“Don’t settle for anything other than your passion – if you’re lucky enough to find it.”
~ Warren Buffett
People start nonprofit news organizations for a variety of reasons; getting rich is not one of them. The two main considerations in deciding to move ahead are the meaning you find in journalism and the reality of what you need to do to support yourself and your family. No matter how important to society you see your plan as being, you must be realistic about whether it is viable and sustainable.
Look ahead five years and envision where you would be if you met your highest level of anticipated success. Would you have spent your savings getting to that point or would generous donors have gotten you there? If you would have exhausted those savings or that generosity five years out, would you have a replacement stream of revenue to fund your costs? Are there enough readers in your community to sustain a successful subscriber or membership model?
What if realistically you doubt you will be able to continue to cover your costs and produce meaningful journalism five years out? It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to give up your dream. You may just need to refine your concept. Can you partner with another publication or become part of an existing nonprofit? Take a look at the INN directory and see if you can team up with similar outlets to share back-office expenses. Such partnerships are common and reasonable in the nonprofit world.
If you are planning to serve a rural area or disadvantaged community, your audience may never be able to provide you financial sustainability, and you will have to find support from philanthropists. Some founders, particularly from the baby boom generation, are in a fortunate position where they have a traditional pension, a supportive spouse, and a legion of retired volunteers so they can get by on limited revenue. We don’t advise people to risk their personal livelihood and sacrifice their futures to start a nonprofit news organization in the absence of sustainable revenue. But time and again we have seen people start with a business plan we were not sure was viable, and yet they gradually survived and grew because of their passion. They donated a lot of time and effort the first couple of years, and had enough luck and pluck to succeed. The failure rate of sites that actually launch is low.
In this guide, we have drawn from patterns of success through the industry, but each startup is different and the whole field of nonprofit news is highly experimental. INN members are continually taking new approaches and finding new ways to meet challenges. We encourage you to reach out directly to INN members covering similar places or topics, see what they are doing and make a go-no go decision based on your circumstances and community needs.