We are in a philanthropic environment where funders of nonprofit journalism want to see proof that their investments have led to real change. For many of these funders, they view journalism organizations in the same way they view the rest of their grantees — nonprofit and advocacy organizations, many of which excel at showing their impact through analysis, storytelling and communications.
For instance, Charity Water, which is dedicated to providing clean water to developing nations, tracks the specific well that an individual donor’s contribution helped build. Donors Choose, a crowdfunding platform for teachers, puts a face and a story behind every classroom project that funders contribute toward. Girls Who Code, which works to close the gender gap in technology, showcases alumna stories. And the American Cancer Society puts troves of its data and analysis online as a helpful interactive tool.
This is the work of some of the best nonprofit communicators in the world.
Meanwhile, great nonprofit news organizations are still learning how to be great nonprofit communicators. There is often little doubt these organizations are making an impact, but many struggle to tell the story of that impact in a way that builds public support, engages audiences, and demands the attention of potential donors.
Here are four lessons newsrooms can learn from nonprofits about showcasing impact to donors and funders.
1. Solicit feedback and start a formal system for tracking it
For nonprofits, the best measure of success is how their work affects the individuals they are trying to serve.
For news organizations, there’s no more direct measure of impact than an affected reader. It’s a big deal when readers take the time to email, tweet, call or approach news organizations about stories. Yes, that outreach is not always positive, but that’s OK — it’s important that people care.
Newsrooms can identify their strongest supporters, actively solicit them for testimonials and relentlessly document and share meaningful reader feedback. Put someone in charge of capturing these moments and broadcast them widely — in newsletters, on social media and in fundraising or marketing materials.
2. Extend the lifecycle of your best work
Nonprofits develop long-lasting relationships with people they serve.
In journalism, stories can be life-changing — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse — for the subjects of reporting. Nonprofit news organizations have taken down politicians, changed laws and elevated new voices and perspectives. Often this change occurs well beyond press time, which means it may go overlooked by the organization and funders.
Once a story is published, newsrooms should track what happens to those featured in it. The editorial team can write follow-up stories, host a reader Q&A with the subject, or create a newsletter that offers updates on the story. Marketing and development staff can develop case studies and profiles.
All of this serves as a reminder to a nonprofit’s supporters that the value of the work is sustained over time.
3. Tell your story like you tell your subjects’ stories
Because they often prioritize marketing and communications, many nonprofits develop a deep understanding of the story they want to tell.
Journalists are better than anyone at telling stories — except when it comes to telling their own. When it’s time to showcase a nonprofit newsroom’s work to funders, the same approach that works for journalism can be applied. Investigate the organization’s impact. Talk to everyone who is affected by it. Weave personal narratives together with compelling data.
“Think of your organization as a supporting character for the hero in the story you are sharing,” writes Julie Dixon, formerly of the Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication (and currently my colleague at Atlantic Media Strategies). “Focus your lens on the person whose life has been changed by your organization’s programs and services.”
(For more on this, see how the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism used photography and storytelling to communicate its impact to stakeholders earlier this year.)
4. Avoid jargon
The most successful nonprofits communicators don’t assume every funder knows their sector inside and out.
Likewise, the people who care about journalism are only a small part of the potential base of support for nonprofit news. Clear writing and storytelling skills can reach that broader group with an effective message. Keep in mind that the news nonprofit’s value is not limited to reporting and publishing articles; it’s value is the impact it (and its partners) can have on the world. That is a story can extends beyond the journalism world.
How do you do that? Journalists cringe when sources use a jargon-ridden press release, an annual report filled with marketing speak or an executive trained in platitudes to validate their message. Step one for nonprofit news organizations is to avoid those tactics themselves.
Above all, remember that whether it’s a funder, an individual donor or just a potential ambassador for your brand, earning support for a cause means quickly, concisely, and clearly showing them what that support can get them. Take a lesson from the nonprofits that already do this best.
Jason Tomassini is an associate director for editorial at Atlantic Media Strategies, the digital consultancy of The Atlantic. He writes about telling your organization’s story for the Digital Trends Index newsletter and Medium publication.