How to pay for your independent news project

So you have an idea for a news story, beat or project that you feel has legs. Maybe you’ve outlined stories, rounded up an advisory board, worked up a business plan, and even have some social media and a nice WordPress blog set up somewhere.

Now all you have to do is pay your reporters. Any maybe even yourself.

Organize a co-op, or a giving circle

Before you start reporting, it’s worth building some community around your idea. A good crowdfunding campaign is a great way to build that base — but such things tend to be one-offs.

If you have a longer view, co-op organizing or creating a giving circle or sustaining membership program might be good next steps.

The important thing to remember is that community organizing is work, it requires hustling, and it isn’t necessarily easier than creating a startup with a cool business model. But, as a journalist, what you get from your effort is a base of support that will define the success of all your efforts.

The horrible truth about grantseeking

First of all, you must understand that journalism foundations and traditional journalism funders are not there for you. Their focus is on their theory of change, with its accompanying metrics, which you may or may not align with.

Even if you do — the field is very competitive. For some more insight on the delicate dance between journalists and major funders, check out these guidelines for news organizations and philanthropists on supporting nonprofit news:

So in general, you shouldn’t expect to get grants — but you should apply for them anyway, so you can learn how to research and write grant requests with viable budgets. And you should be patient and determined, because actually, sometimes you do get grants.

Passing the hat: Fundraising events

if you’re just looking to raise $1,500 to pay a reporter or videographer to cover a particular issue in your community, you may not even need any fancy crowdfunding platform to do that.

One great way to pass the hat, raise awareness about your work and make direct connections with supporters is to throw a fundraising house party. Depending on the target audience, the ambition of the host committee, and overall planning and execution, such events can yield a few hundred dollars for rent, a few thousand for project production — or significantly more.

  • A fundraising house party should be free; the point is to get people interested and inspire them to give.
  • Ideally you host the party at an interesting, notable and an ideally donated venue. You really don’t want to do it in own home, in particular because you want to demonstrate that you have support beyond your own immediate resources.
  • Timewise, a fundraising house party usually lasts about two hours. This should include no more than an hour of mingling with appetizers and drinks, about 20-30 minutes of presentations about the project by participants, and an ask.
  • Use EventBrite or Brown Paper Tickets to get an RSVP list going before the party; expect about half the RSVPs to actually show up.
  • Your board, staff and trusted volunteers should be present, and should have organizational talking points to engage guests with. They should also help out by inviting people from their network. This could be a major part of any board member’s “give or get” funding commitment, so they better have a good reason if they want to beg off.
  • The ask — a request for donations — should be made by a lead supporter (not one of the project presenters), who makes the first donation by displaying a check and dropping it into a hat or envelope borne by another volunteer who then circulates through the crowd.
  • Get a friend who can cook to whip up some hors d’oeuvres — take donated services, but don’t be surprised if you have to pay for the ingredients and party supplies. That goes for beverages as well.
  • If you can’t get donated food, stick with budget snacks. A trip to Trader Joe’s for cheese, crackers, hummus, chips, salsa and wine works fine. A $20 liter of gin, some tonic water and some limes can handily take care of a room. Add some sliced cucumbers and/or sprigs of mint to make the cocktail appear more classy than it may be. Also be sure to have some wine, beer and non-alcoholic beverages on hand as well.
  • Follow-up after the event by emailing your entire RSVP list, including any new people who signed up at the event. Invite them to follow your social media, and update them on how the party did and how much you raised. Remind folks of the good stuff their gifts are supporting, and remind those who didn’t make the party that they still can donate. Some of the people who didn’t make it may yet end up donating, sometimes a substantial amount. One donor to an organization I started missed our annual house party two years running. But we sent out follow-up reports on the party with reminders that “it’s not too late to give” — and they donated $500 the first year and $5,000 the next.
  • Don’t neglect your tax obligations. If you are fiscally sponsored or have your own 501(c)3, make sure donors get acknowledgements and thank-yous. If you are not affiliated with a nonprofit, consult with your tax adviser on how to report the income.

The following resources offer more details on how to stage such an event — and there are endless details when it comes to hosting a successful fundraiser.

Crowdfunding

For larger projects you will want to invest a little bit of time and effort into creating an effective crowdfunding campaign.

  • You’ll have to pick a platform. There are tons of choices. Pick the one that seems the best fit for your needs. WIkipedia offers an extensive listing of crowdfunding platforms that’s worth perusing.
  • A concise, well-produced video of 1:00 to 1:30 seconds long,
  • A promotional campaign to get the word out, which means asking your friends and family both for donations and for publicity — to promote to their network the fact that they donated to your campaign.
  • Try to front-load your campaign with pledges from friends who promise to donate within the first 48 hours. That produces good results that elevate your campaign’s visibility on most giving platforms.
  • You’ll also want to really push hard to reach new audiences or lagging pledges in the middle two weeks of the campaign, which otherwise tend to lag and drag down performance.

There’s no limit to the nuance, sophistication, time and resources you can bring to a single crowdfunding campaign. Here are some great jumping-off points for your ongoing research needs: