Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the United States, and nearly one-in-five residents suffer from food insecurity. It’s a massive challenge for the city, and many organizations are trying to tackle it.

But what role should journalists have? Billy Penn, the millennial-focused Philadelphia site, thinks news organizations need to be more proactive.

“What’s going to drive journalism forward is the connection to civic good and social impact,” Billy  Penn editor Danya Henninger told me.

That’s why it partnered with The Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, a local think tank, to start to address the challenge through the Full City Challenge, an incubator program meant to support pilot projects that are working to tackle the issue of hunger in Philadelphia.

This week in Solution Set, we’re going to focus on The Full City Challenge and will dig into the genesis of the partnership, the evolving role of journalism, and how they thought about this project as an experiment.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one neat thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources. (A quick disclosure: The Lenfest Institute has given grants to Billy Penn and its parent Spirited Media. The Institute did not support the Full City Challenge though, and Billy Penn had no editorial oversight of this report.)

And before we get started, I wanted to let you know that we’re starting a Solution Set Book Club. I’ve been brainstorming a bit about this on Twitter, but essentially I wanted to help create a space where we can discuss interesting books and articles relevant to the future of journalism. You can sign up to get updates here, and I’d be grateful if you took this Twitter poll to share feedback on what platform you’d like best for this. I hope you’ll join us!

In the meantime, here’s the TLDR:


• The Challenge: Billy Penn and Philadelphia think tank The Economy League wanted to find a way to spur civic engagement in the city.

• The Strategy: They created the Full City Challenge, an incubator program to help develop and support pilot projects for tackling hunger in Philadelphia.

• The Numbers: Five finalists participated in a Shark Tank-style Main Event. The winner received $5,000 and ongoing support.

• The Lessons: Collaborations take a lot of work, but can be valuable for expanding networks. News organizations also need to be careful to maintain editorial independence in projects like this.

• The Future: Billy Penn and The Economy League want to expand the project next year.

• Want to know more?: Scroll down to learn more about the winning projects and more about in-person engagement.

The Challenge

The Economy League of Greater Philadelphia and Billy Penn each came to the idea for what would become The Full City Challenge in their own way.

The Economy League is a Philadelphia-area think tank, and in recent years it has been working to spur more public discussion and support for what it thinks are critical issues facing the city.

It runs a program called the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange, which takes a group of Philadelphia business  and civic leaders to other cities around the United States to learn about how others are attacking problems that Philly is dealing with. The program has a broad network of alumni, and the Economy League wanted to find ways to keep them involved as alumni.

It also wanted to find ways to broaden the number of people who are involved in its work.

“For 80 years, The Economy League produced reports and we came down from the mountain with our tablets and said this is how you do things,” Economy League Managing Director of Strategy & Operations Nick Frontino told me when we met last month at the Philadelphia co-working space that Billy Penn works out of.

“In an era when there’s so much content out there, how do you get people’s attention? We’re still going to have our take on things and we’re still going to be armed with analysis and what our solid case is based on evidence and certain types of policies, but we would like to be able to point to individuals and teams of people who are working to advance the type of things that we work as opposed to talking about policy in a vacuum,” he said.

Billy Penn, meanwhile, was looking to foster civic engagement and wanted to engage with the group of young Philadelphians that it honors as part of its ongoing Who’s Next series, which it has run since it launched in 2014.

While each organization was coming at it from a slightly different perspective, but they decided to work together to create a pilot project focused on civic engagement.

Billy Penn editor Danya Henninger mentioned her idea for a Billy Penn project to Economy League executive director Jeff Hornstein, and he told her that the group was thinking of a similar program.

“We realized there was an opportunity to do something together,” she said.

Together, they decided to create The Full City Challenge, an incubator program focused on supporting prototype projects that will help address hunger in Philadelphia. The project winners was picked after a Shark Tank-style presentation event.

The Strategy

Philadelphia is a city of dichotomies: Center City and other neighborhoods are thriving and have one of the most vibrant and innovative restaurant scenes in the United States, but at the same time Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the country and one-in-five city residents don’t have enough to eat.

Both the Economy League and Billy Penn are well-versed in the issue and have connections in the Philadelphia restaurant world. The think tank has spent the past year or so working on a report for the city assessing the state of the city’s food economy. Billy Penn is one of more than 20 outlets participating in Broke in Philly, a Lenfest Institute-backed collaborative that’s covering economic justice and poverty in the city, and also Henninger is a longtime food writer in the city.

“How do we harness what’s best about the food scene, the food economy here in Philadelphia to tackle some of its most challenging problems?” Frontino said.

The groups spent months building out the project (More on that in the Lessons), but here’s how the Full City Challenge worked:

Last December, Billy Penn and The Economy League put out a call for applications for “proposals for initiatives, campaigns, social enterprises, technology platforms and other new solutions that use food, culinary or agricultural-based solutions to address pervasive hunger and its underlying causes for too many of our region’s residents.”

Applications were from early December through late January. Over the course of the application period, Billy Penn reported solutions-focused stories on similar efforts in other cities and it also worked with other outlets — including minority-owned publications — to get the word out.

“We got applications from basically every corner of the city,” Frontino said. “Some of your usual suspects were in there, but we did what we could with the limited capacity that we had and spread word into different communities. It’s not perfect, there’s still work to be done [but it’s a start.]”

Once all the applications were submitted, the partners narrowed down a list of semi-finalists that they interviewed in person.

From the list of semi-finalists, they picked five finalists who participated in an incubator workshop and then the final main event, where they would pitch their idea to a set of judges for the chance to win a $5,000 grant.

For the incubator workshop, the Economy League and Billy Penn brought together a group of volunteer advisers from the business and nonprofit communities who provided tips and guidance to the participants. They got advice on high-level strategy, the design of their pilots, and how to craft a compelling elevator pitch.

One participant, Henninger, came into the workshop with “an elevator pitch lasted until you were out on the street.” Their project was complicated and hard to explain, but the workshop helped them compress it down to a compelling, snappy pitch.

The teams also received advice from a coach sent by GoFundMe, the crowdfunding platform. As part of the challenge, the teams were required to raise money on the platform to generate revenue and awareness for their initiatives in the week leading up to the Challenge.

The team that raised the most on GoFundMe had their total matched up to $2,500 by the Full City Challenge.

The final main event was held Tuesday night at a restaurant in Philadelphia. The teams made their pitches to the judges, who were all leaders in the city’s food economy.

The winning project was HospitalityTogether, an education program that places individuals in hospitality job training positions while also supporting them to complete online college courses and receive in-person mentorship.

In addition to the $5,000 grant, HospitalityTogether will also receive six months of free desk space donated by a local co-working space, mentorship from the Economy League and its advisers, and Billy Penn will cover its ongoing work and progress.

The Rebel Market, a teen-led initiative to develop a store that sells affordable fresh and healthy food, won the People’s Challenge.

The Numbers

The Rebel Market raised $12,421 through its GoFundMe campaign. In total, the finalists raised about $28,500 to support their initiatives.

“Together with our $7,500 in prizes, that’s $36,000 mobilized through the Full City Challenge,” Frontino said in an email.

Billy Penn and The Economy League raised in excess of $15,000 from local sponsors, including Philadelphia International Airport; Marketplace PHL, the private entity that oversees retail and concessions at the Philadelphia airport; and PIDC, the city’s public-private economic development corporation. They also received in-kind donations for the restaurant space that hosted the Main Event and the event space where the incubator workshop was held.

“We had a hard time raising money for it,” Henninger said. It’s always a challenge to fundraise for new projects, and many of the organizations they approached for funding were interested but already set their sponsorship budgets for the year.

They expect to raise more money for the project next year. (More on this in The Future)

“Part of it was that we didn’t quite have everything worked out. Now it will be much easier to describe. We have proof of concept,” Henninger said.

While Henninger was involved in pitching the idea to sponsors, The Economy League ultimately handled the finances, partly to allow Billy Penn to maintain its editorial independence.

Tickets to the final event cost $25. “It was packed. We had a great turnout,” Henninger said.

In total, 32 projects applied to the Full City Challenge. Billy Penn and The Economy League narrowed it down to 10 semi-finalists who were interviewed and then five finalists were given spots in the incubator workshop and the final main event.

The Lessons

• ‘ There are no sides’: I think one of the most powerful things about local journalism is its sense of place. Reporters that cover their local communities also live there, and they want to see the places they live succeed and thrive. And through their journalism, outlets and individuals can be powerful forces for good.

Billy Penn agrees, but it wanted to make sure it stayed on the right side of the line between journalism and advocacy with its participation in the Full City Challenge.

“As journalists we don’t make the news. That’s advocacy. That’s a different type of work. What Billy Penn tries to do is make better citizens and make a better Philadelphia through civic engagement. This project is part of that mission. It creates news that we want to cover,” Henninger said. “We’re not creating the news itself. We’re encouraging collaboration, and out of that comes news stories that we cover.”

(Journalists, however, should think about how they can use advocacy techniques to connect with communities. Free Press has a terrific guide on this.)

And even as Henninger and Billy Penn took on a leading role in planning and raising money to support the Full City Challenge, the site insisted on its editorial independence. Neither the sponsors nor the Economy League had control over stories or saw them before publication.

Still, while outlets must maintain their editorial independence, Henninger emphasized that newsrooms need to think more about how they can generate revenue and help sustain their work and impact.

“In the future of journalism there are no sides,” she said. “The business side, and the editorial side, that model is dying. What’s going to drive journalism forward is the connection to civic good and social impact.”

Start small: Every aspect of the Full City Challenge was considered a pilot. Both Billy Penn and the Economy League have never tried anything like this before, and they just wanted to see if this was something that could actually work.

“Would we love to find the needle in the haystack? Absolutely, But we’re more measured in our expectations of the program,” Frontino said. “It’s really to see if there’s room for us to corner out some ground that allows people to experiment, brings a bunch of divers perspectives in to solve problems creatively.”

They were also clear with the participants that they were only funding a pilot program — not a full initiative.

“It’s not a lot of money,” he said. “We’re encouraging the finalists to do is to come up with a pilot. We’re telling them you have to test this. We’re not doing anything other than that. Part of the application is how will you use this for your pilot, not whatever your grand idea is.”

When news organizations are thinking about launching new partnerships or working on new projects outside of their core coverage areas, they should think about starting with small experiments like this to prove a proof of concept. It is a cliche, but that way you can learn cheaply what works and doesn’t work and then think about how or if you’d like to continue to grow the program.

• Collaboration is hard work: Efforts like The Full City Challenge don’t just come together overnight, and when you’re working with other organizations, they can require even more focus.

The Economy League and Billy Penn had a weekly hour-long call scheduled for about eight months in the lead up to the event. “And many weeks it was much more than that,” Henninger said.

It was important that the parties had that infrastructure set-up to facilitate conversations and decision making. And that initial work will hopefully pay off as they will be able to continue the relationship.

“There’s no question that the relationship will continue,” she said.

• Networks are powerful: One of the key reasons the Full City Challenge was able to succeed was because both Billy Penn and the Economy League had access to influential leaders across industries in Philadelphia.

And one of the goals of the project was to expand those networks.

“We think there is a broad enough network of folks who are willing to roll up their sleeves and think differently, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t try to find ways to plug them into these issues as opposed to going down the same path over and over again,” Frontino said.

News organizations, and their partners, should constantly be thinking about how they can amplify voices and connect communities.

The Future

Billy Penn and the Economy League are already thinking about how they can expand the next iteration of the Full City Challenge.

They’re hoping to attract additional sponsors and are also thinking about other topics that they  could use to potentially replicate this approach.

Billy Penn would also like to turn it into a membership opportunity. Henninger made pitches throughout the program for Billy Penn’s membership program, but she would like to use the next version to more strategically tie it to membership.

But no matter the next  topic, they hope to expand it and make it more impactful.

“This is a trial. We’re building it as we fly,” Frontino said. “We have our own internal metrics or guideposts whether we think this is successful and we could pitch a blown out version of this to funders. What I would like to do is blow this out  so not all of the advisory services get delivered in the span of the afternoon. There could be more meaningful partnership and engagement among a broader set of advisers or a smaller set of advisers and they’re working intensely with folks. There’s also more room for more detailed, in-depth coverage [from Billy Penn.]”

Want to Know More?

• WHYY reported on the outcome of the Full City Challenge here and here.

• Here’s an outstanding 2016 Tow Center report by Andrea Wenzel, Daniela Gerson, and Evelyn Moreno about how news organizations can engage communities through solutions journalism.

• Are you thinking about ways you can hold more meaningful in-person gatherings? There are a lot of great resources for that on Better News.

Anything to add?

How’s your organization thinking about civic engagement? Have you partnered with interesting organizations? Do you have any questions? Feel free to reach out. I’ll share lessons in a future issue.

See you next Thursday!

Photos courtesy of Kait Moore photography.

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