If you put no money into getting more money, then you will have no money.
A new report from the Institute of Nonprofit News examined the investments made into major gift procurement by eight nonprofit newsrooms in a pilot coaching program. “The results exceeded expectations,” INN consultant Lindsey Melki wrote. “All participating organizations achieved increased major donor funding, ranging from nine percent to 367 percent increases.”
Major gifts are becoming a major focus for nonprofit newsrooms, as foundations become more familiar with investing in media and smaller-scale membership programs are still emerging systems. Individuals and families now pitch in almost 40 percent of all the revenue going to nonprofit outlets, outweighing support from foundations, INN’s state of the nonprofit news sector recently found.
But what is a “major” gift? In the past INN has defined it as a donation of $1,000 or more; other nonprofit resources describe it as “the largest gifts an organizations receives” aside from grants, which is pretty relative to the organization itself, or basically between $2,000 and $100,000. (Some organizations may nurture major gift donor relationships more deeply, but there are options; Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein explained their approach as “It’s all the same impulse from the reader… It really was important to us to have the same kind of high-level conversations with somebody who gives us $5 or $500,000.”)
The newsrooms that completed the pilot program — Injustice Watch, Iowa Watch, MinnPost, Oklahoma Watch, CT Mirror, FERN (Food & Environment Reporting Network), Voice of OC, and Wisconsin Watch — raised a total of $1.7+ million in net new revenue, exceeding the goal of $80,000 ($10,000 per newsroom) at the outset in spring 2018. The newsrooms had to commit two employees and $3,000 to the project, and the Park Foundation contributed $40,000.
“The findings suggest that news organizations should start setting up major gift development efforts as soon as they launch and dedicate some leadership time to major gifts throughout their early years,” Melki wrote. “They also suggest that outside coaches can help set up systems and build significant revenue, even before they have full-time development directors.”
The pilot program used Diane Remin of MajorDonors.com as a coach, who helped the outlets develop their mission-and-needs messaging, use tools like DonorSearch to analyze their donor base, and design a strategy for major donors going forward. Reframing the major donor search as a reporting process may help, as investigative journalism and storytelling skills can transfer well to fundraising.
“At one point it became very explicit that these skills are in some ways very similar to doing journalism. As that was impressed upon the cohort, that helped make a shift: It helped give people a mindset where they felt more confident and realized, ‘Yes, I do have the skills to do this,'” MinnPost development director Tanner Curl said in the report. “For us, [the key] was taking those skills and professionalizing them.”
This point was raised at ONA’s philanthropy session this year, too:
Look at the mission statements of the family and local foundations, @alicerhee says. "How does funding you help them meet their goals?" Think of it like a big reporting project to find out how you fit and could help them meet their goals. #ONA19Philanthropy
— Christine Schmidt (@NewsbySchmidt) September 13, 2019
Other findings from the pilot:
- “While leaders of emerging nonprofit newsrooms face the time-and-priority challenges of any start-up, it’s vital that major donor planning be part of start-up strategies. Leaders need to allocate time for consistent weekly and monthly donor outreach.”
- “Nonprofit newsrooms need to identify clear projects to match to donor interests.” (This point can can be tricky though, as nonprofit outlets have brought up concerns before about pivoting too far from their mission and plan to serve the short-term desires of foundations who may not re-invest; perhaps it’s a different tactic with individuals.)
- “Role-playing conversations between nonprofit leaders and potential donors is a surprisingly effective preparatory tool.”
The report includes case studies from the individual outlets and how they found success with their major donors, such as transitioning out of reliance on one major donor and communicating a vision to a potential donor in a chance encounter. The full report is available here.