Time flies when you're having fun. And covering the weird world of philanthropy is definitely fun.
What's so "weird" about philanthropy? A lot of things, starting with the fact that it's the only power center in our society that has no real bottom line and is accountable to no one. And because there are no entry barriers—besides money—you'll find all kinds of funders operating in the philanthrosphere with wildly different levels of sophistication, including a number of pretty eccentric figures.
It's not hard to stay entertained on a beat that includes billionaire health nuts, power hungry libertarians, save-the-world heirs, egotistical foundation presidents, conniving board members, insanely rich peaceniks, hedge fund yoga boosters, recovering deep-pocketed felons, and much more.
But the most clean fun at IP is writing about the many, many great efforts by funders to do some good. Just about every day, we're writing about yet another inspiring effort to make the world a better place. This sure beats my old life, where I wrote about stuff like Paul Ryan's Darwinian budget plan or Obama's bungling of the foreclosure crisis. While national policy is kind of a downer right now, philanthropy is a sector bursting with hope. Of course, it's also a sector bursting with hype. And telling the two apart is not always so easy.
So what have we learned since launching Inside Philanthropy a year ago? A few things.
1. People Are Interested in the Minutiae of Giving
The idea of IP is roughly the same as that of Politico or Variety: That people who work in a given sector have a hunger for stories that would be too deep in the weeds for the mainstream media. Philanthropy is no exception. Sure, 99.9 percent of Americans couldn't care less why the MacArthur Foundation sacked its president or where Hewlett is going with its grantmaking or how some hedge fund guy is structuring his new foundation. But lots of nonprofit people do care about such things.
Which explains why Inside Philanthropy's web traffic has risen steadily since we launched. We pulled in a grand total of 1,800 unique visitors to the site in January 2014, our first full month of operation. This month, we'll clock in at around 65,000 visitors, and the numbers keep rising.
2. The "Take" Matters More Than the "News"
Of course, IP is hardly alone in covering philanthropy, but I think we've gotten a lot of traction in a short time because we go much further into the weeds than anyone else and, more importantly, we don't focus on the "news" of the sector per se. Much of that news is, at first glance, terribly dull. So what if Paul Allen wrote a big check for marine conservation or if Steve Hilton is stepping aside from running the family foundation? I mean, pass the NoDoz. On the other hand, it is interesting to read about a quirky zillionaire like Paul Allen emerging as a top-tier philanthropist, or how the huge but stodgy Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is about to get turned upside down.
Like Politico and similar sites, IP blends traditional reporting with opinion to keep things interesting. At the same time, though, our opinions don't follow an ideological line and we're more likely to fulminate about, say, too little general support than how Walmart is ruining America. Actually, Walmart is a perfect example of my point: We've dinged its foundation for hypocrisy, but also praised it for creative grantmaking.
3. People Will Pay for This Content
A year ago, I knew that covering philanthropy in this new way could be interesting, but I didn't know if people would pay for it—which, frankly, made it terrifying to leave a secure job to launch the site. The media business isn't exactly thriving, you may have noticed. These days, though, I'm sleeping soundly. IP isn't cheap, but we're pulling in dozens of paying subscribers every month and will soon be operating in the black. Many of America's top nonprofits and universities now subscribe, as do many smaller local groups. Why? Because the site's information is not just interesting; it's valuable and can lead to grants, more than recouping the cost of a $297 annual subscription. IP is also valuable to funders as another way to see who else is funding what, and a growing number of foundations are signing up.
4. It's Tricky Striking the Right Balance in Coverage
One of the hardest things about covering philanthropy is getting the tone right. Quite apart from the fact that many media sites are too snarky as it is, you can't help but feel bad criticizing funders who are trying to do some good in the world. On the other hand, bringing more accountability to philanthropy is a core part of our mission, and the sector will be stronger if its bad ideas and weak leaders finally start to draw steady fire from the media.
Our plan has been to move slowly and carefully into a more critical stance. It's been crucial to show funders that we're not out to get them. IP isn't "Gawker for philanthropy," and we love cheering on the philanthropists who are getting things right. But while we ran mostly neutral or positive stories in our first year, the balance will start changing as we work in more investigative pieces.
5. Getting the Facts Right Isn't Easy, Either
We've published an average of 30 pieces a week over the past year, looking at funding for everything from art conservation to zoology. And while some funders operate simply—the type, say, who write big checks to the zoo—others are super-sophisticated, like those with five-year strategic plans to mentor a new generation of art conservationists drawing on some arcane pedagogy linked to a theory of change forged with input from Ph.D.s at Bridgespan.
Your typical underpaid journalist can reliably write about the first type of donor; finding writers who can wrap their heads around the second is far harder. We do our best to get things right. We hire the smartest people we can afford, spend a lot of time training them, and closely vet every post written (I do most of the editing myself). Meanwhile, our writers regularly revisit and fact check our background guides, making updates and corrections. When mistakes are pointed out, we fix them quickly.
6. It's Going To Be a While Before We Can Assess Impact
The Holy Grail of philanthropy journalism is to write accurately on the impact that grants did or did not have. Someday, we'll be able to send a reporter to check out a reforestation project in the Amazon or really drill down into how well a charter school network is educating kids. We can't afford to do that now, and so while we have lots of opinions on what grantmaking strategies might succeed, and can report on assessments made by others, we're careful to limit our own judgments about the impact of money spent.
7. Our Readers Have Almost Zero interest in "Rating" Funders
The part of Inside Philanthropy that got the most attention when we launched was how the site enables visitors to anonymously rate and review funders. That sounds like a barrel of TNT, right? Wrong. Of the nearly half million people who've come to IP in the past year, fewer than three dozen have bothered to "speak truth to money," as we've put it. So we're phasing out that function of the site.
Why have people been mum, when we all know there's enormous pent up frustration with funders? That's a good question. Fear seems like the most obvious explanation. But I think another factor is that people are busy and overworked people in nonprofits. I'm guessing our audience doesn't spend much time popping off on Yelp about their dry cleaner, either.
8. There's a Reason You See So many "Listicles"
The eighth thing we've learned is that articles like this, organized as lists—the infamous listicles—really do get more clicks. Which is why we decided early on that, in this case at least, we'd join the barbarians destroying our culture rather than fight them.
9. We've Barely Scratched the Surface
We've dug into hundreds of emerging philanthropists over the past year, particularly from tech and finance, two areas where huge fortunes are piling up. Many major new foundations are now being forged, often in non-transparent ways, leaving us constantly scrambling to get the details. And the more we dig into the new money, the more we realize that the bottomless pit of emerging philanthropy means that our job has only begun. As well, we're just getting started in really understanding the culture of key foundations.
10. More Subscribers = More Quality and Depth
Journalism is yet another form of "Moneyball." The more we can spend on writers, the better our stuff will be. Over time, as we get more subscribers and revenue, we'll be able to dig much deeper and do a lot more reporting.
All of which is to say that while we've made a lot of progress in just one year, we need more subscribers —a lot more, in fact—to really do things right. So if you like IP, believe in our mission, and don't yet subscribe, click below. Grantseekers will more than make their money back by tapping IP's fundraising intelligence. If you're a funder, you'll make smarter giving choices. We try every day to keep IP interesting, but mainly we exist to be useful.