Fundraising for nonprofit journalism: Finding 'true champions'

By Elizabeth F. McNamara | Oct. 4, 2016

There may not be a lot of foundation money out there for journalism, but there is money out there, both for and from nonprofits, according to members of a panel on nonprofit fundraising at the recent LION 2016 conference in Chicago. Nonprofit and for-profit sites alike need to build relationships within their communities and foster civic engagement, which will both improve local fundraising and entice whatever foundation money that is out there.

For Brian Wheeler, who runs the nonprofit Charlottesville Tomorrow in Virginia, it’s all about nurturing relationships with donors and potential donors. It’s a lesson he learned after reading Jennifer McCrae’s book "The Generosity Network" last year. Today, he makes sure he writes handwritten thank you notes to everyone who donates $100 or more, and he reaches out to donors at other times, maybe to share a story about an issue he knows that donor cares about or follow up with a note after a chance get-together. 

It’s all about being intentional with both donors and those Wheeler is hoping will become donors. 

Kim Clark, with the for-profit NoozHawk in California, outlined different ways she works with nonprofits, including partnering with a local hospital that sponsors a special section to showcase their stories. 

NoozHawk also runs a program where local nonprofits can apply for a sponsorship where the site helps them with their event and in return News Hawk gets credit in their program. The news site also partners with a foundation that provides funding for News Hawk to help nonprofits tell their stories. 

Some efforts falter. Wheeler showed a clever postcard Charlottesville Tomorrow mailed out a year ago, hoping the novel approach would be attractive to donors. It didn’t. People mistook it for junk mail and threw it away. It proved such a failure, he said, they quickly sent out a more traditional fundraising letter. The lesson learned: Don’t try gimmicks. Pick a standard style and stick with it.

The McCormick Foundation’s Jennifer Choi said foundations aren’t spending much on journalism, but when they do, they are looking for sites focused on sustainability that are engaged in their communities. Still, she said, there are times when organizations should say no to foundation money. Be willing to leave money on the table if you feel like it doesn’t make sense for your organization, Choi said, noting that the foundation might just come back later with a grant that makes sense because you’ve proved your credibility.

Choi strongly believes community foundations should be funding local news sites, but it’s not clear community foundations are getting that message, despite yearly pushes from the likes of the Knight Foundation. Her closing words cautioned against trying to woo big foundations or donors just for the name.

“I strongly encourage you to find your true champions,” she said. 

Check out more entries in our 2016 conference blog »