Jennifer Preston, VP of Journalism at the Knight Foundation; Fraser Nelson, VP of Business Innovation at the Salt Lake Tribune, and more gave advice to newspapers considering non-profit funding at the 2020 Mega Conference. Here are the top takeaways from their panel.
1. Knight Foundation and others have some “kick-off” money but expect to find local money. In the end, non-profits must be sustained locally.
2. Start by networking with people the publisher/owners know: Business leaders, university presidents, and the like. In one case a University President threw a dinner party at his house for the publisher to meet top donors. “Having the first one gets the next one.”
3. There are multiple non-profit models. Select the one that works best - whether an add-on revenue stream, for one beat (Fresno Bee) or the whole news department (Philadephia Inquirer); a conversion from private to non-profit with the assets transferred (Salt Lake Tribune) or partnership with a local foundation (Seattle Times).
4. Get to know the community foundations in your town, these have been top sources for sustainable non-profit journalism.
5. Set aside resources for a development position and hire someone with fundraising chops. It does not matter if they understand journalism or the business of newspapers, that can be taught.
6. Find a cause. No one is interested in funding your newspaper, they are interested in funding your impact. Local news itself is an essential community service, but there may be specific areas to fund separately.
7. When selecting a narrow cause pick an issue that is urgent and important. The Fresno Bee selected education for their first round. “The Public Policy Institute of California had produced a report that to keep up with the economic demand the state would need 1.1 million more workers with bachelor’s degrees.” The Central Valley, the world’s most productive agricultural region, was lagging in that area: only 19% of adults in Fresno 25 or older have a degree.
8. Research and find founders whose philanthropic agenda matches yours, then don’t blur the lines. Set goals and track against them so you can see what works to accomplish the measurable impacts.
9. Go deep and focus on solutions with a measurable impact. The Fresno Bee started with an education lab, with deep reporting that included root causes, accessibility and solutions.
10. Use the 80/20 rule and focus most of the time on major gifts.
11. It’s a relationship, not a transaction. Expect to build a culture of philanthropy. “It’s care and feeding of the relationship that pays off, the more you put in the more you get out of it.”
12. Expect to compete with other non-profits for the money. One newspaper found out the public radio was using the newspaper as a talking point. “‘They were telling donors, unlike the newspaper we don’t have a paywall.’ How would radio get a paywall? Do they zap you?”
13. Don’t think of non-profit dollars as “soft money.” “All money is soft. A subscription is soft. It’s all tenuous.”
14. Be creative with structure. The entire newspaper does not have to become a non-profit, although it can. The Fresno Bee created a foundation with a community board, which hires them to work. “We are accountable to the foundation for every dollar of the work we do.”
15. Expect some restrictions. Political endorsements, op-eds and even cartoons can violate non-profit rules. Selling subscriptions (a service) has been hard to pair with asking for a donation at the same time.
Need more information? Download the Table Stakes guide here.