How Open Should Nonprofits Be with Community Supporters About Money?

Ask early and ask strategically.

As journalists, we’re good at applying this concept when it comes to asking for information, but less so when it comes to asking for the money that will keep our nonprofit shops operating.

Like a lot of my peers new to running this brand of newsroom, I’m getting better at fundraising, and I’m always looking for object lessons. I think I’ve found one in the recent shutdown of The Florida Independent and the year-end layoffs at voiceofsandiego.

The message from readers in each case was the same: “Why didn’t you tell us you were in trouble? We might have been able to help.”

From the comments section of the Independent’s story announcing its shuttering:

“What can we do as readers to stop this?”

“This is very upsetting. I wish it weren’t true or that I had a bizzillion dollars to keep you afloat.”

Another commenter wondered whether the newsroom could keep operating with subscription-based revenues. And from the comments at Voice of San Diego on the December layoffs of four people, including two reporters familiar to readers:

“If you had leveled with your readers about the budget issues and noted what cuts would have to be made, the people who’ve appreciated [the laid-off reporter] Emily’s reporting could donate directly knowing that they’d be saving this valuable resource.”

“I do agree with others that it would have been worth an appeal to your donors to save these jobs.”

“I wish you’d inform us of the possible need for layoffs….I bet many would have been willing to donate to the cause of VOSD keeping these fine folks.”

This gets into a dicey area of telling your readers that you’re in some kind of financial trouble, running the risk of scaring off potential donors. But if that’s how they hear things, that’s still the message they’ll get when you announce staff reductions – and the risks you are taking won’t matter if you end up closing down all the same.

It’s a matter of being honest with our readers, something we’re all pretty good at.

Could a save-our-staff appeal raise enough money to save someone’s job? It’s hard to say, though in most smaller markets I’ll concede that it’s unlikely. But it could raise awareness, drive up local donations and generate a pile of testimonials. All those are good to have in hand when approaching major foundations for new or continued support. And that’s the kind of money that can definitely save a staff position.

Such an honest assessment and appeal might not be the best tack for your organization, but don’t immediately dismiss it as an option if you find yourself in a difficult situation.

Here’s perhaps the best comment of the bunch, from voiceofsandiego:

Time to Step Up, Folks!

I’m sure many Voice readers were as upset as my wife and I to hear of the cuts made to your staff. Any non-profit organization is at the mercy of it’s contributors, and collectively we haven’t done enough. I don’t know what percentage of total funding comes from day to day readers, as opposed to grants and ongoing support from a few “angels” like Buzz Wooley, but I’ll bet it’s less than 25%.

There will always be “free riders” in any endeavor of this sort, people who take advantage of the work the staff puts in to bring you the best reporting of local events you can get. To you, I say, it’s time to step up and start paying a share of the costs or get off the bus.

For those readers who do contribute, I have a different message. Every person who makes so-called “charitable” contributions has a budget for it. It may be written down or not, it may be precise or approximate, it may even be conscious or unconscious but it’s there; there’s a limit to everyone’s ability and willingness to support worthwhile organizations. You must set priorities.

There are an inexhaustible number of worthy causes; your church, the needy, our troops, the arts, education, you name it. But I want to ask you a simple question, can you think of any institution in our society more vital to our continued well-being than an aggressive, unbiased free press? I can’t. And one short follow up before I get off my soapbox, do you believe the sale of the only traditional newspaper in town is going to lead to more complete coverage of our local political scene?

My wife and I have done a fair amount of “grunt work” like stuffing envelopes for The Voice’s fund raisers, and we’ve seen amounts some of the contributors give. Some don’t even represent the equivalent of a few month’s subscription to a print newspaper. We’ve got to better than that. Priorities are important in life, and this one ought to be very high on our lists.