Starting a Nonprofit – Tips from the Pros

As the media landscape is growing with new nonprofit journalism organizations sprouting up in various locations across the United States, starting up a news organization can be a hard thing to do.

The Hub asked its nonprofit journalism community network if they could give a few tips for those who are just starting out. Here are some tips from the Hub pros.

Where’s the Money?

When starting up your organization, having a strategy for funding before you launch is a crucial part to the organization’s development and its sustainability. According to Richard Tofel, general manager of ProPublica, “Have enough money before launch to produce an excellent product for a decent amount of time.”

Often the mistake can be made that more can be done with less when you are starting your organization, but your launch is the first impression you will make in the community and having the money to back the time and resources needed to create a great launch will have a direct impact on your success.

When seeking funding, Paul Bass, editor of the New Haven Independent recommends that you aim high for contributions.

“Don’t aim low. It’ll take too long to raise enough money and keep it going all from $50 or $100 donations. Seek some major original sponsors in the $10,000 to $50,000 range,” Bass said.

In addition, when seeking funding, contact as many organizations and potential funders as you can, but it also helps to contact those who know of your work prior who may be more willing to invest in you and your organization.

“Approach potential funders who know you and your work — and who appreciate the need to support journalism with no-strings attached (as opposed to people who’d seek p.r. or to control the spin),” Bass said.

Fundraising for your nonprofit organization does not stop once you have launched, it’s a continual process. There are many revenue-generating sources that can help your organization such as sponsorships, partnerships and advertising.

Although, be cautious with using advertising as a strategy as Bass states it can be an uphill battle to make it worthwhile for your operation.

“Ads don’t work. They don’t produce enough revenue; for-profit chains can undersell you; and traffic will be too small to have advertisers succeed. Plus the ads clog up the site. You need NPR-style branding support,” Bass said.

Your Most Valuable Resource – Your Staff

In addition to the basics of fundraising, a nonprofit organization must also think about the operations, particularly about the staff.

“The most important place to start is a great editor,” according to Tofel. The editor is the one who is going to be your steward of editorial style and quality for the content you publish on your platform as well as a key mentor to your reporters on staff.

Also, think about who else you need on staff. “Don’t forget that online journalism staffs increasingly include significant numbers of folks who do neither reporting nor editing,” Tofel said.

For example staff members that you should definitely have on board aside from editorial staff and reporters, includes having a receptionist to help field calls and inquiries that come into your organization, a secretary to assist with paperwork and operational office duties, and having a technical support person or staff to assist when your equipment or platform goes awry or other technical issues arise.

The Learning Never Stops

A crucial element to being a nonprofit organization is that there are always things to learn. The more you and your staff know about the latest tools, equipment, software, hardware and analytics, you will be able to make strategic decisions that can help your organization in a variety of ways. According to Steve Reinbrecht, managing editor of Berks Community Television, acquiring skills in digital media and data analysis can be a tremendous asset for you and your organization.

“Spend time learning how new and often very inexpensive technology can help your site. Learn how to take photos and video effortlessly under any conditions. Learn enough photo and video editing to be able to do it quickly and effectively. Learn how to make maps and spreadsheets to embed on your site. Learn how to scan and make pdfs. Learn how to sort data and make charts with a spreadsheet program. Learn some HTML. Learn how to quickly find the latest data about your community at the Census site to show trends or comparisons with other geographies. Learn basic SEO strategy. Learn Google analytics and AdWords. And teach everyone you can the skills you’ve developed,” Reinbrecht said.

Your Success Depends on Outreach

In addition to managing the money and a staff, outreach to the community is another crucial element for the start up nonprofit organization. Your reputation and credibility will be built by how you interact with your community.

Reinbrecht suggests you and your staff should be very active in the community and promote your organization as often as possible.

“Expect to be high-touch to develop new sources, citizen journalists and community support. As busy as you are, talk to everyone patiently. Visit groups and classes. Keep long lists of e-mail addresses and contacts. Offer help to anyone who needs it. Write lots of thank-yous. You have to train community members – seemingly one by one – that you will publish news they supply about what they think is important. And you must relentlessly promote your site and your mission, a new habit for traditional-newsroom denizens like me,” Reinbrecht said.

Aside from maintaining open and constant contact with the public, Julian Do, co-director of New America Media, suggests seeking out members in the community to blog for your organization.

“Recruit community practitioners to be bloggers. They could give real-life situations on the ground. Often time armchair bloggers can be out of touch. You may have to train them on writing and prod them for consistent contribution. But once successful, these blogger’s writing should be very interesting since they are out there on the frontline, getting the pulse of the community,” Do said.

Furthermore, Do suggests that having diverse bloggers from your community will also enrich the news coverage you provide to the public.

“Having diverse bloggers (from different ethnic communities and political spectrum) would provide different perspectives. For example, we rarely hear perspectives on gun control and abortion issues from ethnic communities (although they are the majority in many urban centers now),” Do said.

When launching a nonprofit news organization, there are several things to keep in mind from fundraising to staffing to outreach. These tips from Tofel, Reinbrecht, Bass and Do are just a few to get you started. Stay tuned to the Hub website for more tips from the pros!