Local Media Association’s Lab for Journalism Funding has trained more than 50 publishers since September 2020 on how to fund essential local journalism in part through philanthropy, with support from Google News Initiative. Recently, we partnered with Report for America with support from Meta Journalism Project to train a cohort of 19 news organizations who are recipients of RFA grants.

On our final call with the cohort, we asked the coaches to synthesize their top takeaways for what it takes to successfully incorporate philanthropy as a pillar of journalism funding.

Joanne Heyman
Joanne Heyman
Joaquin Alvarado
Joaquin Alvarado
Sam Johnston

1. Ground your fundraising in community need, and community listening

“The ‘listening tour’ matters, said Joanne Heyman. “Really deeply listening, and then being able to reflect back what you heard, as well as act on what you hear — it not only leads you to money, but to resources and partnerships. It also shifts the nature of your relationship [with your community], and that will hold you in a good stead.”

Sam Johnston agrees, quoting Mark Twain who said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

“Interrogate reality by listening, listening, listening,” said Johnston. “Identify the stakeholders who will care, do care or should care about the work that you are doing and be committed to having enough conversations that the things you start to ‘know’ are things you know because you’ve asked and not things you know because you’ve told yourself they are so. When you ask the right questions and are not only prepared to hear the truth, but are actively seeking it, you will become a better community member, business person, thought leader and fundraiser.”

And “get creative,” urges Joaquin Alvarado, who encourages “constant risk-taking … get weird! See just how creative you can be” when it comes to engaging with communities. He gives the example of starting an education project by holding regular chats with a dozen PTA members to learn about the issues, and solutions. “I’d sit down with them once a month until you’ve raised all the money, and then I would make them your community advisory panel!”

“It’s all about community, having those direct lines [of connection],” said Alvarado. “It is the core of what we do, and it never fails to drive greater impact — and opportunities to support work. So just never turn that [practice of listening] off, because it’s not one-and-done.”

2. Lead with your ‘why’: The value of local journalism

“Remember your ‘why,’” said Johnston. “Raising funds for journalism positions is rewarding work, but remember that this isn’t just about staffing or building a bigger news team. This is about putting the kind of effort into journalism that changes the world by positively impacting one little slice of our world at a time. Be intentional with the projects that you ask your donor community to fund and be relentless in delivering the results you promised to deliver. Be transparent and be trustworthy and be the reason that big donors feel good about giving to community journalism.”

3. Philanthropy requires buy-in from the top

“Leadership engagement is key [to philanthropic success],” notes Heyman. “Publisher participation pays off. Frequently the publishers have very significant relationships in the community. Business leaders listen to them. They’re a face that business leaders want to see, and they send incredibly strong signals internally and externally. If it’s only one person doing this work on your team, you can have some success. But if you want to really do something that’s transformational. You want to integrate the participation from the top down.”

“If the person who runs the organization is not fully committed, fully engaged and leading, it doesn’t work,” said Alvarado. “Because otherwise, you won’t get the back up you need, or you’ll make stuff happen, and then it’s not fully integrated in a way that produces the results. it’s just so fundamental to this model being successful. So go in and do that internal work … it’s really about accountability organizationally, to make this work.”

4. Ask for money, get advice; ask for advice, be ready to get money!

“Don’t get caught flat-footed in fundraising pitches by not setting the meeting expectations ahead of time,” said Johnston. “Often, we are afraid to make the ask and so we tee the meeting up as just a conversation when we really want to ask for funding. Be transparent and be up front. If you need to educate the funder and you have an ask to make, tell them that’s what you plan to do on the call. If you truly just want to get a reality check on what you’re doing and you aren’t planning to ask for funding, then tee the meeting up as an exploratory meeting. But always, always be prepared to make the ask if the opportunity presents itself. You’ve often got one shot. Ne transparent, be humble, be nimble, be confident — and be prepared!”

5. Fundraising is a marathon, not a sprint

One lesson all the coaches agreed on is that philanthropy is not a “quick fix” to the resource challenges facing news organizations. Rather, it’s a process that relies on doing relationship-building over time.

“Be in it for the long game,” urges Heyman. “We, of course, encourage [publishers] to get those early [fundraising] wins, and those get repeated wins. But fundraising takes time. If you have the mindset to play the long game, [donor] stewardship is part of the long game.”

“Always be working your donor ‘funnel.’ You can work the funnel at any level of support: Bring people in, get them to stay, get them to pay, get them to pay some more, get them to stay for life. And understand that there are going to be different people or institutions at different levels, and that’s OK.”

All local media companies are invited to apply to join the third cohort of the LMA Lab for Journalism Funding to learn how to develop reporting projects that can be funded through philanthropy.

Applications are open and will be accepted until September 30. Up to 20 media companies will be invited to participate in the six-month program that will run from October 2022 through March 2023.

The LMA Lab for Journalism Funding, made possible with continuing support from Google News Initiative, has helped 55 news organizations raise more tha $10 million to support local journalism since 2020. Newsrooms in the third cohort will learn best practices documented in LMA’s industry report Pathways to Philanthropy.

Apply here.