Tips for driving equitable culture change within your news organization

Key takeaways from a News Philanthropy Network conversation with Public Media for All.

By Hayley Slusser

June 22, 2023

Many across the journalism field have spoken extensively about how news organizations need to grow their audiences and ensure that their coverage is representative and inclusive of the diverse communities they serve. These same principles should apply to news fundraisers as well — a successful grassroots donor base should be reflective of the community. 

But ensuring news coverage and fundraising campaigns are representative of the community can only be possible if there’s an internal culture shift, too, where all teams are committed to incorporating equity into daily work. 

To help news fundraisers begin this work, the News Philanthropy Network was joined by JC Polk, production consultant at TRAC Media, Aishah Rashied Hyman, senior vice president of development at KERA, Aaron Turner, director of development at WGVU, and Sachi Kobayashi, senior manager, collaborative philanthropy at NPR. These professionals are members of Public Media for All, a coalition of public media workers that raises awareness and shares solutions to address the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in public media. 

Below are some key takeaways from their conversation, including a few tips and tools for how to begin shifting company culture within your own organization.

Getting staff buy-in

Far too often, companies make the mistake of bringing in a single individual — often a person of color — to bear the work of shifting company culture. But without proper buy-in from the top leadership, making significant changes in company culture can be an uphill battle that leaves DEI advocates burnt out. 

To begin changing company culture, getting senior executives on board is crucial. One way to frame the conversation is around blind spots — every organization has areas it can improve upon, and by making DEI a priority, everyone at the company can improve and better serve different audiences. 

For many, this is easier said than done, especially for older, legacy newsrooms. Some leaders might perceive calls for creating a more equitable organization as invalidating the organization’s history of meaningful work. Turner emphasized moving away from a mindset of “reverence,” where newsrooms are remembered for past accomplishments, and moving toward “relevance,” where the organization continues to evolve in order to maintain its status as an important institution in the community. 

It’s also important to be upfront about the realistic amount of time and effort that will be required to successfully shift company culture. It’s not just about having a diverse team that feels they belong at the organization, but rather, DEI needs to be reflected in everything: Long-term strategic planning, internal communications, employee evaluations, and much more. 

Diversifying your donor base

A news organization’s staff and the work they’re producing should sound and look like the community it serves. This idea is often brought up in relation to the journalism itself, but it is just as important for fundraising efforts.

A study from Blackbaud on diversity in giving found that “African-American and Hispanic donors say they are solicited less frequently” but “suggested they would give more if they were asked more often.” Giving USA’s 2020 report also found that donors of color are inclined to support causes related to journalism, such as education or civil rights. By not tapping into these groups and making the ask, fundraisers can easily miss out on important gifts. 

Rashied Hyman shared how in her previous role as senior vice president of membership and business development at WABE, the team employed several tactics to build their audience, engage new supporters, and help make their donor base’s demographics more proportional to Atlanta’s. 

WABE started with market research to identify the makeup of their current donor base and to prospect potential donors from diverse communities. For organizations looking to conserve resources, she said funders are sometimes willing to support this work through grants. Other times, it’s possible to partner with another community organization who could benefit from the information to split costs.

Fundraisers can then use this data to identify several themes or values that could motivate diverse groups to give, rather than craft a one-size-fits-all messaging campaign. At WABE, Rashied Hyman’s team developed a “messaging matrix” that lined up values with real-life examples of the information people might need related to that value, and lastly, how the newsroom can fulfill that need. 

But messaging can only go so far without the practices to back it up, and that’s why newsrooms and fundraising teams need to focus on diversifying everything they produce, not just stories. All of the following elements can be changed to reflect and engage a diverse community: 

  • Photographs and graphics
  • Music embeds within video or audio storytelling
  • Which stories have an ask included
  • Scripts for making the ask
  • Donor testimonials
  • Events (including what neighborhood and venue you’re hosting them at and which vendors you hire)
  • Who is designing the merchandise / thank you gifts
  • Which influencers / community partners are promoting the organization 

Aside from seeing an uptick in donors, WABE assessed the impact of their major changes by regularly surveying the audience. It also enlisted community ambassadors to directly connect with people across the city to identify information needs or concerns. 

Rashied Hyman said all of these changes were made possible by having a fundraising team that was diverse at all levels. 

Tools to get started 

Public Media for All created a list of action items that public media organizations can commit to in order to work toward equity. While these were developed with public media in mind, any organization can use them as a guide to push culture change forward. It also compiled a resource hub that covers everything from hiring, to fundraising, to change management, and much more. 

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