What Nonprofit News Sites Can Learn from Grist’s ‘Save Our Journalists!’ Campaign

In Grist.org’s latest campaign video, contributor Jennifer Prediger wears a fox mask and asks readers to raise money for “endangered species” — aka environmental journalists.

The “Save Our Journalists!” campaign, which lasted for two weeks and raised about $76,450 in user contributions, is the latest example of how the nonprofit news site is encouraging its audience to help save environmental journalism and the people who produce it.

“I think in the environmental space in general, there is a long history of being overly serious about the state of the planet, or the state of the environment,” said Grist spokesman David Brotherton. “We decided early on that we needed to break through that crust of cynicism with this campaign and others.”

It helped, too, he said, that the campaign coincidentally launched during the largest oil spill in U.S. history — an event that has heightened the need for daily environmental news.

Grist’s creative approach to fundraising is one that other nonprofit news sites could learn from as they try to raise money, engage audiences and develop their voice as an organization. Below, I’ve listed five strategies that have worked for Grist and that could work for your site, too.

Develop a campaign voice that’s consistent with your brand

Grist.org, which has about 800,000 unique users per month, features environmental news stories with a wry twist. It makes sense, then, that their campaigns would reflect the same humor.

Videos, Brotherton said, have helped the site’s staffers have a more prominent presence in the campaigns. In this year’s videos, staffers are depicted as endangered species, with Grist as their sanctuary. Last year, the site ran a series of videos for its “Operation Fundraising Lockdown” campaign, in which Grist staffers pretended to be held captive in the office. The only thing that would free them was $50,000 — which they ended up raising.

About 2 percent of Grist’s users donate to the site, and most give $25 donations. Though the site fell just short of its goal to raise 2,000 donations, it exceeded its $60,000 goal. Roughly 70 percent of Grist’s funding comes from large foundations. The rest comes from ad sales and from the three campaigns the site holds each year. Collectively, the campaigns generate about $175,000 per year. 

Jennifer MacDonald, Grist’s membership and annual support manager, said putting a fun twist on the campaigns, especially during tough economic times, helps donating seem like less of a chore.

“I think that if somebody takes the time to make you laugh, it automatically grabs your attention,” MacDonald said. “It’s a little bit easier to say ‘I will give five bucks to keep this kind of thing going.’ “

Brotherton acknowledged that although humor has worked well for Grist, it might not work for all nonprofit news sites. “You shouldn’t tell jokes if you’re not funny,” he said. “Having an authentic voice is important, and readers will recognize that and you’ll develop an affinity based on it.”

Design campaign splash messages for your home page and send related e-mail newsletters

Grist features splash messages on its home page during each of its campaigns to prompt first-time visitors or non-subscribers to donate. It also reaches many of its readers through e-mail newsletters, which it sends to all subscribers. The site sends separate e-mail newsletters to subscribers who have never donated to the site to let them know more about its fundraising efforts.

In the site’s most recent campaign newsletter, Grist writer David Roberts is depicted as an endangered animal who’s at risk of losing his “natural habitat at Grist.”

“It was not literally an indication that these guys’ jobs are at risk,” Brotherton said. “It was more of a metaphor to say that environmental journalists, just like whales or polar bears, are threatened.”

Hold meet-and-greets to build credibility, future donors

A few times a year, Grist holds “friend raisers” or “awareness raisers” to establish a personal connection with its audience. So far, the meet-and-greets have taken place in New York City, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

“Grist will send a blanket invite to all their readers in a market and say, ‘We’re going to be at such and such a bar, come meet the Grist editorial team and have a beer with us,’ ” Brotherton said. “They’ve been ridiculously successful.”

The sessions typically attract 100 to 300 people and have raised a couple thousand dollars, Brotherton said. Readers who are given the opportunity to meet a site’s staffers, he pointed out, may be more likely to want to support them in the future.

Offer incentives, partner with other companies to get free giveaways

Grist offers several incentives for people who donate to its campaigns. For the “Save Our Journalists” campaign, it partnered with Klean Kanteen and offered the first 60 people who donated to the campaign a free Grist Klean Kanteen water bottle.

Readers who donate a minimum of $25 get a few different perks — membership to Grists’ “Friends with Benefits” program; access to live chats with Grist writers; monthly newsletters with information about upcoming Grist content; and the “fuzzy feeling of supporting nonprofit green news.” Donating $25 also earns them a badge that will appear next to their name whenever they comment on the site.

Use Twitter & Facebook Causes to reach younger audiences

Grist used Twitter and Facebook during the “Save Our Journalists!” campaign to let people know about the campaign and recognize people who donated.

Grist staffers tweeted campaign-related information to its 15,000-plus followers and asked them to follow the hashtag #SupportGrist. When users donated, they thanked some of them on Twitter and retweeted tweets from those who said they had donated.

MacDonald said the site also experimented with Facebook Causes, but didn’t have much luck. “This was kind of our first shot with Facebook Causes, so we’re still fine-tuning it,” MacDonald said. “It definitely wasn’t one of our big gift generators the way e-mail newsletters are, but I think it has a lot of potential.”
  
Given that the majority of Grist’s readers tend to be on the younger side (in their mid- to late 30s), Brotherton said using social networking sites is a good way to reach out to them. As the site enters its 11th year, it’s continuing to try to cultivate younger audiences and give them reasons to care about environmental journalism, donate to the cause and laugh.

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“Talking about the Gulf oil spill can get to be a bummer, but humor can help people remain interested and engaged in the stories that matter,” Brotherton said. “It’s also a way to speak to a younger, fresher audience who prefer ‘The Daily Show’ over the ‘CBS Evening News.’ There’s something really useful about that humor.”

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