You might expect the consultant just hired by ProPublica to be optimistic, if not ebullient, about prospects for a tech-savvy, grassroots fundraising effort to help sustain the nonprofit for the long haul. But Madeline Stanionis, CEO of Watershed Co., pronounces herself "skeptical." "I've never drunk the Kool-Aid," Stanionis told me in a phone interview Wednesday.
Why the skepticism?
It has to do with donor expectations.
Stanionis thinks donors to political and other "citizen-powered" campaigns have been conditioned to believe that the candidate or institution that receives their donations will respond directly to their demands. But journalism does not -- and should not -- operate that way, she said. "I just think trying to force a journalistic endeavor into a hole created by these campaigns is not correct," she said.
Stanionis is confronting the central dilemma facing journalism start-ups, nonprofit and for-profit alike: How to create a strong, independent editorial voice while also keeping the revenue flowing. For ProPublica, the stakes are particularly high. Though it has a rolling, three-year commitment for as much as $10 million a year from Herb and Marion Sandler, it needs to build a long-term revenue plan.
Enter Stanionis, whose clients have included The Nation and Mother Jones. ProPublica hired her firm and another to focus on large grants -- New York-based Community Counselling Service Co. -- with a $1 million grant from the Knight Foundation. Like most grants from Knight, the money comes with the condition that ProPublica share the knowledge it gains. But how that will happen isn't clear yet, said ProPublica general manager Dick Tofel. "(We) need to identify outputs relevant to others before we can determine how to share them," he told me in a recent email.
Indeed, Stanionis said she's just getting started, but some things she has sorted out. For one thing, her previous journalism clients are different in that they have well-established brands that "border on a personal relationship with readers." But ProPublica, like new, regional nonprofits such as MinnPost, Voice of San Diego and Texas Tribune, has positioned itself as a non-partisan, non-ideological investigative news source. It can be difficult for an outfit with that kind of professed independence to tell readers it needs their help. "You have to be okay with saying over and over again, 'We need your support,'" Stanionis said.
There's also the issue of managing reader/donor expectations. There's definitely room for a two-way conversation with readers in which they provide data and other inputs, Stanionis said. But that doesn't mean they get to dictate what stories get reported and written. "The nuance is important," she said.
So what kind of grassroots strategy will work for ProPublica and other nonprofits? What might help, Stanionis said, is if a reward for donating is something "fun" -- like the ACLU membership card. But as CUNY's Jeff Jarvis also warned, Stanionis knows that focusing too much on premiums and other rewards carries risk of drift from the mission, which is a nonprofit's primary reason for existing.
"It becomes a coffee cup and totebag machine," Stanionis said. "Is that what we want to be doing? Is that where we want to be in 20 years?"