I’ve been a doofus: Dave Cohn posted a video in response to this back at the end of May, and I promised I’d get a reply back to him asap. One hardware crash and MoJo board meeting later, I’m finally able to get into a conversation with him about Spot.us, Mother Jones, non profit journalism etc. (sorry Dave!) mainly because here I am 39,000 feet in the air headed to #PDF09, and finally have some quality time to do just that (although for the sake of my seat mates, no video…).
Quick recap on some of what Dave says in his video: over the past few months, Spot.us has funded 24 stories in 25 weeks, raised about $20,000 in individual donations, with the amount per story averaging $600-$700 (and they’re taking on larger beat-based projects with more aggressive fundraising goals now, too). This is on top of the Knight Foundation’s key support for technology, design, Spot.us staffing.
Dave says that a key to the Spot.us strategy is to create a sense of transparency, immediacy and control on the part of the donor. Folks who donate decide where the money goes; the “fundable unit” if you like, is the article or beat, not the organization. Spot.us’ strength: transparency. The challenge is that Spot.us is new, and not a known entity, like Mother Jones or NPR (his examples), to donate.
Dave says he measures success by the number of stories funded and impact of the stories: “I try and ignore traffic.” Instead, Spot.us is looking for high quality engagement with its community members:
“Someone who funds a story isn’t just someone who clicked on a URL, it’s someone who clicked on a URL and got engaged in a real way, and more and more we’re looking for different ways to engage people, either by donating money or by donating time.”
Dave also pretty much confirmed my sense that more and more they’re moving towards an understanding of Spot.us as a community site, not just a platform that brokers reporters to communities of interest.
He asked me two questions. First, is there something “naive” about the Spot.us approach? What he’s pointing to is his sense that other organizations are adopting the Spot.us toolset and point of view too slowly. He says it turns out that it’s “actually fairly difficult” to get organizations to do it. What’s up with that?
And second, he asked me if I think there are more traditional methods of fundraising that Spot.us could adopt. And related to this, he wondered how MoJo does its fundraising. And he challenged me/MoJo to give our donors more choice in how their money gets use – and to develop more of a relationship with our donors and readers too.
About the “is Spot.us naive?”/why’s it so slow to get adopted item: it’s not so much “donor choice” per se that makes the Spot.us approach so interesting. After all, the United Way has had to deal with this issue for years: People got so PO’d about the traditional UW way of doling out money, which concentrated control in the hands of local corporate elites, that the institution really had no alternative. The United Ways simply were failing to keep up with where their donors were heading – and so they started giving individual donors much more control over where their money goes (this is true for all the big federations, actually).
Another example of donor choice: colleges and universities. Don’t know about you, but when I get dunned by my alma mater, Oberlin, they give me a shopping list of options: the building fund, scholarship fund, this department or that department, athletics, etc etc.
So it’s not donor choice per se where Spot.us is innovating.
As Dave notes, it’s the possibility that interested community members connect with reporters on stories and issues they care about. Not only does that increase the possibility that people will actually pay for stuff they want, but it makes the reporting process more transparent (this was what made Chris Albritton’s Back-to-Iraq.com so damned exciting back then). And in this historical moment, when distributed, networked knowledge is the norm, transparency is an absolute ethical essential. This is, IMO, the huge step forward that Dave and his gang at Spot.us are taking.
This has equally huge implications for the relationship between “editorial” and “business” in journalism-based organizations because now, it’s (at a minimum) a 3-way interaction among interdependent and far more equal players: reporters and editors, fundraisers and community organizers, and community members themselves. And this is where I think the problem of slow adoption by other journalism organizations comes into play.
It’s not – as Dave makes totally clear – a technical problem (we’re talking one click, really). It’s an organizational culture problem, and a fundamental one. Not only does it call forward a new kind of journalism practice (that alone is a challenge, although the “kids” coming out of some of the more innovative j-schools increasingly walk in the door at places like MoJo getting the concept). Not only does it push us toward a very different relationship between reporters and their “audiences.” But it also forces a change in the internal relationships between those who do the reporting and editing, and those who do the community building. And by community building, I’m talking not just about “community managers” or organizers, but fundraisers (who when they do their job right are actually providing linkages, organized around money, between people), and people whose traditional functions are in some way connected to marketing. I think this internal re-balancing is just as complicated and fundamental as the one that is taking place between organizational staff and “the community” – and why I think other media organizations are so slow to test out Spot.us’ approach.
So what could Spot.us do to spread the word? Well, in just the same way that Dave hired a great community organizer to reach out to potential audiences, I suspect what’s needed is a different kind of organizer to work with journalism organizations who want to make the change, but might be stuck. Now it’s an open question as to whether that should be Spot.us’ responsibility or not, right? I mean, unless it’s part of Dave et al’s business plan, probably not.
I think it should be, though. I understand Dave’s reluctance to use traffic as the measure of success: it’s an output measure, not an outcome measure, and so except for advertisers not all that helpful for measuring the impact of our journalism. But I’d argue that the question of impact is deeply bound up in the diffusion of the Spot.us model, and the more this tool gets used, tested, modified, extended, the better off for Spot.us and for this approach to the work. Paradoxically, it may be the cushion of the Knight Foundation grant that is blocking this kind of signal from getting into the Spot.us system: that one measure of success ought to be rate of adoption. That’ll take some effort. It won’t happen automatically.
What about “traditional” fundraising that Spot.us could use, and about MoJo’s experience?
MoJo’s fundraising strategy looks a lot like other “mature” NGOs. We’ve tried to diversify our fundraising streams as a way both to give our donors as many different choices for how they can give, and to spread the risk of revenue shortfalls by creating several revenue streams. That’s basic fundraising 101. The huge virtue of publishing a magazine that is sustained almost entirely by subscriptions (not newstand sales) is that we have a built-in list from which to solicit gifts. And that’s where most of our “low dollar” giving comes from. Online giving is a tiny proportion of total giving, something I’m not happy about, and why, frankly, I started thinking about the Spot.us experience in the first place. And compared to other organizations – and definitely compared to the new foundation-drive journalism non profits – Mother Jones historically has received a large proportion of its contributed money not from foundations but from individuals, both “major” and “low dollar.” Partly that’s because we’re perceived to be “political” which is just fine, thank you very much.
So what else could Spot.us do, fundraising-wise? Well, this gets back to my original post: how do you move folks who get involved with Spot.us around a particular story or beat to become supporters of the organizational mission as a whole? I think if Spot.us is really going to be a community site, that’s the question to be answered, as no doubt Dave and his gang grok. One way to start: ask. You’ve got the list, go ahead and ask them. And then do all the things you need to do to take care of those folks who make an extra donation for Spot.us. Bring ‘em in. Do a spaghetti dinner or a meet up at 111 Minna, or whatever. Show em the luv!
That’s thing one. Thing two is to figure out a way to incorporate real major gift fundraising into the Spot.us revenue mix without it skewing the community engagement/community support system that’s predicated on not having any single gift unduly influence editorial direction. If the gift goes to Spot.us and not a specific beat or story then that should probably work out okay. I’d probably go ahead and take the leap to hire a decent fundraiser to work with Dave on this, beginning with pulling new folks onto your board who can carry the message into the Bay Area on your behalf. It’d be a very cool story to have to tell.
Plane’s starting its decent into JFK, so I’ll stop here.
So Dave, back to you!