How Generocity engaged local funders to support its reporting on the response to the pandemic

Each month for the past year, editors and reporters from Generocity – a news site covering the nonprofit sector in Philadelphia – gathered on Zoom to discuss the site’s ongoing coverage of the pandemic and how the Philly region’s social impact organizations were responding.   

But the journalists weren’t the only ones on the call: Leaders from eight local foundations, who were funding Generocity’s reporting, joined the conversations to share insights into what they were seeing in the community.

This work was a part of TRACE – Toward Response and Community Equity – which launched in July 2020 with two goals in mind.

“The project really served two purposes: To do more work in tracking the [COVID] response, and to get several new foundations who have not done a lot of journalism investment to be a part of this,” Chris Wink, co-founder and CEO of Technically Media, which publishes Generocity.org and local tech news and events network Technical.ly, told me. 

This week in Solution Set we are looking at the TRACE project’s approach to engaging funders in the storytelling process, how the journalists maintained their editorial independence, the challenges that came with it, and the lessons learned.

And full disclosure: The Lenfest Institute was one of the organizations that funded and took part in the project. I was not personally involved, and we’re treating this like any other issue of the newsletter: the subjects have not seen it prior to publication. 

Here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

  • The Challenge: TRACE set out to track Philadelphia’s nonprofit, civic, and philanthropic response to the pandemic by engaging local funders in the process.
  • The Strategy: Generocity held monthly meetings with a group of local foundations to inform its reporting throughout the year, and it performed a quarterly self-assessment of local leaders’ pandemic response.
  • The Numbers: 50 stories were published during the yearlong project, which was supported by a $96,000 grant.
  • The Lessons: The project introduced local Philadelphia-area foundations to media funding, and it leveraged funders’ insights on their communities to help drive reporting.
  • The Future: Some funders are considering making journalism investments in the future.
  • Want to know more? Scroll down to learn more about TRACE and how newsrooms are seeking to involve community foundations. 

The Challenge

Generocity, the Philadelphia-based social impact news site, initially built TRACE – Toward Response and Community Equity – as a yearlong reporting project to track the philanthropic response to the pandemic in the greater Philadelphia area. But soon after the project launched in spring 2020, it took on a racial-justice focus in response to the protests following the murder of George Floyd.

“It was the intertwining of these crises, aiming to take a solutions-journalism approach,” said Chris Wink, the Technically Media CEO.

The idea for the project came about through conversations that began prior to the pandemic in February 2020 between Wink and Molly de Aguiar, president of The Independence Public Media Foundation, which also funded the project. They initially discussed launching a news coworking project to support freelance reporters of color who write for Generocity. But as the pandemic spread, the conversation changed to address the moment.

“We realized that what was unfolding was urgent,” said Wink. “We weren’t sure if anyone was going to track, from day one, how the nonprofit, civic, and philanthropic community is responding to this moment from a very beat-focused lens.”

While the project’s focus was on covering the philanthropic community’s response to the pandemic, TRACE also served the purpose of helping several local funders learn more about supporting journalism.

“We hatched this idea to pilot a project that would attract some funders who are new or relatively new to media funding, and show them how Generocity’s reporting and events can support their philanthropic goals while also producing valuable reporting for and with the community,” de Aguiar said in an email.

As a publisher, Wink said the start of the project was a healthy reminder of how foreign journalism can seem for those outside of the industry – especially for foundations entirely new to media funding.

“I felt like some of the foundations, in the early days, were intimidated. They were almost unsure of what the relationship was and what was overstepping,” said Wink. “This was my first experience with a philanthropic-based project. This was very new for me as well.”

So as the Generocity team built out the project, it wanted to engage the funders in a meaningful way that connected them to the work, but also wanted to ensure that it maintained editorial independence to produce valuable journalism.


The Strategy

To foster engagement with the funders, Generocity held a monthly meeting with representatives from the foundations to allow them to share what they noticed in their communities and to help identify areas for potential reporting. This gave a chance for the community to inform the reporting and warm the idea of journalism investment to the funders.

The first meeting was held in June 2020 and they continued through July 2021. 

The TRACE team saw an opportunity to engage funders in conversations on the news of the day as part of this specific project — and also about support for media more broadly and how it can influence their philanthropic work.

“At that time last summer we recognized that our racial justice work needed a narrative change,” said Emma Hertz, director of external affairs at the HealthSpark Foundation, a private foundation serving Montgomery County in suburban Philadelphia. “This opportunity to invest more directly in news through a trusted partner and with other foundation partners made a lot of sense for where we were at that time.”

Each of the monthly meetings had a regular standing agenda in which each funder would share the latest from their perspective on how the pandemic and racial justice movements were impacting their communities. These insights helped inform Generocity’s reporting and gave the team story ideas to pursue.

Hertz said it was inspiring to sit in a Zoom room with other foundation leaders to hear how they were responding to the moment and meeting community needs. 

“The folks sitting around the table are well-known thought leaders in the region, so having conversations with them was really impactful,” she said. “To think about how Generocity was translating that thinking into storytelling was really interesting.”

Following these monthly conversations, funders were cited as sources for some of the stories. For example, in September 2020, Shanell Ransom, program officer for the social, racial & economic justice portfolio at the Samuel S. Fels Fund was featured in a story regarding mental health for non-profit staffers during the pandemic.

Another notable story about a somewhat forgotten pre-pandemic effort to form a coalition of health institutions in North Philadelphia, the Health Enterprise Zone (HEZ), spurred several groups to get in touch to assess the effort.

Much of Generocity’s reporting for the project facilitated dialogue between nonprofit leaders and helped funders adapt their efforts and approaches to giving during the year, Wink said. One approach they took was to make applications less burdensome for prospective grantees.

The meetings also gave funders an opportunity to push on Generocity, and each other, that these issues are not just about Philadelphia – the surrounding suburbs are deeply connected to what is happening in the city and are doing a lot of their own innovative work.

For example, this story sheds light on how the CARES Rent Relief Program administered by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency missed the mark on adequately releasing relief money to tenants in Montgomery County – and how the county pivoted to support the community.

Generocity also used the meetings to share updates on its reporting and different parts of the TRACE project, such as a survey of Philadelphia’s nonprofit community to better understand how they viewed the response to the pandemic.

The survey, Regional ‘Just Recovery’ Self-Assessment, asked leaders – ranging from large foundations to community based organizations and government leaders – to grade the region’s pandemic response. 

Generocity sent the survey to 100 local leaders, and 53 responded to the self-assessment. They offered ratings in three categories, all of which had a focus on racial equity: 

  • Public Health
  • Community Engagement
  • Economic Resiliency

The Generocity team asked the same questions to the same group four times throughout the yearlong project and shared the quarterly updates. 

At the end of the project, the team released a 30 page final report that includes key findings from the surveys and other main takeaways from the project.


The Numbers

Generocity published 50 stories across the yearlong project.

TRACE was supported by a $96,000 grant. Eight different Philadelphia-area funders made contributions to the overall grant. The participating funders were:

(I mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth repeating — I work for The Lenfest Institute, which supported the project, but we are treating this like any other issue of Solution Set.) 

Generocity’s only full time staffer is editor Sabrina Vourvoulias, and one freelance reporter, Lynette Hazelton, worked on the project.


The Lessons

• Engage funders more robustly: Wink explained that the team had some conversations around the potential appearance of a conflict of interest and challenges around convincing staff to give funders access to the editorial process – but the project proved that newsrooms can successfully engage funders in their work without compromising independence.

Generocity’s editor, Sabrina Vourvoulias, was instrumental in that process, Wink said. Vourvoulias has experience with multiple different types of newsrooms, so her expertise helped ensure the credibility of the reporting. Generocity did not share story drafts with the funders pre-publication and it was under no agreement to accept their advice, but feedback was welcome and encouraged – no different than the average reader or source. 

The funders, of course, had lots of opinions on what Generocity should cover. If they didn’t agree with the end result of a certain story, they were not only given the space – but encouraged – to share those opinions.

“If someone thinks a story is stupid, we want to hear why,” said Wink. “Our job is to stay consistent and do the best we can in getting as accurate a story as we can.”

Journalism can help funders change: Even though there were challenges for all involved, Hertz said the project helped introduce the HealthSpark Foundation to media funding.

“We need to go outside of our normal, safe networks,” said Hertz. “It is really important that if we want to enact change, we have to go out into different spaces. This opportunity allowed us to expand our bubble a bit more.”

In the past, media funding simply wasn’t on HeathSpark’s radar. Hertz shared that Montgomery County has seen a loss in local news over the last two years, and that loss is being felt in their community. The county especially lacks coverage of their nonprofit community. The foundation’s involvement in TRACE helped to recognize that quality local journalism is critical to supporting the social safety net – its main focus.

HealthSpark was able to update their internal strategies to include journalism investments with a focus on media, news, information, and storytelling by and for underserved communities. The Foundation recently partnered with IPMF through its Community Voices Fund to continue Montgomery County media funding.

• Be wary of the mission creep: The pandemic ended up so much bigger than any one realized at the onset in spring 2020. What was originally thought to be a health and economic crisis incited deeper conversations around racial equity.

The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 catalyzed this moment and forced us all to take an even deeper look at the impact the pandemic is having in communities of color. A racial reckoning alongside a global pandemic and an economic crisis made it challenging for the Generocity team to decide where their focus should be for the project.

“I go back and forth about whether we should have had a meeting to make sure the scope didn’t widen too far,” expressed Wink. “A criticism of the project could be that the year got so big that we felt like we had to touch the sun. That might have stretched out the impact.”

It sometimes felt like the coverage wasn’t fully reflective of the challenges facing funders, but in retrospect it was fairly fulsome, de Aguiar said. 

“It often takes looking back in a more holistic way to see success where you might not have seen it along the way,” said de Aguiar. “When I read the TRACE [final] report, and I could see it all gathered in one place, it felt a lot more successful and substantial to me than it did as we were wading through the murky waters, just trying to do our best.”


The Future

There are no plans, at the moment, for a follow-up project or partnership, but Generocity plans to continue relationships with several of the funders and to be a part of a larger effort in reminding funders of the importance of a thriving local news ecosystem to their work.

Both Wink and de Aguiar said they hope the funding partners learned more about journalism and are more comfortable with the idea of funding similar projects in the future.

“Any investment or strategic priority they have should include a nod to how that work can be amplified, held accountable, and better understood for those not involved,” said Wink. “What was so new about this approach was to have so many contribute small amounts to just get a taste for engaging closely with a newsroom.”

The scope of the project ended up being much larger than anyone could have anticipated, and nobody expected that the pandemic would be continuing 18 months later. The TRACE team has used the time post-project to think about the larger lessons of the project.

Connecting with local foundations meant gaining access to the critical and timely insight of their communities, thus informing Generocity’s storytelling and delivering the most relevant and useful information as possible. It hopes to continue to deepen these relationships.

The HealthSpark Foundation has had a transformative year as well and plans to intertwine the importance of diverse storytelling into its main bodies of work going forward.

“We have come to realize that shifting the narrative is critical for more than just public policy,” Hertz said. “It is imperative for funders to realize that regardless of their traditional area of funding, news and information is integral to our ability to move forward as a society.”

IPMF hopes that funders will continue to contribute financially to Generocity — and other local publications — as equitable access to local news plays a huge role in community wellbeing, especially as we continue to navigate through this pandemic.

“Funders are much more aware than they used to be about the role of independent journalism in a functioning society and democracy,” said de Aguiar. “They’re alarmed by the decline in access to local news and information and the rise in disinformation and corruption.”


Want to know more? 

  • You can find all 50 of the stories Generocity published under TRACE here.
  • Check out this conversation between Generocity’s reporter Lynette Hazelton and editor Sabrina Vourvoulias. They reflect on the yearlong project and discuss both optimism and the challenges ahead. To learn more about the quarterly self-assessment and overall key findings of TRACE, read the full 30 page final report.
  • There’s been an increase in community foundation support for journalism in recent years, but there’s room for that support to grow, according to a report from Media Impact Funders published in July 2021. Check out the full report to learn more about trends in journalism funding.

Anything to add?

How’s your newsroom thinking about fundraising and working with local funders in your community? Have you had success raising money to support your journalism? What are the challenges you’ve faced? We’d love to hear about your experiences for future issues of Solution Set and for our work with the News Philanthropy Network. Please feel free to email [email protected] with any thoughts or feedback.

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