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Donations to nonprofit newsrooms continue to grow after 'Trump bump'

Posted: Feb. 9, 2018 | Tags: Donations

Despite his persistent claims of fake news and shoddy reporting, President Donald Trump’s contentious relationship with the media has actually provided a much needed financial boost for many nonprofit investigative journalism organizations across the country. And despite expectations, the swelling tide of financial support has not receded. Instead, donations have continued to grow over the past few years.

Take ProPublica, for example. Five days after the election, John Oliver called on his “Last Week Tonight” audience to support national, local and investigative journalism. ProPublica, which Oliver specifically referenced by name, received a flurry of new donations after the segment aired.

Partially assisted by “Trump” and “John Oliver” bumps in 2016, ProPublica’s revenue jumped more than $4 million over the previous year. But instead of leveling off or receding back to pre-election totals, ProPublica’s revenue increased by $11 million more in 2017. The New York-based nonprofit took in more than $28 million last year, an increase of almost 120 percent since 2015. In the past three years, ProPublica’s number of annual donors has increased by more than 30,000 and online donations have increased by more than $3 million.

Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, attributes the increases to the “changing political environment” and the “expansion in content” the nonprofit has been able to undertake with its expanding resources.

Praises from high-profile celebrities and contentious election results have had an undeniable — and quantifiable — impact on ProPublica’s finances. And, in turn, these deeper pockets have led to more high-quality, hard-hitting investigative journalism. ProPublica has shared a Pulitzer Prize each of the last two years — including the coveted Gold Medal for Public Service — as well as numerous other awards and accolades.

While other nonprofit organizations have not directly benefited from John Oliver’s televised praise, they did benefit from the election, and perhaps more importantly, years of hard work and the willingness to evolve and try new things.

“I think we had a ‘Trump bump,’” Doug Haddix, the executive director for Investigative Reporters and Editors, said.

Through the final two months of 2016, IRE’s year-end fundraising campaign pulled in almost twice as much as the previous year. Some donations from first-time donors came in shortly after the election with letters containing a similar message: "We want to help."

Haddix is quick to point out, however, that Trump does not deserve all the credit. In 2016, IRE rolled out new social media strategies that included promoted Facebook posts and more visually appealing Tweets.

A year after the election, financial support for IRE continues to grow. The total amount of donations and grants given to the University of Missouri-based nonprofit have increased almost 30 percent since 2015.

Aside from election bumps and social media savvy, investigative nonprofits have found many other ways to expand their audience and revenue.

The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit investigative newsroom in Emeryville, California, also has seen more money coming in since the election. But it also had a major restructuring in the past few years.

It started Reveal – a national radio show and podcast – in 2015 and rebranded its online image with

On the fundraising side, CIR has relied on more traditional fundraising techniques like grant proposals and personal asks, said Elizabeth Share, CIR’s chief development office. It also has developed major gifts and membership programs and joined the News Revenue Hub.

“Reveal is only two years old,” Share said. “The growth of the audience has been phenomenal.”

The Reveal podcast is downloaded 1.6 million times a month on average and the show is heard on 450 stations, Share said.

ProPublica and CIR represent two of the country’s largest nonprofit newsrooms. IRE has been around since 1975 and has trained thousands of investigative reporters around the world. But the uptick in funding has not been limited to just the larger, more established organizations. Smaller nonprofits also have seen increases.

“We’ve continued to see huge increases every single year,” Lauren Fuhrmann, associate director for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, said. The Madison-based newsroom has increased its annual individual donations by more than 140 percent since 2015.

Fuhrmann, who oversees revenue development and public engagement, attributes the increase in donations from individuals to years of persistence, relationship building and the development of a major donor program known as the Watchdog Club.

Supporters become members of the Watchdog Club when they donate $1,000 or more annually, a model inspired by San Diego-based inewsource’s Spotlight Club.

The Watchdog Club launched with 28 members in November 2017, Fuhrmann said. By the end of the year, it had 50 members. People are increasing their donations to become members, she said.

Fuhrmann also acknowledges a “Trump bump.” Just like IRE, donations came in after the election expressing a common sentiment: “Your work is more important now than ever."

“We heard that over and over and over. I can’t even tell you how many times people used almost that exact same phrase,” Fuhrmann said.

But the donation spike was more than just a reaction to the election, Fuhrmann added.

“Relationship building takes a lot of time,” she said. “We’ve had to do a lot of work over the last several years, and it’s starting to pay off.”

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