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Why trust is the cornerstone of news philanthropy

December 21, 2023

By Lisa Gardner-Springer

In this season centered on giving and connections with family and friends, I’ve been reflecting more on trust. Trust bonds people to each other, and people to the institutions that are fundamental to a functioning and thriving society. It is the sine qua non of both journalism and fundraising, where my professional life has intersected for 20+ years.

Over the past decades, our trust in each other and our institutions has been crumbling, and our increasing polarization isn’t helping matters. The share of partisans who view those who identify with the opposing party as immoral, dishonest and unintelligent has dramatically risen. Since 1979, Gallup has been looking at how much Americans trust major institutions. In that first survey, 49% of Americans expressed a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in nine cornerstone institutions; 44 years later that figure is 26%. In case you’re wondering, trust in newspapers is at 18%, up from an all time low of 16% in 2022.

In the professional world I inhabit as a fundraiser, trust in nonprofits and philanthropy is better than many institutions — looking at you Congress, with your 8% Gallup trust rating — but is still on shaky ground. Just over half (52%) of Americans say they trust nonprofits to do what is right today, down from 56% in 2022, and trust in philanthropy is at 34%.

At INN Days 2023, INN members Derrick Cain (Resolve Philly), Jingyao Yu (Resolve Philly) and Wendi Thomas (MLK50) shared how their news organizations build community trust and weave listening into their reporting. Photo by Will Allen-DuPraw

And all this is before we even dip into AI, fake news or the scourge of dis-and mis-information. That’s a whole essay or two unto itself.

In this context, where people cast wary eyes at each other and the institutions that undergird a healthy and vibrant democracy, the hundreds of INN Network nonprofit news organizations across the country are following an adage coined by Ray Bradbury: “Journalism keeps you planted in the earth.”

These news organizations work every day to better connect to and rebuild trust within their communities. They are covering what matters to their communities, holding elected officials and powerful corporate interests to account, and listening to their audiences to iterate and evolve their reporting.

And don’t just take my word for it — check the data.

As one point of evidence that INN has followed for years: INN member news organizations have an astonishing 90% survival rate past the startup phase. In contrast, approximately 30% of startups with venture backing end up failing. This is a testament to not just the news outlets’ growing fundraising prowess but their ability to expand and deepen their ties to their audiences and communities. Simply put, their audiences trust them.

In our latest deep dive into diversity, equity and inclusion in the INN Index DEI Report, the racial and ethnic composition of personnel in the nonprofit news sector is largely similar to the U.S. and seems to be more diverse than other parts of the news industry (based on admittedly sparse demographic studies of the commercial news industry). Better representation strengthens trust. In a recent Pew study, 63% of Black Americans say that Black people are covered more negatively than people in other racial and ethnic groups. Among the respondents’ solutions to redress this: hiring more Black people as newsroom leaders and as journalists. Nonprofit news outlets are ahead of the curve in this way.

INN’s same DEI study unearths a key element of where trust needs to improve, especially between funders and news outlets run by leaders who are Black, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC). The good news: BIPOC led outlets are receiving about the same amount of foundation funding as their white-led counterparts. The bad news: BIPOC led outlets receive more restricted/project grants than their white-led outlets. Why does this matter? Restricted grants are just that: the funds need to be spent on specific positions or expenses related to a project rather than to be responsive to what the organization needs at the moment. The reporting requirements also tend to be more onerous, as an outlet has to specify narratively and financially how the funds are spent on that project. Given how much a news organization should be responsive to their community, these kinds of funds often mean outlets have to contort their work to fit the funder.

Trust isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it proposition. It needs constant tending. This is why development professionals never take our longstanding relationships with our donors or funders for granted. Nor should funders and donors take their relationships with their nonprofit grantees for granted either. For institutional funders, how might you improve your trust with your grantees? How can you lessen the administrative burden in your grant request and reporting requirements? How can you offer them what they need most — stability, flexibility, generosity?

(If you are looking for answers to these questions and more, Vu Le — one of the most provocative, irreverent and humorous experts on the relationship between the broader nonprofit sector and philanthropy — has a few ideas.)

Trust is both a verb and a noun — an action and a conviction. At INN, we are constantly iterating on our programs for members so that they can focus on building trust with their communities above and beyond creating original, fact-based journalism. Here, at the intersection of journalism and philanthropy, we are providing news as a public service. And that’s one reason to be optimistic about our democracy.

This post was originally published on Medium.

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