For many news organizations, philanthropy has become an emerging and sustaining source of revenue. But how does a news organization start that work of asking for funders and partnering with local philanthropic organizations? In this Q&A, we share some helpful tips from Will Campbell, the innovation editor and reporter at The Columbian, on how the company raised more than $1 million.
The Columbian was founded in 1890 in Vancouver, Washington, and is a fourth-generation, family-owned media company that is the leading source for Clark County news. The Columbian’s new project, Community Funded Journalism, opens the door for community members to support local journalism and stories that uncover the truth about homelessness, housing, and transportation.
In just four months, Southwest Washington community members invested in high quality local journalism and made gifts to The Columbian’s Community Funded Journalism program — raising more than $1.3 million in donations and pledges from 167 donors. Its Givebutter crowdfunding campaign has raised $34,940 to date. Through fiscal sponsorship via Local Media Foundation, the Community Funded Journalism Project can accept tax-deductible donations.
What was your motivation to start fundraising for journalism? How did you prepare to go out and fundraise?
We knew that our most loyal readers understood the struggles of the industry as early as 2008. They would send us letters and emails seeking a way to help us stay afloat. We explored a membership option, but it never seemed to be the answer and it was too complicated. We were also continuing to produce excellent journalism. Over time, as the number of newsroom staff shrank, we began to hear about other newspapers around the country partnering with nonprofits to raise tax-deductible donations for local journalism. We explored that option, knowing that it would allow our readers the best way to help keep local journalism alive. The Local Media Foundation gave The Columbian the easiest and simplest way to do that.
What are one or two areas where you have found success? What do you think was the key to your fundraising success?
As a family-owned newspaper that has a history of donating money to our community, it was time to ask our community to help us. A few of our family members created a presentation that explained the kind of journalism we could accomplish with donations and why it would benefit the community. We set up individual meetings with potential donors at their homes to talk about the project, and those in-person connections helped us raise the amount that we did.
What was the process that led you to the funders who ultimately supported your project? What was it about the project that appealed to them the most?
It was through personal relationships that we found our funders. We have generations of family members that care about the community and have supported it with their own donations, so we already had well-established and trusting relationships with local philanthropists. The donors were happy to support storytellers because these news stories and investigations bind our community together much stronger than any other media. Donors know what happens to communities when their local newspaper is weak or is gone, and they wanted to uphold an essential service to democracy.
What have you learned along the way? What would you share with others thinking about fundraising for journalism?
I learned that storytelling is our best tool for fundraising, and showing up in person makes a world of difference. During our presentations, I painted a mental picture for donors and made them feel what it is like to be a reporter — especially one that can’t find time to write some of the most important stories because our newsroom is stretched thin. I told them what it’s like to be talking to someone dealing with homelessness and how I want to tell their story as best as I can. Some of the best journalism teachers I’ve had taught me to show up in person, and your stories will be better and have more impact. It’s true for raising donations too.
Tell us about the team that is focused on fundraising. Who is doing the work? Has this evolved?
I have been doing most of the work for fundraising since the campaign launched in March 2022, but I have help from other family owners, some of the staff in the newsroom and the circulation department with coordinating fundraising campaigns. In July 2022, we hired a part-time Strategic Philanthropy and Community Outreach Consultant who will focus on fundraising and grant writing. I also have received incredible support and instruction from the Local Media Foundation.
If you are interested in raising funds for local journalism projects through tax-deductible donations from your community, consider applying for the 2022 Local News Fund.