What Should A Nonprofit News Site Look Like?

I had an interesting Twitter conversation this morning and wanted to collect and share some a few more thoughts and some of the side conversations it spawned.

Responding to this tweet by Josh Stearns (of the Dodge Foundation) I recalled some research we've done here at INN (and would love to continue) looking at how nonprofit news sites can better communicate their reliance on member/donor support.

Essentially, we've found that it can be very difficult for nonprofit news sites that rely on donations to distinguish themselves and stand out as distinct from for-profit sites that often rely more on advertising. In fact, some preliminary user testing we've done suggests that if nonprofit news sites have advertising AND donation/membership messaging visitors are more likely to assume the organization makes its money primarily through advertising. We have not yet done research with enough sites to definitively confirm this finding or to show that there is a resulting drop-off in donations, but it definitely gives us pause.

Communicating "nonprofitness" (or at least that donations are a significant source of revenue) is crucial if nonprofit news organizations need visitors to understand just how important their donations are to the organization's survival.

This exchange spawned a number of interesting side conversations. Steve Katz, the publisher of INN member Mother Jones brought their creative director, Ivylise Simones, into the conversation:

Mother Jones is in a unique position where they rely not only on donations but also print subscriptions and advertising. While not common to many INN members (most are web-only, a handful have a print products, most don't realize a significant amount of revenue from advertising/sponsorship), this is a situation that IS shared by some other nonprofit publications.

More well-established organizations struggle with adapting to changing conditions without harming the strong brands that they've established over time.

There's also a lot more to being a nonprofit news organization beyond just asking for money and relying on contributions from your visitors. The most successful organizations think about "membership" not as just a financial transaction, but focus also on involving their community in the editorial process, being responsive, getting out into the community and really providing a valuable public service.

And of course there's a lot nonprofit news organizations can learn (and share) from and with the broader nonprofit sector.

Communicating why your work has value and how the community can get involved are some additional points many donors look at when deciding whether to give. Does your site make this clear to visitors or do they have to go hunting?

And finally, while the tax status of nonprofit news organizations does distinguish them from their for-profit peers, the tax implications of a donation is far less important to many smaller donors. They care much more about the mission of the organization they're pledging their support to.

Should nonprofit news sites look different than their for-profit counterparts? What would they need to do to clearly communicate this to visitors? Leave a comment and let us know what you think!