Truth” by Jason Taellious

March 5, 2017; San Francisco Chronicle

It is impossible to click on the Mother Jones website and not leave with a clear sense of the organization’s goals. The website asserts proudly that it “is a nonprofit news outlet that delivers bold and original award-winning reporting on the urgent issues of our day, from politics and climate change to education and the food we eat.” Although these same goals have likely guided Mother Jones for the past 41 years of its history, its “progressive but nonpartisan” focus has struck a distinct chord with the American public during the nascent Trump era. The way the publication has captured and built upon this interest serves as a useful example for nonprofits of all types.

According to a recent and insightful story in the San Francisco Chronicle, from November to this past January, the magazine had a 160 percent increase over the same period a year ago in small donations, tripled revenue from donors who have signed up for recurring monthly payments, and had a 72 percent increase in web traffic in January over the same month last year. The number of web viewers who are also subscribers has tripled. Because the publication gets about 70 percent of its operating budget from subscriptions and small gifts, this growth has allowed the organization to expand its capacity by increasing its editorial department. If an increasing bottom line weren’t enough in a time when many news publications are having to make cutbacks, last month, Mother Jones was named “Magazine of the Year” by the American Society of Magazine Editors.

A useful lesson within this success story for all nonprofits, even those not involved directly with the news industry, is that Mother Jones made the important decision to demystify the production costs that stand behind their reporting. The Chronicle cites the example of the magazine’s in-depth, 35,000-word investigation of the country’s private prison system by reporter Shane Bauer, which involved Bauer going undercover at a correctional facility and took over 18 months of work with support from videographers and legal counsel. As a follow-up to the story, Mother Jones’s editor-in-chief and CEO jointly “penned an article explaining that Bauer’s story cost the magazine an estimated $350,000—roughly $10 per word.”

The Chronicle also draws an apt link between the unprecedented response Mother Jones is getting from readers and the New York Times’ recent television advertisement during the Oscars, “The Truth is Hard.” The advertisement marks the first time in seven years that the Times has used television advertising (the first time ever during the Oscars) as part of a broader goal of highlighting the work and the resources that go into journalism.

For nonprofits, it is worth noting that at least one analyst has observed the circumstances in the Mother Jones story with caution about the road ahead. In a recent post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review site, Tim Ogden, managing director of the Financial Access Initiative at NYU Wagner, does not mention Mother Jones specifically but cites similar examples of nonprofits, including news sources KQED and ProPublica, that are also getting strong showings of support for their work countering Trump’s agenda.

“This flood of giving should also be a cause for concern for other nonprofits,” Ogden explains. “That’s because there is very little reason to believe that this giving represents a net addition to the total amount that will be given this year in the United States.”

Ogden is referencing what he calls “the two-percent rule,” a “largely unrecognized iron law of charitable giving in the United States” which holds that since 2003, charitable giving has varied between 2.1 and 2.2 percent of national income. This interpretation suggests that growth for some nonprofits during this unusual era is not guaranteed for all, ensuring that 2017 and beyond will remain tough fundraising years.

A possible alternative that Ogden gently offers would be for foundation leaders to eradicate the five percent ceiling on annual giving. Expanding on this concept as a conclusion, Ogden ends with a powerful reality check:

I hope that foundation leaders and boards are asking themselves this question as well: If what is happening right now is not enough reason to break the five percent ceiling and unleash a massive effort to protect the safety, dignity, civil rights, and basic human protections in our society, what would it take?

We are interested in your thoughts on this issue particularly related to direct experiences with nonprofits in the last few months.—Anne Eigeman