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Sept. 3, 2009, 3:23 p.m.

Appealing to enlightened self-interest: Seeking funding for journalism the IJNR way

Talking with journalists involved in nonprofit startups, I’ve noticed a dynamic that can be best described as a love-hate relationship with money: Many love the idea of being handed a check, but they hate the idea that it might appear to compromise their work in some way.

To these conflicted souls, I offer the example of Frank Allen, director of the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources, who has been investing other people’s money in socially responsible journalism since 1995 and hasn’t lost a night’s sleep yet.

A quick bit of background: Allen, a former Wall Street Journal editor, founded IJNR to help journalists understand the complexities of the environmental beat. The institutes typically are week-long excursions to places such as the Great Lakes or Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where journalists meet with people who deal with natural resources issues from all perspectives — and he does mean all. Reporters hear from conservationists, industry reps, farmers, government officials — pretty much anybody who has a stake. And that’s the point, Allen says: Reporters get a complete picture. (Disclosure: I am among IJNR’s 600 alumni, having been a fellow with IJNR’s 2001 Pacific Northwest Institute.)

Trouble is, the trips are expensive. In its last IRS Form 990, IJNR reported spending $436,551 on programs. So where does it all come from?

I caught up with Allen earlier this week to talk about his nonprofit business model and his efforts to maintain an ideologically broad base of support. Fundraising for IJNR, it turns out, also in an exercise in teaching context and perspective.

But first, some numbers. About 60 percent of IJNR’s funding comes from big foundations; another 20 percent comes from small donors, including alumni and small, family-controlled foundations; and five percent comes from conservation groups.

Now here’s something of a shocker: About 15 percent comes from big corporations such as Georgia-Pacific and Chevron that haven’t always been portrayed as good environmental stewards. “The strategy from the beginning was to see if we could pull together and maintain a broad and credible spectrum of supporters,” Allen says.

When courting representatives of a major prospect, whether a foundation or a corporation, Allen says he emphasizes the importance of educating reporters. Most reporters get little time out away from deadline pressure and have few opportunities for professional development, he explains. The message: Money won’t buy you a positive story, but it can help open minds. A gift to IJNR is an act of enlightened self-interest.

“It’s a cultivation process,” Allen says of his sales pitch. “You have to figure out how to get through the door and to the point where your request is welcome.”

Sometimes making the case is the easy part. Allen recalled the case of a company that wanted to donate $100,000. But officials insisted that reporters tour their laboratory and that they lead the tour. Allen refused the money. In another instance, the Turner Foundation wanted to make its donation contingent on excluding industry groups. Again, Allen refused. (An interesting coda: Ted Turner‘s daughter, Jennie Garlington, later applied and was accepted to IJNR without revealing her father’s identity. She reported her positive experience, and IJNR got its grant.)

Bottom line: It’s not always easy to maintain one’s backbone when courting a broad array of funders. But doing so helps build a more important asset: credibility. If you can keep love of money in check, you won’t hate yourself in the morning for having taken it.

POSTED     Sept. 3, 2009, 3:23 p.m.
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