Embrace your inner reporter to unlock philanthropy
At Chalkbeat, we believe philanthropy is a wildly untapped resource for local and civic news. Charitable giving in the United States exceeded half a trillion dollars in 2021, and only a tiny fraction of that went to news or media of any kind. There is significant potential in philanthropy as a key revenue source for local news, especially when applying tested fundraising methods.
Expert fundraising requires careful listening, deep connection, and sophisticated storytelling. Seasoned journalists are typically excellent at all three, but they often forget to lean on these skills when it comes to fundraising.
We outlined what we meant by “impact” and defined our “theory of change.”
In the nonprofit world, philanthropists and foundation program officers assess organizations by the type and scale of impact they have in the world. For a school, that may be measured by improvements in graduation rates. For a food pantry, it may be how many people are served. When we began fundraising almost 10 years ago, the impact scorecard for journalism — especially for non-investigative reporting — was not so obvious. So we defined “impact” for our type of local beat reporting in two ways: Our ability to generate informed debate (e.g., a parent citing a Chalkbeat story at a school board meeting) and informed action (e.g. a policy changed or a lawsuit filed). We called this rubric Measures of Our Reporting’s Influence, or MORI, and began to build a culture and set of internal processes that sought to value impact over clicks.
This impact measurement was also embedded in our “theory of change” — our explanation of the relationship between our work, our immediate impacts, and our ability to contribute to a larger societal need.
Chalkbeat’s Theory of Change: Decision-making and debate lead to better decisions on behalf of the community, and, therefore, better schools for kids and families.
A common pitfall we fell into initially was spending too much time talking about journalism and journalists and not enough time focusing on the impact of our work. Our impact framework and well-crafted theory of change have kept us focused on telling the right story for an audience of funders.
We connected with foundations who shared our goals, even if they didn’t specifically fund journalism.
The world of journalism philanthropy is relatively small, and yet there are more than 100,000 foundations in the United States right now. Chalkbeat has built a strong network of philanthropic support by focusing on the topic we cover (schools and students) to turn foundations that have typically focused on education into first-time local news donors.
Some of Chalkbeat’s most loyal donors have long cared about educational equity but did not have a journalism portfolio when we first connected. However, we knew that by providing parents and educators with the knowledge to make informed decisions for their children and students, we could help foundations meet their goals, too. Many of those foundations have recognized the power of journalism to further educational equity, and they’ve continued to fund journalism year after year.
We learned the power of program officers.
At a typical foundation, the board of directors has the final approval over where funds are distributed, but your program officer is your key to success or failure. A program officer who believes in you and your organization will be your greatest advocate within the foundation, and it is often more important to share and connect with a program officer rather than pitch and wow them. Ideally, you’ll work together to share each organization’s goals, discover where there is overlap, and craft an ask that highlights the alignment between your strategy and the foundation’s.
So how do you get connected with a program officer? We often start with this Online Foundation Directory to search for foundations who support our impact areas in our locations. And remember, when you search, your impact is likely not just about journalism, but also the civic areas that philanthropy tends to cluster around — education, criminal justice, poverty, climate change, etc. You can email or call the program officer responsible for your impact area to introduce yourself and ask for an informational meeting. Many will say yes!
You can also ask your mentors or board members to make an introduction if they know someone on the foundation’s board. We’ve found that a simple email sharing vivid examples of Chalkbeat’s recent impact often opens conversations or can be passed along to the right contact at the foundation.
We embraced meeting major donors and understanding what makes them tick.
It may not always feel like it, but fundraising from foundations is relatively straightforward. Most foundations have websites outlining their priorities and strategies. Program officers are generally assigned specific impact areas. To apply for grants, there are well-communicated criteria and deadlines for grant applications. Major individual donors, meanwhile, typically do not have this type of infrastructure in place and instead rely on an informal set of advisors to help them navigate their philanthropy.
To find major donors who may be a match for your organization, leverage your network and your research skills. Make a list of 10-20 philanthropists who give to organizations similar to yours. You can build your list by looking on websites of similar organizations to see who funds them, reading local news to understand who cares deeply about the work your organization does, and asking anyone you meet, “Who else should I be connected to?” When anyone asks, “What can I do to help you?” pull out that list of donors and ask if they could make an introduction to anyone you’ve identified.
Once you are connected to a potential donor, it’s once again all about finding a natural connection by trying to figure out what matters most to them. One way to build a connection is asking for advice related to their expertise and background. For example, if they work in marketing, we could ask about our distribution and partnership models. If they are an executive, we might ask about their leadership style or share a pertinent challenge we are grappling with at that moment. This allows them to share their work and passion with us. It helps us get to know them and helps them become more invested in our success.
We leaned on our interview skills and listened carefully to what our stakeholders cared about.
Listening is not only at the core of journalism, but also philanthropy. When meeting with program officers and donors, it can be tempting to share everything you’re working on in an attempt to inspire them. Instead, pause, and ask them questions to get clarity on what matters most to them. You will start to see how your theory of change can support their impact goals. Then you can share how your work complements their goals.
In fact, some of our best fundraisers have come from the newsroom. The first member of Chalkbeat’s development team was a former journalist who decided to shift his work from the editorial side to philanthropy, and we have benefited greatly from his ability to share his experience as an education journalist and explain why, as a former reporter, he is committed to supporting this work through building our revenue. His deep listening skills allow him to build relationships with our supporters in the same way reporters build trust with their sources and readers.
We share the good – and the bad.
Don’t be afraid to build relationships with funders on the foundation of raw transparency. At a first meeting with one of our early board members and funders in New York City, we were candid with him about our challenges. This engaged him more deeply in our work and led him to identify a way he could help beyond money by creating our first advertising strategy. He learned more about journalism and became a fierce defender of our independence, including when a potential advertiser put pressure on us to cover them differently.
Continue to be in communication with your donors and prospective donors. Share with them not only your success and momentum, but also the challenges of your work. In addition to their financial contributions, they can act as advisors and connectors if you let them.
We proactively manage the risk of our philanthropic business model.
Perhaps the most important safeguard for a revenue model that relies heavily on philanthropy is to have the largest possible number of supporters that your revenue and finance teams can feasibly handle. If done right, this strategy protects you from the demands of any given funder. For instance, Chalkbeat has received grants from more than 200 funders, so while losing a funder is disappointing and stressful, it’s typically not devastating.
Another strategy is to ask for funding for several years when it’s an option. Multi-year grants give your organization support for a longer period of time and allow you more time to achieve (and share) successes. At Chalkbeat, we aim for 30-40% of our grants to be multi-year, enabling us to stabilize revenue and reduce organizational risk.
It’s also important to note that we define the guiding principles of our journalism and share them with our donors at the beginning of the relationship. We share our guardrails on transparency and editorial independence early so donors understand our commitment to high-quality journalism that is not influenced by our funders.
We commit serious time and resources to fundraising.
As the old adage says, you have to spend money to make money. Fundraising follows this principle. Fundraising is a continuous practice, and hiring a team to support fundraising is a solid investment.
Invest in fundraising coaching and training. By continuing to practice with a coach, a peer cohort, or your board of directors, you will improve your story, hone your answers to hard questions, and build your confidence. It can be scary, but practice sessions with trusted advisors allow you to get critical feedback so you’re as prepared and confident as possible when it really counts.
Practice every week. Each week, identify up to five new people you are going to ask to fund your work. Kim Klien, fundraiser extraordinaire, says that she needs to make five requests to get a single “yes!” so she doesn’t take the “nos” or “not right nows” personally. Each disappointment helps her get one more “no” closer to a “yes.”
- Focus on the impact.
It can be tempting to regale funders with the dreadful state of the local news ecosystem. Instead, try telling specific stories about the tangible impact your work is having on the communities you cover.
- Rely on the principles of journalism when connecting with foundations and philanthropists.
Seek out opportunities to meet community leaders interested in supporting your work and ask them questions. Listen for overlap in your work.
- Practice your pitch.
Invite board members, advisors, colleagues, and others to listen to your story about your organization’s impact and provide feedback.
- Spend money to make money.
Invest in hiring a fundraiser or fundraising coach to support your work, keep track of relationships and deadlines, and help you get in front of as many people as possible.
What is the Local News Field Guide?
The Local News Field Guide is a resource for journalists and news entrepreneurs tackling the ever-changing landscape of news. The guide is written by staff members of Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization that provides essential local education reporting.
The Local News Field Guide is supported by Chalkbeat's partnership with the Google News Initiative (GNI).