As the field of news philanthropy continues to grow, many donors want to see that the organizations they’re supporting are making a positive impact on the communities they serve. To meet the information needs of their donors, fundraising professionals can work with more advanced data to help communicate impact and engagement. 

In a panel at the Lenfest News Philanthropy Summit, four experts in fundraising and impact — Blair Greenbaum, director of institutional giving at NPR, Lindsay Green-Barber, founder and CEO of Impact Architects, Rachel White, president of and executive vice president for philanthropic and strategic partnerships at Guardian News and Media, and Alex Jakana, program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — sat down for a conversation on using data to optimize fundraising. 

Given their different roles as both funders and fundraisers, each of their organizations measures data and impact differently, and the four professionals have diverse experiences in how they utilize data to inform their work. 

You can watch their conversation in full, as well as all conversations from the Summit, here

Here are some takeaways from the panel:

The definition of “impact” varies between organizations and projects

Every organization has a unique mission, and their definition of impact should be related to their unique mission. For impact-driven organizations that often means they want to facilitate some sort of change through the media they produce, Jakana said.

To begin outlining impact goals, Green-Barber said organizations should consider who their target audience is, how they assume the audience will access information, and what they hope the audience will do with that information afterward. News outlets should also take into consideration that “impact” can be broad or fluctuate over time, as different journalism projects might have different objectives or target different audiences.

For example, NPR has a broad definition of impact, Greenbaum said. The public radio network has a clearly defined goal set by executives of reaching more diverse audiences. There are many different ways of working toward that goal and reaching more diverse ages, races, and ethnicities, but all of the organization’s projects seek to work toward this impact in some way or another. 

On the other hand, White said at The Guardian that the definition of impact varies based on the topic, which audiences they think would be interested in a particular story or project, and which partners they are working with at the time. Impact goals for various projects range from finding angles to cover underreported issues, including different voices in the coverage, or real-world outcomes like policy changes. 

“It is never just one thing or having to see a specific change in the word,” she said. “We do want to always make sure that there are some increments in there that allow us to see how we’re getting toward those big changes, even if we don’t get to them immediately.”

It is also important to think outside of the box in terms of impact — news organizations often look to see whether their story was amplified by other media outlets or if it changed something within an institution or the government to determine success. Green-Barber said this approach ignores the fact that change often begins at the community level, and that assessing how a story can empower community organizations or movements is just as valuable. 

Data literacy is key

As more news organizations seek philanthropic funding and competition increases, donors often look for more advanced metrics of impact and reach when deciding which outlets to fund. 

Greenbaum said development professionals should become more “data literate” to show the value of their organization.

“Not only do we need data tracking tools and databases and things like that — quantifiable metrics that we’re applying to our journalism — we need to know how to take all of that complex information and synthesize it for funders,” she said. 

In the current media climate, Greenbaum said donors are more likely to view fact-based, quality, independent journalism as a public service. By rethinking data collection strategies to effectively show impact, media outlets better position themselves to compete for direct service funding.

The amount of data available to digital news organizations can feel overwhelming, especially for smaller organizations. For media outlets just getting started with impact tracking, White recommended starting with only a few editorial projects. Rather than trying to pay attention to every metric, organizations can discern which data points are more important based on the insights they are seeking to gain.

There’s more to metrics than pageviews

Most digital newsrooms are familiar with basic metrics, like pageviews, time on page, recirculation rate, or even audience demographics.

For specific projects, there are other ways to keep track of success. For stories aimed at individuals or institutions with the capacity to make change, news organizations can keep track of who the story reached and their proximity to the target audience, White said. For example, if a story is about a specific policy change, they can note if a legislator mentioned the story as part of the lawmaking process. The Guardian also uses a social listening tool to better understand what conversations their stories are able to spark, and similarly, Green-Barber recommended keeping track of when your organization gets direct feedback from an audience member. 

It is also important to remember that real-world impact often takes time and that will not be reflected in initial analytics, Green-Barber said. News organizations can implement audience surveys or conduct focus groups to get a better understanding of what’s happening on the ground in response to their coverage. These strategies often work best when the outlet has a clear goal of what aspect of impact they want to measure, whether it be for themselves or for a funder. 

White recommended using the Center for Investigative Reporting’s impact tracker, which was created by Green-Barber. Impact Architects also has a number of free tools, and Green-Barber also recommended Resolve Philly’s impact tracker. Solutions Journalism Network also has strategies for tracking impact.

Focusing on data and impact will require a cultural shift in the newsroom

When news organizations can better understand their impact data, they not only inform donors as to which strategies work, but also the journalists producing the stories, who can build upon that success. But it is not always easy to get everyone on board — Greenbaum said some journalists at NPR were initially concerned that the amount of data collection would lead to the outlet prioritizing click bait rather than the deep, service-oriented journalism the organization prides itself on. 

White said talking about stories’ tangible impact creates more excitement in the newsroom than discussing clicks or other traditional metrics, and that The Guardian makes it a point to regularly discuss impact with all sectors of the organization to show how their reporting pays off. 

To help foster the cultural shift in the newsroom, Greenbaum said it is important that development professionals are integrated with the rest of the newsroom. She recommended creating a cross-functional data working group to bring together people from all sectors of the organization — editorial, marketing, audience, operational, and more. This group can help set goals for data collection and communicate these goals to the rest of the company, as well as conduct surveys to better understand the data needs or concerns of employees. 

“Success begets success, impact begets impact,” White said. “The more we talk about it, the more it becomes part of the work that we do, not a burden that you’re trying to achieve in the newsroom.”

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