How The Narwhal uses mini campaigns to fund their journalism

Small, responsive campaigns make fundraising stronger and easier.

Lauren Kaljur Lauren Kaljur  - March 1, 2021

The ask to readers was an aside. The Narwhal’s editor-in-chief Emma Gilchrist added a postscript to an email newsletter inviting readers to pitch in to help cover a $643.51 bill from the Alberta government for a freedom of information request. That single request brought in $5,000 and empowered the indie media outlet to create an entire fund to cover the cost of future freedom of information requests.

Fundraising in a way that’s responsive to relatable moments is what’s called a mini campaign. By breaking your internal fundraising goals down into smaller goals that make sense to your audience, raising money to fund your work becomes easier and helps you build relationships with readers.

Since co-founders Gilchrist and Carol Linnitt launched The Narwhal, a non-profit, reader-funded online magazine that publishes in-depth and investigative journalism about people and the environment out of Victoria B.C., three years ago, they’ve tripled their audience and now have more than 2,500 members who contribute roughly $400,000 per year.

“Fundraising is all about the reader being the hero of the story,” says Gilchrist. “While you may have some lofty internal goal to get X-many new members by Y date, I think it’s much more effective to come up with what you could call mini campaigns throughout the year to appeal to your readers to become members or make donations to support a specific, tangible goal.”

In 2019, the team fundraised to send a reporter to Newfoundland to cover the public inquiry into the Muskrat Falls hydro dam, which brought in about $8,000, Gilchrist says.

In another campaign, The Narwhal made an appeal to send a photographer on a rafting mission into a remote location to cover the abandoned Tulsequah Chief mine.

They’ve even asked readers to help hire a new editor.

“I actually think this is the easiest way to do fundraising,” explains Gilchrist. “You’re basically looking for moments in time when you have a compelling reason to ask people to support your work.”

Seize the moment

Key to a successful mini campaign is learning to recognize good moments as they arise. “We’re basically thinking about it all of the time,” Gilchrist says. “A little light needs to go on in your brain and realize, ‘this is a specific, tangible, ambitious assignment and I need to go ask my audience to support this.’ ”

That means they don’t really have a set fundraising calendar. “I’ve worked for nonprofits in the past where we did have a really strict fundraising calendar and you would have to contort yourself to come up with an appeal because it was the time that you send out an appeal,” she says. “We try to let it be a little bit more organic than that.”

Some campaigns may be more complex and carefully planned, but other times, it can be as simple as a “p.s.” in a newsletter.

In recent years, they’ve held between five and seven mini campaigns per year — a mix of member and donation appeals.

Work in tandem with your reader

By linking your fundraising to tangible milestones, you’re inviting readers to be a part of the work and celebrate with you.

When The Narwhal landed eight nominations for Digital Publishing Awards last year, they took the opportunity to thank their readers and invite those that aren’t already members to join.

“I think people get excited by what we’re able to accomplish thanks to them and then they want to be part of it,” Gilchrist explains.

She also says reporting back to the reader to show the impact of their support is the best part of the process.

“How cool is that for people, who gave $25 to $50, that they got to make this big freedom of information investigation possible, or they got to make this really ambitious photo essay possible? It really is the most virtuous circle.”

Just ask

For some journalist-entrepreneurs, campaigns can feel overwhelming. And for many, that stems from a hangup about asking people for money.

Asking gets easier when you remind yourself that you exist to serve the public, Gilchrist explains.

“I’ve really come around to this thinking after fundraising for ten years, that you are giving people a gift by giving them a way to make an impact on the world. People are looking for ways to take action and to do something and to have an impact.”

“If asking people for money means that you can send in a freedom of information request that’s going to shine a light on something that’s in the public interest, it behooves you to ask people for the money.”

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