grantees to be transparent about the process and results, to share that knowledge and to embrace the unexpected. We do not penalize organizations that try and fail, but we cannot help organizations that are not open to learning from the process regardless of outcomes.

Kevin Davis is CEO and Executive Director of the Investigative News Network (INN), a growing consortium of over 80 nonprofit newsrooms producing non-partisan investigative and public interest journalism. Follow him on twitter, or click here to read more of his work.

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How to remove the anxiety of ‘impact’ reports Tue, 03 Feb 2015 17:32:40 +0000 Molly de Aguiar

Molly de Aguiar

Nothing strikes fear in the hearts of nonprofit organizations more than when a funder asks about impact.

Foundations demand that nonprofits measure and understand the impact of their work, but rarely give their grantees the resources to do that kind of evaluation. On top of that, many foundations have a low tolerance for risk or failure (i.e. lack of impact) as well as a reluctance to provide stable, long-term support. This is an especially difficult combination for start-ups, which need the time and patience from funders to show results.

On the flipside, nonprofits argue that evidence of impact is not so black and white – that they can’t know for sure if their work is directly resulting in change because there are too many factors outside their control. Which is often true. We all (nonprofits and funders) have to be comfortable with some level of uncertainty. But shying away from assessment because we can’t prove things is also a cop out for trying to understand whether the work is making a difference.

Which Metrics Matter?

In media, there is so much being written about metrics these days—from page views and unique visitors to “attention minutes,” conversion rates, and renewal rates. The common thread through all of these articles and blog posts is that there is no consensus on what metrics should and do matter most. Among funders too, there are many unanswered questions about how to evaluate media grants and not enough open dialogue on the subject, which is why Media Impact Funders just released “Funder Perspectives: Assessing Media Investments.” This report, which is well worth reading, shares the results of survey responses from 30 large and small foundations as well as follow-up interviews with a handful of foundation staff (including me) to shed light on how foundations of differing sizes and media strategies are thinking about impact.

In the report, I point to the work of ProPublica and its president Dick Tofel’s leadership on the subject of impact:

“Some funders prefer to allow grantees to develop methods from the bottom up. ‘We’d like to see more of our grantees approach measurement like ProPublica – being clear about their mission and goals, and then assessing their work against what they say they intend to accomplish. Tracking it carefully and honestly, in order to learn and adapt along the way,’ noted Molly de Aguiar, Program Director of Media & Communications at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.”

Allow me to elaborate on that. And full disclosure: ProPublica is a grantee of the Dodge Foundation.

Impact Starts with a Clear Mission

Dick Tofel wrote a paper for the Gates Foundation called “Nonprofit Journalism: Issues Around Impact” that I would recommend to anyone looking for a very straightforward approach to this topic. Measuring impact, he emphasizes, starts with being clear about your mission. If your news organization’s mission is to inform the public, you should first understand where the gaps in information are. Measuring your impact means trying to assess whether your community believes it is more knowledgeable as a result of your reporting. Did your coverage directly help fill their gaps in information and understanding? Was it an important factor? Did it play some role?

Likewise, if you’re an investigative news organization, like ProPublica, and your mission is to expose abuses of power and spur reform, you should be asking, “What does it take to fix this, and who can fix it?” and then track whether or not anything changed as a result of your reporting. The same questions apply: Did your work directly lead to the change you wanted to see? Was it an important factor? Did it play some role?

Why Honest Assessment Matters

Assessment requires a level of honesty that can be difficult to admit to, but is necessary for gaining the loyalty and trust of your community first, and second, the loyalty and trust of your funders. If you’re not purposefully asking your community whether and how your work is making a difference, you’re just guessing about your impact. You’re not learning what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, and therefore you do not have a clear understanding of how to effectively allocate your resources. Tofel’s advice to news organizations is to operate as transparently as possible. “Tell the world what kind of change you think you are having. The world will let you know whether they agree.”

There are plenty of free tools (e.g. polls and surveys and interviews) that news organizations can incorporate into the reporting process – preferably at all stages of the reporting process – and use regularly to engage audiences on what they do and don’t know, what issues they’d like to see covered, and what knowledge and experience the community can contribute to the understanding of a topic. It’s an iterative process that reveals how your news organization’s value is perceived by the community, as well as tremendous insight about where you should focus your energies based on the kinds of stories and issues your readers say they care about most.

Funders, You’re on the Hook Too

What’s good for the goose is also good for the gander, and so honest assessment is a requirement for funders too.

Foundations approach their support for media in different ways. Some support journalism for journalism’s sake – toward a more informed and engaged public. Others support media to advance understanding of a particular issue, like health or education. The aforementioned Media Impact Funders report does a good job outlining the diversity of approaches. Regardless of the strategy though, I think one of the key questions for funders to consider is whether we’re funding at the right level to achieve the kind of impact we want to see.


Imagine the issue you’re trying to address as an iceberg, with the easier, perhaps less permanent (but still valuable) solutions at the tip – what you see above the water – and the deep, systems-level solutions at the massive bottom of the iceberg underneath the water. The solutions at the top of the iceberg require far fewer resources than the solutions for enduring change required at the bottom of the iceberg.

So, at what level are you trying to have impact on a particular issue – where are you on the iceberg? – and do your grants match the resources required for that level of change?

If we’re not honestly assessing these questions and attempting to understand our impact, then we don’t know what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong, and therefore we do not have a clear understanding of how to effectively allocate our resources.

Funny how that works both ways.

Impact is not a four letter word. The more we ask questions and challenge our assumptions, the more we are transparent about what we’re trying to accomplish and share what we’re learning, the closer we get to making the difference that we want to see in this world.

For additional reading on impact, I also highly recommend Chalkbeat founder Elizabeth Green’s excellent paper “
What We Talk About When We Talk About Impact.

Ruler image by Humusak and iceberg image by Martin Fuchs, both via Creative Commons

Molly de Aguiar is the Program Director for Media and Communications at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. The Dodge Foundation’s Media grants seek to strengthen and grow the New Jersey news ecosystem, and support local journalism as a critical space for innovation, creativity and community building. For more information on this work, visit the Local News Lab. Click here to see more posts by Molly de Aguiar.

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Making media a conversion business Tue, 27 Jan 2015 17:05:12 +0000 Online businesses — and I include in this any organization that has to bring money in the door to keep the lights on — can be divided roughly (okay, very roughly) into two types:

  • Pageview based businesses
  • Conversion businesses

Those of us in the media industry understand pageview-based business models: create content that a lot of people want to look at, and then make money running ads against it.

However, most web-based businesses are conversion businesses: give something away in the hope that some small fraction of the visitors to a site will “convert” — to being members, donors, customers, ticket holders at an event — you name it.

There’s a very simple test to figure out which of these two kinds of business you are.  Ask yourself this question: “If I doubled my traffic, would my revenue double?” If the answer is “not even close,” you’re probably a conversion business.  You may also breathe a sigh of relief at opting out of the pageviews arms race, leaving it to folks like Vox and Buzzfeed.

But now that you know you’re not in the race for pageviews — a race to the bottom, since the value of those pageviews are going down every year — are you doing what conversion businesses must do to grow and be sustainable?

In my world, too often, there’s a disconnect between what nonprofit news organizations see as the product — publishing journalistic work online — and revenue — how the organization brings in money to pay salaries, rent and the light bill.

How about we take the first step toward reconnecting those things in 2015?

Take a look at any article page on your site and ask yourself: what am I asking visitors to this page to do besides read, watch or listen? Maybe you’ll notice that you’re asking them to share a link on Facebook, or follow your work on Twitter or leave a comment.

When visitors do the things you’re asking them to do, does your organization become more sustainable in the long term? How about asking them to cross the line from being consumers to being supporters of your work?

Successful organizations based on a conversion business model know that not every visitor will “convert” to a supporter, member, donor or customer right away (in fact, only a tiny fraction of visitors ever will — which means that you can’t ignore traffic growth just because you’ve opted out of the pageviews arms race).  That’s why so many of them prioritize asking visitors to sign up for email newsletters instead of trying to get them to be Facebook or Twitter followers.

Why? Email is still king when it comes to conversion.  People are much more likely to “convert” — become a donor, buy a ticket to an event you’re running, or support a Kickstarter — from a message they see in their inbox than from looking at a Web page in their browser or seeing a call to action on a mobile device.

So most effective conversion-based organizations think through their approach to their audience with a mix of direct calls to action (“Support our Kickstarter!” or “RSVP for our exclusive event!”) and asking visitors to sign up for email newsletters.

Want to steer your news organization in the direction of greater sustainability in 2015? Take a look at any page on your site — and resolve to ask a visitor to do just one more thing besides read, watch or listen.

Lisa Williams is the Director of Digital Engagement for INN, where she helps news organizations connect to the things they need to do their work, whether it’s funders, technology, or audience. You can reach her at lisa@investigativenewsnetwork or on Twitter, where she is @lisawilliams. This post originally appeared on NetNewsCheck and has been republished with permission.

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7 ways to make 2015 more sustainable for news nonprofits Tue, 20 Jan 2015 19:42:52 +0000 Did you make any New Year’s resolutions for your organization? It’s still not too late—and ending 2015 in a stronger financial position be a great one. Here are seven ways to help you do it:

1. Get your prospect list to 50. Make a list of 50 people or organizations that can move you forward, either by giving you money or helping you grow new lines of revenue, or by helping raise your visibility.

2. Commit to being consistent. Too many organizations put themselves on a sustainability roller coaster. They raise a whole lot of money, then stop fundraising until money gets low—then they start the process again. Sure, ups and downs are part of the start-up life, but you can smooth out those ups and downs: Commit to looking at that prospect list every week; commit to reaching out to five people on that list every Monday; make a goal of three meetings a week devoted to partnership or business development. That will give you plenty of time to do the journalism without neglecting sustainability.

3. Ask visitors to your site to do more than consume. Take a look at any article page on your site. What are you asking your visitors to do besides read, watch or comment? How are you asking them to help you with your goals for sustainability? Invite them to an in-person event or take a look at a crowdfunding pitch.

4. Get up close and personal. Hold an in-person event to strengthen the bonds with your readers. Want them to become supporters of the journalism you do? Take a page from the Center for Investigative Reporting and hold open coffee hours at a local coffee shop.

5. Look at your analytics every week. If you want to convert readers into supporters, having a basic understanding of what part of your work people care about the most, how people get to your site—and how and why they leave—is key. What is your biggest “exit page”? If you don’t know, find out—it’s all there in your analytics. Then put something there to motivate them to stick around and get to know you better.

6. Think about your grants in a new way. You won a grant! Congratulations, that’s great! Now: What can you do with this grant that will make you less dependent on foundation funding in the future? Take yourself out of the spin-cycle of living from grant to grant.

7. Keep crowdfunding simple and fun. Abstract ideas don’t do as well as specific and relatable concepts—a pitch about a specific story is better than one about a beat or a general idea. And the more visual you can be about what you’re asking people to support, the better.

INN works with nonprofit news organizations every day to make sure their efforts are in line with their long-term sustainability goals. If you have questions or want to talk about any of these topics, feel free to schedule an hour with us by emailing me at

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How asking for just $1 can accelerate funding for local nonprofit news Tue, 20 Jan 2015 17:30:42 +0000 Michael Stoll, Executive Director of the San Francisco Public Press

Michael Stoll, Executive Director of the San Francisco Public Press

Was it the novelty? Passion for investigative reporting? Unbridled bicycle mania?

It took all three to inspire more than 1,000 people to back the San Francisco Public Press’ Kickstarter campaign for Pedal-Powered News — a quirky but popular initiative to use bicycle delivery to expand distribution of our local nonprofit newspaper to reach more subscribers, retail outlets and community centers throughout San Francisco.

The Public Press has published independent public policy reporting at since 2009 and produces a quarterly ad-free print edition. We always knew we needed to do something inspirational to expand our audience, so we highlighted a key operational need and built an engaging crowdfunding campaign around it.

We raised $21,328 outright — more than double our goal. But it would not have happened without the support of Knight Foundation, which worked in collaboration with the Investigative News Network to offer up to $10,000 in matching funds, based on our ability to recruit 1,000 donors. It was an experiment to see how nonprofit newsrooms could use crowdfunding to bring in new readers and expand their local donations.

When challenged to count progress one backer at a time, we quickly realized that for a local news startup, 1,000 was a really big number. And yet this highly visible 30-day campaign was just what we needed to generate our most successful fundraising effort ever.

Here’s what we learned:

• Crowdfunding is an increasingly effective tool for funding news organizations. We knew the timing was right when Kickstarter announced the rollout of its Journalism category just as we launched, featuring Pedal-Powered News in its “Projects We Love” weekly newsletter.

• Asking for small (“even $1”) donations is disarming. Humbly asking for a pittance motivates people to increase their pledges. Nearly half our 1,016 donors gave $10 or more, and we grew our membership by more than 50 percent in one month.

• A well-coordinated social media campaign can make fundraising go viral. With enthusiastic posting on five sharing platforms, we attracted support from influential Twitter users, including one with more than 1 million followers and the local CBS TV news affiliate, which aired a segment about the campaign’s success.

• Crowdfunding can accelerate toward the end. Campaigns that are close to reaching their goals often see activity surge right before deadline. In the last 48 hours, we attracted 370 backers, with donations coming in every minute. Early donors urged friends to give as the clock ticked down to midnight; we reached our goal at 10:45 p.m.

• Pay attention to branding and consistent messaging. Nearly every day we published additional material that helped build excitement about the history of bikes and newspapers — photos, maps, trivia and interviews, including one with a former San Francisco newsie who sold papers in the 1950s. We created a story around our “shamelessly retro” distribution concept and stuck to it.

• Ask again and again. Many donors said they had intended to give when they first heard about the campaign, and thanked us for reminding them. Best of all, the campaign allowed us to remind onetime donors of the important work that we do and inspire them to renew their support. No one told us that we were posting too many appeals. On the contrary, the team effort on and off social media created a sense that we believed in our own project enough to shout it from the rooftops.

Michael Stoll is the executive director of the San Francisco Public Press. Lila LaHood is the publisher. For additional details on the campaign, view the video and slides from LaHood’s presentation at the 2014 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in San Francisco.

This post originally appeared in Knight Foundation blog and has been republished with permission.

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Environmental nonprofit newsroom reorganizes in face of funding reduction Tue, 25 Nov 2014 20:43:19 +0000 The Virginia-based nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences is reducing its editorial staff and will refocus the content of its websites away from enterprise reporting in favor of aggregation, publisher Peter Dykstra announced last week.

Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) is the publisher of Environmental Health News (EHN) and The Daily Climate covering “environmental issues that may affect the health of people, ecosystems and wildlife around the world.” EHS is an independent, nonprofit member of the Investigative News Network.

In a statement, EHS said it was eliminating several editorial staff positions and that the Environmental Health News and the Daily Climate websites will be streamlined and redesigned. It says the “focus of the websites will shift away from generating in-depth reporting and toward commentary and perspective,” but it remains to be seen where that content will exist and how it will be produced.

Dykstra says the changes and staff reductions are a result of loss of funding from a few foundations. He says he will no longer hold the title of publisher but will remain on staff in a reduced, part-time capacity.

The staff cuts include award-winning environmental journalist Marla Cone who served as the organization’s editor in chief; Dana Dugan, Social Media Editor; Pauli Hayes, Senior Editor; and Lindsey Konkel, Editor. The cuts also include many of its part-time researchers who aggregate more than 50,000 stories per year.

Brian Bienkowski, Senior Editor, and Douglas Fischer, Editor, will remain on staff to run aggregation. Marianne Lavelle will remain as the science reporter for the Daily Climate.

The nonprofit’s financial woes began two years ago when it lost two major funders—Sea Change Foundation, and the Kendeda Fund. Together, these funders accounted for a bit less than half of its budget, Dykstra told INN.

The Kresge Foundation had also announced discontinuing its support for the organization, but Dykstra noted that it later came back and are a current funder.

“It’s what happens with six-figure philanthropy,” says Dykstra. “People tend to like long-term projects. It’s just pure coincidence that all three funders liked our work but they had to move on.”

As a result of the loss of those funders, EHN and Daily Climate had to put its expansion plans on hold. Earlier this year it went on “crisis mode” when an individual donor rescinded a $500,000 offer to support the organization, Dykstra said.

“We were just trying to keep heads above water,” said Dykstra, adding that the loss of that money “was a mortal threat to us.”

Its operating budget for 2014 was $1.6 million. And as handsome as that figure seems to be, Dykstra says that’s not enough to keep his staff employed or support the in-depth kind of journalism that it wants to do. Losing foundation money prompted them to pursue other sources of revenue.

Last year it launched a reader donation program that brought in $70,000 in 2013—not nearly enough to make up for the hundreds of thousands in lost funding, he said. Last month, it ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise $25,628 but fell short by nearly half its goal.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 11.14.56 AM

The Daily Climate ran a Kickstarter campaign in October with hopes of raising $25,628.

“We decided to embrace a plan that would be painful in the short run, ending several jobs, and reduce our enterprise investigative reporting and the size of our aggregation,” he said. “But it is a model that our funders could sustain and a model we could hopefully grow from.”

By January 2015, we should expect a leaner EHN and Daily Climate. He says we shouldn’t expect much to change in terms of editorial content, even though aggregation will be cut from seven days a week to just six. Aggregation, under Fischer, will continue Monday through Friday, and Dykstra will oversee a once-a-weekend edition.

Its enterprise journalism “will be spun off into a separate entity” and EHS will launch “an effort to secure separate funding” for that type of work, according to the announcement.

Dykstra believes EHS has more than enough money to keep the lights on. A complete shut down is unlikely because it still has a number of smaller funders and a few new funders that are sustaining the operation, he said. But he recognizes that the operation needs a redesign, and that includes making necessary changes.

“It would be great to get the staff back and get the resources to acquire as many positions, but they wouldn’t look the same as they do now,” he said.

Although the exact details of a new revenue model remain to be seen, Dykstra says EHS is making changes that echo a trend in news media: streamline content in a mobile-friendly website.

And perhaps the key takeaway is more accurately represented in this sentence found in last week’s statement: The revolution in the way information is gathered, analyzed and disseminated on the Web requires changes in web-based, nonprofit news.

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Unlocking the secrets to foundation funding Tue, 11 Nov 2014 17:09:04 +0000 Molly de Aguiar

Molly de Aguiar

For media and journalism organizations, understanding how to get and keep funding from philanthropic foundations is often a mystery.

Part of the problem is that foundations on the whole need to be more transparent. Period. This post – in fact this whole website – is one of the ways we’re trying to be more transparent. But also understand that to be open and communicative as institutions with deep pockets is to expose ourselves to overwhelming demands on our time and resources. Many program officers and directors care deeply about transparency and building strong relationships, but we also have limits to how much we can accommodate inquiries and requests for meetings.

Another problem is that there simply aren’t enough funders focused on supporting media and journalism. So there are huge demands on the ones who do, and not nearly enough money to fund all the good projects and organizations out there.

Having just visited with several New Jersey nonprofits (news organizations as well as arts, education and environment organizations) in our current grants cycle, I want to share some thoughts and hopefully shed light on some of the things you should be doing if you are seeking funding, what you shouldn’t be doing, and frankly, what you have no control over.

What you should be doing:

  • Show us the possibilities! Make us excited to support your work – make us believe we’d be MISSING OUT if we didn’t support your work.
  • Have a clear mission and vision. Map out the route to achieving your goals, and convince us that you are going to get there.
  • Be smart about revenue – show us how you’re thinking about diverse revenue streams, especially earned income. Show us that you understand we can’t fund you indefinitely.
  • Convince us that you collaborate enthusiastically with others (bonus: if you collaborate with other organizations we already fund.)
  • Be honest with us about the challenges in your work, but embrace those challenges as opportunities. No one wants to fund an Eeyore.

The no-no’s:

  • Do not skimp on doing your research. Really try to understand what we currently fund, what we care about, and what would resonate with us. We know this is not an easy task. We know you are not mind readers.
  • Do not submit a cookie cutter proposal. We can tell when you do.
  • If our answer is no, let it ride for awhile. We may not be shutting the door for good, so don’t be so persistent that we start to avoid you.
  • Even if you don’t understand why the answer is no (shame on us) do not jeopardize future opportunities to be funded. Foundations should be held accountable for our work and for communicating better with you, and we welcome ongoing conversation, but it should be framed as an opportunity to understand each other better, not as angry complaints or criticism. I say this, because you’d be surprised how many complaints we get directly from applicants and current grantees, and how much criticism we hear through the grapevine.
  • Do not avoid measuring the impact of your work or talking about the impact of your work. We know this is hard. We know it’s even scary, because it forces you to explore whether your work matters — which is all the more reason to evaluate and understand if what you’re doing is making a difference. You have to be clear in your mission, and you have to be honest about measuring your impact against that mission. It’s not unreasonable for foundations to ask whether supporting your work is having any meaningful impact on communities or on people’s lives.

What you have no control over:

One of the hardest things for applicants to understand is this: even if you are a perfect match for our guidelines, we may not fund you – we may not even request a proposal. There’s a funny notion people seem to have that if you meet the guidelines, you should get funded. But grantmaking is complicated and it’s not always as logical as you would want it to be. It also may be that:

  • There’s no money left in the budget for this cycle or this year. Sorry – it happens all the time.
  • Another organization is already being funded by us doing the same or similar work. This is a very common issue.
  • It’s just not the right timing. There could be a thousand different reasons why now is not the right time, but six months or a year from now might be the perfect time.

A couple of final points:

Ask yourself what unique value or idea or way of doing your work that you have to offer. Or what gap you are proposing to fill. Also, how is your work impacting the ecosystem within which you operate? That is, how well connected are you to other organizations, businesses and individuals, such that a grant to you would have a powerful impact on them as well? If you are operating as an island, don’t expect to get funding.

This post originally appeared in The Local News Lab blog and has been republished with permission.

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