Ideas are important, but so is a plan to get work done

Posted on February 25, 2011 by Janet Coats

One of the projects the New Media Journalism Initiative has been working on has focused on helping a group of entrepreneurial local news publishers to build their own community.

Our intent in working with the Block by Block community of local publishers has been to help this group of innovators find ways to share better practices and solve common problems together.

This community first gathered last September in Chicago at a event that Patterson helped enable called – you guessed it – Block by Block. Many of these publishers are building intensely local Websites that focus on enabling their own communities to better share news and information.

But many of them also are doing it truly on a shoestring, and one of the challenges they face is finding the means for funding this work that they believe in so passionately.

Recently, the Block by Block community asked me to write a blog post for them focused on philanthropic funding for journalism entrepreneurs. They know that The Patterson Foundation does not award grants or provide funding for individual projects. We’re interested in how we can help the entire space, not in trying to provide lift to a single effort.

But they also knew that I’ve done a fair amount of research and listening within the foundation community, and they wanted to pick my brain about how philanthropic funding fits into the mix for these sites.

So I thought I’d share with my Patterson readers what I told this group of entrepreneurs. My message to them is this:

The conversation about funding for journalism innovations has moved along two lines: the advertising model and the philanthropy model. The truth is, there are more similarities between those two models than there are differences. In each instance, you are trying to appeal to someone who will write you a check because there is a perceived benefit to him for doing so.

That benefit can be delivering an audience to their business or it can be the desire to build social capital. But in each instance, the person who writes that check expects results for the money.

So what does that mean?

It means that increasingly in the foundation world, it is not enough to have a good or even noble idea. You need to have a coherent, specific and measurable business plan.

The necessary components of that business plan are:


A mission isn’t some vague, jargon-filled statement modeled out of a business school textbook. It’s the words you live by. It tells you, those who work with you and those who will support you how you will make decisions about what you do – and just as importantly, what you don’t do. Organizations that are driven by a clear, concise mission use it in all of their decision-making -- about the stories they will pursue and the ones they’ll pass up, the technology they will use and how they’ll use it and the metrics they will track.


If the mission provides the words you’ll live by, the strategy tells the world how you will live by them. It shows that you have thought through the concrete steps you need to take the mission from words on paper to an enterprise that provides a needed and desirable service.

I was listening to a professor discuss the revolution in Egypt on a radio program; I missed his name, but he was giving a historical perspective about what makes popular uprisings succeed or fail. He said that revolutions rely on both the symbolic and the strategic. The symbolism creates the vision of what you want to achieve; the strategic provides that very necessary road map for getting there. That’s true not just for revolutions; it’s true for people who are starting new enterprises and seeking the funding to do it.


This one is vital. You have to decide what you are going to measure and then you have to be absolutely fanatical about following through. Too many of us in journalism act like the English majors we were in college: We write the paper first, then we write the outline afterwards just to satisfy the teacher.

Let me be clear about this one: Funders – and advertisers – know when you’ve pulled together metrics to try to justify the bid you are making for their money.

They also know when you are being systematic and rigorous about keeping track of your progress toward achieving your goals. You’ll be able to show that your decision-making is guided by metrics – that you correct course and allocate resources based on empirical information.

If you are asking people for money, nothing inspires confidence quite like showing you know how to count – and that you take it seriously.


This one is often neglected, and it is really important to foundations. Funders want to see that you are seeking and managing diverse funding streams. They want to know that you are getting the most out of every dime, and one way they see that is in how you leverage all of your resources – cash, volunteers, in-kind contributions. If you can show that the $100 donation you got was stretched into $120 worth of impact, you will be on your way to documenting the impact of your work.

There’s no question that philanthropic funding will continue to be part of the economic mix news and information. But I also think there is no question that foundations and other funders are becoming increasingly results-oriented in determining both who gets funding and who keeps it.

For entrepreneurs, that means you have to be passionate about more than your ideas. You have to be passionate stewards of your business, with the ability to show both accountability and concrete accomplishment in your work.

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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