Accelerate Local How-To Series: What Funders Want

For news organizations considering supporting their reporting in part through philanthropy, everyone asks one question: What do funders want?

It would be hard to find someone better to ask than Jennifer Preston. Her vast experience includes her roots in local New York journalism to her time at The New York Times, her longtime role as vice president of journalism for Knight Foundation, a senior fellowship at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and most recently, through Media Impact Funders, as founder of Accelerate Philanthropy for Journalism.

Preston shared her take on the eternal question “What do funders want?” as part of Local Media Association’s Accelerate Local How-To Series. Here are eight essential takeaways.

Philanthropy is becoming a growing source of funding for journalism, because of both declines in legacy revenue and an increased understanding among funders of the essential role local media play in informing communities.

“[This is driven in part by] the devastation, frankly, that we’ve seen across the country with so many news organizations, losing journalists, losing resources, unable to provide the level of accountability reporting and beat reporting that they did in the past,” said Preston. “And there is just growing awareness and recognition, not just at the national level but at the local level now, where local philanthropic leaders see the connection between quality news and information and a thriving community. They see the importance of having an informed community. They see the importance of having trusted sources of news and information, and about topics and areas that are important for the community to thrive.”

“It’s so important to ensure that [a journalism project] is relevant to your community,” said Preston. “And when you’re seeking philanthropic support, it’s really important that it’s rooted in listening and a deep understanding of the problems and concerns of the community that you are serving. And it all begins with community, and a commitment to not only journalism in the public interest but journalism that is in service to the community and creating it with the community.”

Philanthropic dollars are going to for-profit as well as nonprofit news organizations. What matters is that the news outlet focuses on serving the community, and any funds go directly to projects that serve the public good.

“Many foundations, but not all, consider funding different types of entities, including for-profit organizations as well as nonprofits,” said Preston. “But if you are a for-profit organization, it is key that you identify a fiscal sponsor. You need to provide a charitable benefit. You need to provide a public service in exchange for those philanthropic dollars. So that’s one of the most important things that for-profit organizations need to consider. So what does that mean? That means that maybe doing ‘business as usual’ is not going to attract philanthropic funding, but a project that involves partners in the community, a project that is not behind a firewall, might be more attractive.”

The best proposals include clear strategies for distributing the reporting and reaching audiences, especially historically underserved audiences. It’s no longer enough to merely propose to do “more stories.”

“Is your journalism accessible to the community?” said Preston. “You have to think about that when you are designing your project for consideration by funders: How are you going to distribute it? And how are you going to distribute it in perhaps nontraditional channels? How are you going to reach and engage with members of the community that maybe your news organization has not made a focused effort to engage and serve before?”

“[Historically] journalism did not serve all communities, and it’s critical moving forward — especially with philanthropic support — that news organizations focus on equity, on inclusion, and changing some of the traditional legacy model of just broadcasting: pushing out those stories with no follow-up and no civic engagement.”

Fit matters when it comes to a funded journalism project. Do your research to be sure your goals, the goals of the funder, and the needs of the community align.

“Go to some of these foundations’ websites, and look at what their goals are, what their strategy is, and where you find alignment is where you will find opportunity,” said Preston. “Think about applying for college. You know, the right fit for the college. What do they tell all these poor, tormented, tortured high school kids? Make sure that you read about the program that you’re applying to. And when you’re making your case to get into a specific college or university or program, you want to show and demonstrate that there’s a right fit. The same applies to funding for philanthropic support. Make sure that there’s opportunity and alignment.”

The project budget matters. Budget for what’s needed to drive impact, including both the real costs of reporting as well as distribution and community engagement.

“Make sure that you have included all of your true costs. For example, if you’re doing an education lab, you have to think about more than the reporters, right? You’ve got to think about funding for an editor. You have to think about civic engagement, community engagement and do you have someone on staff who you’re going to commit to that. So maybe you need funding for that.”

“I think one thing that funders look for is skin in the game. So they want to know: OK, so if you think this is so important, how much of your existing resources are you going to commit? How much of your greatest star talent are you going to commit? So what you look for as a funder is: what existing resources are going to be committed, and what are the true costs of the project? And go big rather than small.

“I mean, really figure out the true cost, please, for the cost of hiring a journalist. Some of the budgets that I have seen for journalists are pretty shocking, so provide the full funding required to hire a full-time journalist on your team.”

Successful funding partnerships are a relationship

“As a reporter, it’s about relationships, it’s creating relationships, and it’s using your network. It’s using your network to leverage and enhance those relationships on behalf of your news organization, your journalism, and your and your community.

“[It’s the same with philanthropy.] Do the reporting. Make sure there’s alignment, figure out relevance. Relevance is key in producing journalism. Relevance is key to getting philanthropic support.”

Think locally when it comes to building philanthropic support for your journalism that is sustainable over time.

“We are talking about sustainable growth for local journalism and the role of philanthropy in helping make that happen,” said Preston. “It’s not going to be national philanthropy over the long term that’s going to fuel sustainable growth at the local level. It’s going to be philanthropic support at the local level. And what is philanthropic support at the local level? It’s subscribers. You can also have members. That’s a form of philanthropic support and building up a membership campaign. And a group of individual donors to support specific projects. Again, projects that have a very focused charitable benefit is key. And then having major donors — creating a major donor campaign locally for the work of your newsroom, works just in the same way. And then the other areas are the place-based funders, family foundations, and your community foundation.

“The role of your community foundation is key because it is often the center for philanthropic efforts in your community. And the first stop for your listening tour should be the CEO because you do not begin to ask for a dime unless you begin with listening — so that when you do go in and make your pitch, it is based on your community’s needs.

“It all starts with listening and with journalism in the public interest and journalism that is committed to service.”

Read More: Essential Resources for Funding Journalism through Philanthropy