April 5, 2021

As Report for America embarked on a unique journey this past year through the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition, my colleagues and I found ourselves talking a lot about how to build a more sustainable future for local news. Along the way, we learned a few lessons that apply across philanthropy.

The traditional, advertising-centric local news industry business model is broken. Report for America is dedicated to paving a new path — a path that promotes philanthropy as part of what fuels a healthy, thriving information ecosystem.

We do this by placing talented, diverse reporters in local newsrooms across the country, and by paying half of their salary. Then, we work with our newsroom partners to raise support from the community, introducing philanthropy as a critical revenue stream to make their coverage of important issues like climate change, education and local government possible.

This year, we were thrilled as our partners raised nearly $5 million in local support, mostly from donors who had never given to journalism before, and importantly raised 61% more per reporter this year than the year before.

But as we built our proposal and vision for the next six years, we encountered a really important question: Report for America teaches local newsrooms to fundraise, but what about communities in which there are not outsized financial resources to begin with?

How would a model that relies on local philanthropy — whether it’s to support local newsgathering or other causes, like children’s health, literacy or STEM education — work in communities that are underresourced?

So we asked that question of our own data — a sample size of some 165 news organizations varying from nonprofit startups to public radio stations to more traditional family-run newspapers that had never fundraised before. And we ran into what may seem like a surprising finding.

In 2020, our local newsroom partners fundraising in communities that score at the top of the national poverty index performed virtually the same as those fundraising at the bottom of the index.

In other words, there was no discernable difference in fundraising success between news organizations based in underresourced communities versus those in wealthier areas.

We were floored. The unequal distribution of philanthropic resources nationwide has been so well documented. Edgar Villanueva, the brilliant author of “Decolonizing Wealth,” has reminded us all of the very real effects of systemic underinvestment in communities of color, and organizations led by people of color.

But these community newsrooms were thriving in more challenging environments anyway.

Report for America is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit with journalism and journalists at its roots, so our next natural question was, “Why?”

If we harken back to some of our fundraising essentials, they offer some interesting hypotheses for nonprofits well beyond the journalism space.

Although glitzy givers get the most press, the prize for generosity belongs to grassroots donors.

Time and time again, we see that small donors give more proportionately to their income than their wealthier counterparts.

According to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project and as reported by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, gifts of less than $250 grew 15.3% over the past year while larger gifts grew at a slower rate.

And although some speculate that the special CARES Act tax incentive may have prompted a big increase in New Year’s Eve gifts this year, this is a trend that the philanthropy sector has been talking about for well over a decade.

In our data set, we saw that individual donors made up nearly half of all dollars raised; the vast majority of those grassroots donors gave under $100. This is a promising trend in local news, especially for a cause that has been primarily funded by national foundations to date.

This week, Carrie from Indiana donated to a Report for America partner newsroom, The Indianapolis Star, in her home state, writing, “I am a retired teacher who enjoys supporting the next generation.”

Although most communities don’t have a wealthy foundation to count on, charitable people live everywhere and they give most to those they know and trust.

Any fundraiser worth their salt knows the likeliest donors or supporters of a cause are often closest to your network: a friend of a board member. A former colleague. A referral from one happy donor to another.

The Guardian reports on a study in which a university found one of the most effective ways to close a gift was having a former roommate give the person they once shared a tiny dorm room with a call.

In the case of local news fundraising, studies show that local journalists are trusted more than their national counterparts. Trust is also instrumental in drumming up local philanthropy.

When local news leaders and editors go to the community asking for their support, they’re asking friends, neighbors, and longtime customers to rally behind something for the community. And as with most fundraising based on strong relationships, it works.

Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us that much — after all, underserved communities have been coming together for hundreds of years to rally support for one another in informal and formal ways, from powerful giving circles led by women and people of color to the outpouring and organization of mutual aid groups during the pandemic.

Our partners have shown us that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to attracting community support, so Report for America’s sustainability model leverages the philanthropic assets of the communities we serve to make the most of the resources that are available.

Soliciting charitable support is most effective when it’s tied to a single, concrete person, cause, or impact. Especially a local one.

NPR has reported on research by the University of Oregon that shows donors who are overwhelmed with a big, ambitious ask of, say, solving world hunger, are likelier to give more when presented with the story of one child in need, rather than that story plus statistics about the number of hungry children worldwide.

Why? We all want to make an impact with our dollars. We want to see what we can do in a tangible way and feel like our gift makes a real difference. Big, systemic challenges can feel overwhelming to those of us looking to make a $50 to $100 gift.

We see this in local journalism support too. Many of the gifts to our newsroom partners come in with a specific reporter’s name tied to them. Those local donors give not only because this reporter is someone whose work they value, but also because local reporters are part of the community. They are neighbors that folks see at the grocery store and the football game.

This year, Jiquanda Johnson, the visionary founder of Flint Beat, a nonprofit news startup, had a record-breaking fundraising year.

She shares the power of personal connection.

“Through Report for America, we were able to bring a very talented photographer to Flint, Michigan, to invest in visual storytelling in a city where people said they felt like they didn’t see people who looked like them in the news unless there was a crime or something related to sports or Flint’s ongoing water crisis,” she said.

“KT Kanazawich has worked in Flint to show how the community loves each other, the work of talented artists that most didn’t know existed, and working business people in the city. … The first time someone called me and complimented my team, they mentioned her by name. That speaks volumes because Flint can be a tough city to crack. ”

Johnson’s story also illustrates a final critical point: If communities see organizations out there addressing the authentic, lived needs of their neighbors, those communities will show up for each other with their hard-earned dollars every time.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
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Lauren McKown is the vice president of development and communications at The GroundTruth Project, home to Report for America. A nonprofit strategist, program designer, fundraiser,…
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