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April 9, 2015, 10:02 a.m.
Business Models
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INN splits with CEO Davis as it refocuses its efforts to promote nonprofit journalism

“I think there was definitely a difference in the sense of direction,” said Brant Houston, chair of INN’s board of directors.

Less than a month after rethinking its mission statement and rebranding itself with a new name and website, the Institute for Nonprofit News is now also looking for a new leader. It parted ways with CEO and executive director Kevin Davis Tuesday night after Davis and the organization’s board of directors clashed over INN’s priorities.

“I think there was definitely a difference in the sense of direction,” said Brant Houston, chair of INN’s board of directors and the Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois. Denise Malan, who was director of data services for INN and Investigative Reporters and Editors, was named interim CEO.

INN’s members — which include many of the biggest names in nonprofit journalism — and others were left wondering what dispute over priorities would lead to parting ways with the only CEO INN has known:

Houston said the board wants INN to focus on furthering its business education programs, enhancing its advocacy on behalf of nonprofit news as a philanthropic cause, and continuing its focus on certain projects already developed by INN.

Davis, meanwhile, told me he was most interested in building programs that would be aimed at helping nonprofit news organizations become more financially independent and less reliant on foundation grants.

“What I think the board was trying to do was to dictate the size and shape of the organization moving forward in a way that was, perhaps, independent from the sustainability plan which I had developed, which was focused on building a consulting practice and delivering paid services to individual organizations based on our expertise,” Davis said.

In March, INN announced that it had changed its name from the Investigative News Network to the Institute for Nonprofit News. The decision was made during a board retreat last November, and INN’s mission statement was also revised to say that the organization’s goal is “to provide education and business support services to our nonprofit member organizations and promote the value and benefit of public service and investigative journalism.”

“We definitely want to be doing more on education and best business practices,” Houston said, “We’ve only got one thing planned for the year right now,” a daylong seminar at the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. Houston explained that INN doesn’t want to replicate the efforts of other journalism organizations and instead wants to run programs that will help nonprofits, for instance, develop business best practices and grow their audiences.

Houston also emphasized the board’s desire to see INN look at more ways the organization can utilize Impaq.me, a widget developed by INN in 2012 that allows nonprofits to raise money through social sharing, and other INN projects such as Project Largo, an open-source WordPress theme it developed that underpins many nonprofit news organization’s websites.

INN’s membership is composed of more than 100 nonprofit news organizations, and though members are required to pay dues the organization is primarily supported by foundations and philanthropic contributions.

Houston wouldn’t specify where there were particular areas of disagreement between the board or whether there were any specific initiatives that it wasn’t supportive of, only saying the board was “as unanimous as it has ever been and has a strong consensus.” After a flurry of emails among INN members trying to decode the move, INN’s board issued a statement that offered little additional clarity:

We’re thankful for Kevin’s many efforts for INN and its membership. But, as several members have pointed out, we’re restricted in terms of what we can say about his departure since it is a situation that involves a confidential personnel matter.

What we can say is that decisions of this seven-member board have been unanimous and in the best interest of INN. The board consists of three officers who helped found INN in 2009 and have assisted many of you in your start-ups. It also has two well-respected long time journalism leaders who have decades in management experience, and members who are at two of our most vibrant organizations. It is a board that is experienced and deliberative.

Davis told me board members “really have never articulated to me why they made this decision or what was concerning them following that retreat and the relaunch of the site.”

INN was founded in July 2009 as the Investigative News Network; its founding principles were outlined in the Pocantico Declaration, which called for an organization “to aid and abet, in every conceivable way, individually and collectively, the work and public reach of its member news organizations, including, to the fullest extent possible, their administrative, editorial and financial wellbeing. And, more broadly, to foster the highest quality investigative journalism, and to hold those in power accountable, at the local, national and international levels.”

Davis was hired in June 2010 as its first full-time employee. (He’d most recently been chief operating officer of The Wrap.) Since then the staff has grown to 10 people with a budget of more than $3 million. Three of the members of the current seven-person board — Houston; Charles Lewis, the executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop; and Laura Frank, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network — were involved in launching INN.

Houston also wouldn’t discuss how or when the decision was made to part with Davis was made, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters. But the move seemed to surprise INN staffers, members, and others involved in the nonprofit news space:

Houston said the INN board planned to work with the organization’s staff to determine priorities as the board conducts an evaluation and hires a permanent CEO over the next several months.

Moving forward, Houston said the board wanted to ensure that INN was “focusing enough that you’re not going to stretch the staff too thin and you’re not going to stretch your resources too thin. We’ve done that, but it’s one of those times to make sure you’re not stretching people in 20 different ways when you’ve got some things that really work.”

POSTED     April 9, 2015, 10:02 a.m.
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