3 fundraising myths that could be holding your news business back

How measuring and marketing your impact can help you make the most of fundraising season, even as a for–profit publisher.

November 9, 2022 by Ben DeJarnette

Pink piggy bank against white background
Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash.

The journalism industry’s peak fundraising season is upon us, as news organizations look to convert the spirit of giving into new members, subscribers and donors before the end of the year. 

The likeliest “winners” during this final fundraising sprint are the organizations that have been working toward it all year, by producing meaningful journalism, documenting impact, and raising awareness of the opportunities for readers to contribute financially. 

That said, it’s not too late for any publisher – nonprofit or for-profit – to prepare an end-of-year campaign, especially if they reject these three myths about effective fundraising: 

Myth #1: The journalism speaks for itself

We’ve written before about the “build it and they will come” approach to audience and revenue growth and how it’s, well, wrong. But the point bears repeating: News organizations can’t expect readers to fully appreciate – and be willing to fund – their work unless newsrooms make the case for it. 

Take RANGE Media, which recently grew its membership program by nearly 50 percent in just three weeks. 

RANGE was producing high-impact journalism during that time, including breaking news about anti-abortion laws and election interference, and their best fundraising days coincided with the biggest stories they broke. In other words, substance matters. 

But so does making the ask. 

RANGE set a goal of adding 50 paying members during its campaign and reminded readers of it everywhere – on Instagram, at the top and bottom of stories, in fundraising emails to their newsletter readers. 

By the end of the campaign, RANGE had added 80 new members, beating its original goal by more than 50 percent. The recipe for success? RANGE founder Luke Baumgarten says the newsroom’s journalistic impact and marketing campaign worked hand in hand. 

“The campaign emails created a baseline of awareness of our model, the need for sustainability, our mission and how we’re trying to do journalism differently,” he says. “It was ultimately the stories that got [more] people to finally hit subscribe.”

Myth #2: Annual reports are only for nonprofits

One of the best tools for attracting and retaining members, subscribers or donors is an annual report that tells the story of your impact and why people should support it. 

Annual reports are common in the nonprofit world, but many for-profit news organizations don’t take advantage of this marketing tool, and it’s a missed opportunity. 

One exception: LION member Richland Source, a for-profit local news site in Ohio that spends several weeks each fall building a hard-copy annual report to help attract members, advertisers and corporate sponsors. 

Publisher Jay Allred says Richland Source’s annual report is a key factor in its fundraising success

“It’s a springboard for end-of-year fundraising,” Allred shared on Slack last year. “The report helps us raise more than $150,000 in local support. It’s worth the effort.”

Myth #3: Readers will revolt if you ask for money too often

The fear of annoying or losing readers with an over-aggressive fundraising campaign seems to be a universal concern among journalism leaders, with every disgruntled email response or uptick in newsletter churn taken as evidence proving the point. 

This concern is admirable, especially when it comes from a place of wanting to create the best experience for your readers. That said, it’s more likely that you’re not asking for support enough.

To take a timely (and somewhat extreme) example, consider political campaigns. Like news publishers, they have an incentive not to tick off their audience – because they want that audience to give them their votes. 

But when it comes to asking for money, goodness gracious they are not shy! They send text messages, they send emails, they buy social ads, and they do all these things a million times more aggressively than even the most assertive local news publishers.

Oh, and they make a whole bunch of money doing it

There are limits to this analogy, of course, and there are good reasons not to emulate the shadier side of political marketing. But the bigger takeaway: News publishers have a long way to go before they become seriously annoying on the level of those political campaigns.

And as other organizations gear up their own end-of-year fundraising campaigns, the much bigger risk is that news publishers will let their message get drowned out by all the noise. 

How LION Publishers can help 

Here are a few resources from LION Publishers that can help you plan and execute a fundraising campaign to end the year:

💡 Borrow these 7 campaign ideas to ask readers for support in new ways.

📝 Learn how LION member Richland Source raises more than $250K/year in community support, and join our News Entrepreneur Community on Slack to read this thread about how their annual report contributes to the fundraising effort. 

🗣️ Review this slide deck from our Independent News Sustainability Summit session on measuring impact.

👋 COMING SOON: Trade ideas with other publishers at a virtual LION member meetup in late November. (Stay tuned for details in the LION newsletter.)

Want to learn more about measuring and marketing impact? Sign up for the LION newsletter to get updates on this series and other resources and opportunities for independent publishers.

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