The secret to having a successful nonprofit journalism site? Comedy. Also, a CEO who’s willing to dance. This Friday MinnPost is holding MinnRoast, an event that mixes fundraiser and summer camp talent show.
It’s the fifth straight year for the Minnesota nonprofit news site’s version of the Gridiron Club Dinner. This year, the celebrity will be supplied by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, Senator Al Franken, the mayor of St. Paul, two former candidates for governor, the majority leader of the Minnesota State Senate, and local news personalities.
“I’m in the show. This year I’m in three dance numbers,” MinnPost CEO Joel Kramer told me. “I never danced before I got involved in MinnRoast.”
Of course, at one point, Kramer probably didn’t have much experience running a nonprofit news site either, but he seems to be adapting to both well. As funny as MinnRoast is, it’s serious business for MinnPost: Kramer said each year the fundraiser has contributed more to the nonprofit’s bottom line. “Revenue from MinnRoast this year will be in the neighborhood of 10 percent of our overall revenue.” That would be up slightly from 9 percent in 2011, according to MinnPost’s most recent year end report.
MinnPost is often pointed to as a bright spot in the nonprofit journalism landscape (it ended last year in the black), so it’s worth looking at what makes their fundraising efforts work. Events are a big part of that. Like a lot of nonprofit news sites (and increasing number of for-profit outlets), events are part of business for MinnPost, which counts its annual birthday party and book blast among its regular events. This year, they expect more than 900 people will attend. With tickets ranging from $35 to $175 and sponsorships starting at $800, you can figure out how that math adds up.
For nonprofit news sites — and nonprofits in general — it’s all about finding as many ways as possible for people to give you money. In a way, MinnPost is extending the idea of its membership model. If you’re already a donor, you’re likely to check out the show, but MinnPost hopes their audience brings a friend to have a good time. Kramer told me one of the benefits of the show is the sponsors’ use of their tickets to bring people unfamiliar with the site. That introduction can be valuable if it creates an impression, even if it is during a night of silliness. “People go to lots of fundraising events, and unfortunately most of them can be a drag,” Kramer said. “We just put the emphasis on a tremendous amount of fun and minimal amount of time raising money at the event.”
In that way, the event also serves as a tool of community engagement, bringing together readers, journalists, and public officials. MinnPost gets to act as a kind of convener and help generate money for their work. MinnRoast would already be noteworthy because it brings leaders in Minnesota’s political parties together for a night where the talk is less partisan than normal. Kramer said it’s a fairly polarizing time in state and national politics and taking a break from that can be healthy. “I think it’s a good idea to break the tension for people that are fighting with each other or in adversarial relationships to have a night off to have fun and be reminded we’re in the same community,” he said. It’s worth noting that because of the annual show, MinnPost has been criticized for having a seemingly cozy relationship with people in power — or at the least, singing and dancing in silly costumes with them.
MinnRoast will likely continue to grow. They expected only 200 people in the first year and saw 400. This year they’re close to selling out the theater where the event is held, which could mean a bigger venue in the future. More specifically, Kramer said MinnPost needs MinnRoast, as well as the other events the site hosts, to continue to grow as they try to adjust how the site makes money. In 2011, about 21 percent of MinnPost revenue came from foundations, a percentage Kramer knows will change whether MinnPost is proactive in finding new dollars or not. Kramer said one of their goals for 2012 is to increase advertising as well as donations through memberships. “Our goal is to keep building the other sources of revenue,” he said.