Assess community information needs and giving capacity
Early in your decision-making is the time to gauge your community’s information needs and how willing and able your community is to step up financially to support you. Your community may not have the resources to do so.
There are several first steps you can take to assess your community’s financial capacity and proclivity to support local news. Here are some ideas:
If you have a list of subscribers, conduct an analysis to see how long they have been paying for your content and where they live. ZIP codes, which can be sorted for higher income neighborhoods, and longevity are predictive of capacity and interest.
Compare your subscriber list to the donation lists from similar organizations, including the public radio and TV station, arts organizations, colleges and universities and political and advocacy groups. These lists can be found online. How many people are there in total? How much do these organizations raise on average each year? What levels exist in their ‘Circles’ or other giving societies? Do your readers or subscribers overlap with any of the larger donors listed? This is a fruitful first group to approach for a gift to your new nonprofit. Chances are the people who support your organization have been making donations to the local public radio station or the ACLU for years.
Most nonprofits spend a lot of time and effort on grant applications to foundations and corporations. Research is a critical first step. Never send a grant application to a foundation without deeply researching the grant maker, and then making a call or visit first.
Research the capacity of your community foundation. How large is its general endowment / giving fund? How many donor advisers does it assist? What is its annual giving? Set up a meeting with its executive director and your board chair or another friend who has a fund at the community foundation and explain your goals and needs. Ask to present your plans to their board and donor advisers.
Research the capacity of your local private and corporate foundations. The easiest way to do this is to review their 990s, where they report the gifts they make each year. Do they fund similar agencies (public radio for example)? Do they fund issues that your reporting covers, like the environment, education or equity? If so there is a reason for them to support your work in these areas as well! Do you have contact with their leadership? Set up a meeting with their “gatekeeper” or staff and your board chair or a person who sits on their board and explain your plans and need for support.
What is your corporate giving environment? Who are the largest employers in your community? How do they support nonprofits and residents? Research how they make grants and sponsorships by reviewing their websites and take the same steps as you do for foundations — ask for a meeting and explain your plans.
There may be a grantmakers group in your city that brings together all the foundations and corporate giving officers. They look for speakers regularly and you should be on their agenda.
Think about presenting to Rotary, the Chamber, city clubs and other forums where city or town leaders meet. They are often members of the boards of foundations.
Assessing information needs of your community is just as important as assessing financial capacity. Those who’ve done it have used surveys, focus groups, and formal assessment tools (see the resources below). For most, it was the beginning of not only understanding their community more deeply, but also of helping the community understand the organization’s coming transformation and what it would mean to them.
Survey your readers – and nonreaders – and hold focus groups to discover what they want from their community-led, nonprofit news organization. Ask them how they want to be involved.
News needs change, so even if you are deeply embedded in your community and believe you understand its news needs, it’s critical to ask people frequently what information is most important to them and where there are gaps in local news.
Impact Architects new guide on assessing information needs