No money, no mission: Nine lessons from the 2023 News Philanthropy Summit

Local news is central to our democracy. Journalists elevate community voices and hold power to account. We know that our news organizations are filling a most vital role. 

But we can’t do it without resources. No money, no mission.

That’s why we hosted the second News Philanthropy Summit, a two-day, free virtual gathering focused on fundraising for local news. The Summit is part of the News Philanthropy Network, a global community working together to make philanthropy part of a sustainable business model for news organizations. 

Fundraising is hard. It takes perseverance, commitment, and a willingness to take risks. We are stretched too thin, and sometimes our colleagues don’t understand what we do and how challenging it is. We face rejection all the time, and no matter how much we raise, it can feel like it’s never enough.  

And yet, working with donors is such a special, profound partnership. We get to collaborate with people who are willing to give up their resources, who believe so strongly in our work and our mission, and who want to make their community — and our democracy — stronger.

We’ll look back on this time in a few years and realize that together we’ve created something incredible. Our work is changing the business model for local news. Our work is sustaining local journalism, at a time of profound need. 

Again, no money, no mission.

Below, my colleagues Allie Vanyur, Anna Gordover, Hayley Slusser, and Joseph Lichterman collected nine key takeaways from the 2023 Summit. We hope that there are ideas and hints that will help you with your work. We also hope you will take advantage of the News Philanthropy Summit resources on our website — including recordings of Summit sessions, slide decks, and other guides shared by speakers and attendees.

We hope also that you will join us for our free, year-round programming. And if you have suggestions on what you would like to learn, or share, to help our community raise even more money, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

1.  Make the case for journalism as it connects to topic-focused funding priorities

There are many regions throughout the country where there are few, if any, media-specific funders. When making the case to funders who may not typically support journalism, it can be helpful to position journalism as an overarching tool that delivers information and resources about various interests. Funders may have an expressed goal to support focus areas such as climate, education, or health, so fundraisers can position journalism as a vehicle to address those topics for the communities they serve.

This approach arose in several sessions that included funder perspectives, including a session on engaging community foundations as local partners. Allison Levine, president and founder of the Local Journalism Initiative Delaware and vice president for marketing and communications at the Delaware Community Foundation, emphasized that while funders might not care about journalism for the sake of journalism, they do care deeply about community, democracy, and equity.

Speaking during the “Demystifying funder relationships” session, Lizzy Hazeltine, director of the NC Local News Lab, echoed that sentiment, saying, “the availability of high-quality, accessible, useful local news and information is a direct contributor to civic outcomes like voting and participation in elections …and we know that local news creates a sense of belonging, and belonging is critical for things like economic development, small businesses, or youth engagement.”

2. Change doesn’t happen overnight

In a candid conversation, Lisa Snowden-McCray, editor-in-chief of The Baltimore Beat, and Adam Holofcener, board member of the Lillian Holofcener Charitable Foundation, discussed the transformative gift that relaunched The Baltimore Beat and redistributed the Foundation’s wealth into the hands of a community paper.

The years-long process that led to the $1 million no-strings-attached donation to the Beat in 2022 included difficult and emotional conversations about trust, privilege, and reparations. Holofcener spoke about navigating power structures and interrogating long-held personal beliefs. He intentionally shielded Snowden-McCray from emotional labor or potential trauma as a leader of color and noted “one of the things I learned was how important it was to create a really deliberate chain of empathy.”

Meaningful change takes time and effort; it often includes many setbacks before reaching what may be a small victory or a seismic shift. And once that shift does happen, the work isn’t over – after receiving this transformative gift and relaunching The Beat, Snowden-McCray emphasized, “I still need money. The million dollars is great and it gives me a foundation but I’m not done at all, it really just puts me on the playing field.”

3.  Unrestricted funding enables experimentation

Just as The Baltimore Beat’s re-launch was funded by an unrestricted gift from the Holofcener Charitable Foundation, others at the Summit shared the transformative power of unrestricted support, which can provide grantees with the runway to try new ideas and focus on what’s most important to them. 

Free Press Unlimited is an international press freedom advocacy organization based in the Netherlands. One of its primary funders is the Dutch Postcode Lottery, which exclusively offers unrestricted support. 

That funding has enabled Free Press Unlimited to pursue projects that other funders may see as risky, and it’s actually helped develop a funder-grantee relationship that is honest and transparent. 

“In our relationship with the Postcode Lottery, because we have that trust, it becomes absolutely vital that we have a frank relationship with each other, where, when something is going wrong, we immediately go to them and say, ‘Look, we know that we intended to do this. But this and this happened, this part failed, but this is working well so can we shift money,’” said Free Press Unlimited Senior Adviser Leon Willems. “The incredible ‘unrestrictedness’ of it actually prompts us to be more accountable and to share more.” 

Though unrestricted support can be a shift for many funders, it is worthwhile for fundraisers to begin conversations about its value and how it can help grow capacity and trust. 

4.  Find mutual alignment with funders and donors

The most impactful relationships between funders and news organizations happen when priorities align to support meaningful journalism. 

Searchlight New Mexico Executive Editor Sara Solovitch and Development Director Tamara Bates highlighted the importance of mutual alignment during their workshop on “Creating generative relationships with major donors.” They encouraged attendees to harness their storytelling skills and communicate with donors to establish a common vision, then build off of that vision to secure future donations. 

“When I meet with a potential donor, I don’t talk about money or what the organization might need. I first talk about the vision of what we are trying to accomplish,” Bates said. “The focus is on inspiration and aspiration.”

Shawn Mooring, The Lenfest Institute’s head of Philadelphia programs, gave similar advice on achieving a mutually aligned fundraising approach during the “Demystifying funder relationships” conversation. Mooring encouraged potential grant recipients to think proactively about what they and their funders all want to solve. This could include not only aspirations, but also any challenges that may lie ahead.

“A lot of times, what you’re struggling with as an individual organization, many others are as well,” Mooring said. He then suggested that organizations “identify opportunities for funders to create space and share resources that are collectively accessible.” 

5.  Empower the everyday philanthropist

Keith Leaphart, founder of Philanthropi, a digital platform designed to excite and engage individuals in lifelong philanthropy, said that contrary to popular belief, individuals contributing small dollar donations make up the majority of philanthropic dollars raised every year, not major gifts from corporations or foundations.

But many of these small dollar donors — a significant portion who are young people and people of color — might not feel their contributions are as valued as major gifts. Additionally, resource-strapped development teams focusing on securing major gifts might not have the bandwidth to find and steward these smaller donors.

To ensure these individuals feel engaged with your organization and its mission, it is important for news organizations to emphasize how these small gifts add up to help make a big impact. Philanthropi and other services offer streamlined ways for individuals to contribute to philanthropic causes and access data about their overall contributions.

“If I look at last year’s philanthropic giving, it’s one thing, but when I’m able to look at it like a portfolio of giving over the course of the last five years, it’s way more significant. You can see how my philanthropy has evolved, you can see how it’s grown,” Leaphart said. “I think that’s one of the things that we want to make sure of — that the individual giver, the long-term donor — that they feel valued here.”

6. A rising tide lifts all boats — a unified voice can help newsrooms raise money and impact communities together

Collaborative efforts have proven to be successful tools for news organizations looking to secure funding and better serve their communities. 

The Colorado Media Project pools funds from major donors, a number of which are local community foundations, and makes grants directly to local news organizations along with other organizations working to sustain local news, said Director Melissa Davis. Since 2018, CMP has raised more than $5 million and also conducts research, distributes tools and learnings, and hosts events that are in service of the news organizations it supports. 

In New Hampshire, members of the Granite State News Collaborative reap the benefits of shared coverage, resources, and training. The Collaborative also hires freelance reporters to produce investigative pieces to be shared in all member outlets, saving each organization time and money while ensuring communities have access to valuable information. 

“I wasn’t quite sure that we would ever get to a point where the partners — they once were rivals — now regularly email each other or email me and say ‘hey, can we coordinate on this,’” said Melanie Plenda, director of Granite State News Collaborative. “It helps each partner conserve their resources and they can do that without sacrificing quality or content for their communities — in fact, they’re giving their communities more content.”

For news organizations interested in collaboration or engaging new funders, Davis said getting the conversation started about common goals is key. You don’t always need to have a fully developed idea when contacting potential funders and collaborators. 

There’s no singular way to start a collaborative — but you can check out the Collaborative Sustainability Guide produced by Solutions Journalism Network, the Center for Cooperative Media, and The Lenfest Institute for examples and case studies. 

7. Don’t make people feel like they’re buying a product — prioritize your community in your messaging 

Many news organizations treat donations as a transaction: audience members give you money and receive information in return. But nonprofit news organizations such as Documented, a New York-based newsroom serving immigrant communities, exist to “provide news to communities that do not have access to them – or trust in the institutions that have traditionally provided that news,” said Andrea Bichan, the outlet’s director of development. Therefore, they have a greater responsibility to authentically communicate with the audience they’re trying to serve.

Many communities, especially those repeatedly misrepresented and underserved by mainstream journalism, hesitate to engage with traditional fundraising and won’t care as much about the word “membership.” Instead, organizations should take advantage of collaborative campaigns, language that tells a story, and mission-driven messaging that puts their audience first without coming off like a marketing ploy.

“[Our community members] don’t want swag, they don’t want stuff, they don’t want to be mailed anything,” Bichan said during the “Fundraising for news organizations serving low-wealth communities” session.

By using audience engagement tactics that put communities first, nonprofit news organizations can establish stronger connections with those communities and raise more consistent funds.

8.  New fundraising models are emerging

The field of news philanthropy continues to grow as new types of funders and news organizations are realizing opportunities to grow support for public-interest journalism. 

An increasing number of for-profit news organizations — especially those serving communities of color — are looking to expand their revenue streams to include philanthropy. In the session, “Why you might need a fiscal sponsor,” Garry Pierre-Pierre, the publisher of the for-profit Haitian Times, said he started receiving interest from funders during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. 

“Foundations were interested in and funding what we’re doing, because we’re a niche publication [serving] relatively new immigrants. There were opportunities for us to do some very unique reporting.” He then had to pursue a fiscal sponsor to help manage the donations. 

Another growing area is public support, and leaders from organizations and newsrooms in California, New Jersey, and New Mexico shared insights into exciting new and existing public funding initiatives in their states that provide a new revenue stream while still maintaining their editorial independence. Statewide government-funded journalism fellowships and regranting programs are in the early stages, but they offer a new path for sustainable and accessible support of news and information.

9.  Burst your bubble

Within an organization, it’s critical for newsrooms and fundraising teams to collaborate in order to build a successful fundraising strategy that supports a holistic organizational vision. 

Of course, editorial independence remains paramount, but a successful culture of philanthropy requires clear communication of priorities, deadlines, and updates on both coverage plans and funder interests. 

Texas Tribune Editor-in-Chief Sewell Chan emphasized that it’s no longer possible for serious journalists to assume they can exist in a bubble, blissfully oblivious to the need to think about revenue generation and new business models.

“We never want to do anything where, if it were public, it would in any way suggest that the journalism is compromised, of course that’s supremely important,” Chan said in a keynote conversation with Texas Tribune Chief Development Officer Terry Quinn. “But you also have to make the time as an editorial leader to really be a deep partner with your product and revenue colleagues.”

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