How news organizations can center community in their fundraising practices

Chicago-based City Bureau, MLK50 in Memphis, and Cityside’s Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside in California each aim to center their communities in their journalism. Their work revolves around not just telling the stories of people in their communities, but also actively working with and engaging the audience they serve. 

Each organization also works to apply those same principles to their fundraising. 

Jill Kunishima, vice president of development at Cityside; Andrea Faye Hart, operations and organizational development specialist at MLK50 and board co-chair at Scalawag; and Andrew Herrera, director of growth strategy at City Bureau all have diverse backgrounds and varied professional experiences, and all three spend a substantial part of the day thinking through ways that fundraising can stay in alignment with — and advance — organizational values, especially around diversity and equity. 

At the Lenfest News Philanthropy Summit, the three sat down for a conversation on their experiences working in fund development, what it means to be community-centered when fundraising for journalism, and how other news organizations can do the same. 

Their conversation has been shortened and edited for clarity, but you can watch their full conversation here and catch up on other conversations from the Summit here.

Jill Kunishima: I think at the heart of what we’ve all been talking about is what does it mean to be community-centered? Why does it matter that we’re here? I think a lot of people say that they’re community-centered, so how do you define that? And how do you know you’re doing it? 

Andrew Herrera: I think being community centered just means being in dialogue with your community, being anchored in your community, and being accountable to your community. And I think that accountability really is key, because a lot of times you’ll see organizations — within the journalism space and other places — where they start as community organizations actually created by members of the community in response to a specific community issue. And then they get co-opted, and they stop being responsive to the community but they maintain the veneer of a community organization. And that can be really pernicious, because that actually undermines people’s faith in their local institutions and makes it much more difficult for other folks who are trying to build something positive.

We, as people who work for these kinds of organizations, need to be very clear with ourselves, and with our teams, and with our stakeholders that we are not martyrs. We are not sacrificing ourselves for the good of others, that we are actually in community with others, and their well-being and their good fortune is our good fortune and our well-being. And so if we can see our needs as aligned, and we can see that we are mutually dependent upon each other, then I think that creates a kind of clarity where you have that accountability.

Kunishima: With the question, “How are you fulfilling the needs of your community?” it’s so easy to go to those obvious answers, right? Like, “Oh, we’re listening to our community, we’re going to acknowledge what we’ve done wrong.” And we’re engaging into a dialogue and feedback loops, which I think are all extremely important. But that’s so input driven, it’s still so focused on the organization. 

But ultimately, this is about impact, right? So when your community can honestly say that they are able to live a better life because of what you provide, that they have greater agency and are more civically engaged because of what you provide, that they feel less isolated and more connected to the places we call home because of what we provide, I would argue that’s when you’re really in service of community. 

Andrea Faye Hart: I think some of what you guys are bringing up makes me think about the difference between community versus audience. I think that there are, to Andrew’s point, very specific ways that we think about what it means to serve [community members]. And then there is this larger audience that may not be necessarily place-based, but maybe are championing what we are doing. So in both situations, [MLK 50 and Scalawag] are in political environments that are a bit hostile on a lot of levels, including philanthropically. 

So I think one of the things as an organization is being really mindful about those two distinctions so that you can have some community agreement within your organization about who is our audience, and how are we engaging them, and that includes those on the fundraising side, so that those on the community-based side can keep doing that work and not feeling any sort of tension or that they’re caught in this trap where they’re no longer fulfilling the needs of the community.

Herrera: A big part of that is that it has to stretch to all parts of the organization. For a media organization, for instance, it’s not just the stories that we write. That means that we’re actually hiring people from the community. It means that we are inviting people into the process and creating the means by which people can feel a sense of ownership over the work, and know that we’re doing this, again, in community with each other. 

Kunishima: Issues of equity show up in how we write our job descriptions, how we think about staffing, what we demand of our applicants — educationally, experientially — and how we interview. And I don’t think we can even talk about community without talking about this aspect of our work. At the end of the day, if you don’t have a diversity of people in your organization, if you don’t have a diversity of people doing your fund development, you won’t have much diversity in your donor pool or your funder pool either.

Can you talk more about your approach to fundraising?

Hart: With both organizations being where they are, in the South, and thinking about some of the local philanthropy there, our approach has tended to be thinking outside of journalism, for funding. Identifying foundation partners, such as Surdna Foundation or the Andrew Mellon Foundation, who understand, whether it’s at a social justice level or humanities level, the work that we’re doing, and can provide general operating support. Explicitly trying to apply for general operating support can give us some sort of runway so we are not pigeon-holed to projects and required to do a lot of deliverables that are ultimately really problematic and more in service of foundations than the community we’re serving.

Herrera:  I think that one of the blessings of this moment that we’re in, is that the industry of journalism has fallen so far that people are not beginning to re-evaluate what it means, and what needs it meets, and what the point of it is. And so once you start kind of going back to the fundamentals there, you realize that journalism is in service of information systems, right? How are we connecting people with the information that they need to make sense of their world to be able to act with agency in that world? 

That creates the opportunity for a lot of connection points, like Andrea was saying, between democracy foundations, and civil rights foundations, and all other kinds of foundations that are trying to do work. What that does is it creates this opportunity to tell a different kind of story around journalism and its importance in the here and now. So that’s definitely, in terms of our approach to fundraising, a key component, particularly in the foundation direction.

[For individual donors], the act of donating is more than just giving money. The act of donating is an act of investment in your community. It’s something you believe in, and it’s something that makes you feel a sense of ownership over the movement or organization. To move away from market language, the sense of participation — to be a participatory member of your community, and something that you believe is actually helping to save your community, or to benefit your community, or to give back to your community.

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