A local news organization that covers public education in Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and Tennessee
Multiple locations in the U.S.
From the beginning Chalkbeat has had a way for readers to financially support their work, but it was a straightforward donations strategy. They first flagged membership as something to consider in 2014, but didn’t have the capacity to pursue a full membership program at the time.
In the years following, they continued to grow in readership and revenue, but it wasn’t until 2018 that they had the bandwidth to answer key questions about membership: What would it be at Chalkbeat? Why would they do it? And how significant of an investment would it be to launch and maintain?
Most importantly, they needed to identify the organizational goal for membership: what does success look and feel like, and how could we measure it?
Building on what Chalkbeat knew from years of receiving reader donations, Chief Strategy Officer Alison Go spent two months looking across the organization to develop a framework for determining whether membership was worthwhile and identifying milestones that would tell them if they were on the right track. They launched their membership program in November 2018.
Why this is important
When assessing whether they’re ready for membership, news organizations spend months choosing their tech stack and designing their membership program. But they often miss a critical step before that: getting specific about what it will look like if membership “works” for them.
Membership is not a brand campaign that you can toggle on and off when you need a revenue boost or have a bit of extra time. It is both a new relationship with your supporters and a product that you need to manage. Setting off on this path without defining success makes it difficult to assess whether membership is having a positive enough effect on your organization to be worth the significant investment it requires.
Chalkbeat’s effort to distill its membership experiment into four hypotheses that could be tested and measured within a year of launching a membership program is instructive for news organizations trying to come up with their own definition of success.
What they did
The first thing the Chalkbeat team established was that membership was not going to be a quick experiment that it could try and fail and then wind down. There would be significant staff, technological, marketing and editorial investment, and the commitments made in the course of a membership program would need to be fulfilled well beyond the end of an end-of-year or spring campaign, said Go.
For two months in 2018, Go was focused full-time on answering a key question: what would it look like for Chalkbeat if membership works? And almost as important, they identified what it would like for membership to not work, and the steps they would take to phase it out.
“It was not anything technical, it wasn’t like a physical thing or resource, it was the confidence that we would at minimum learn something from this,” Go said.
They identified four hypotheses that they could test by launching membership:
- Acquisition: Framing small donations as “membership” will drive the highest possible revenue from small donors.
- Retention: The membership program will have the lowest churn of all small-donor programs.
- Knowledge community: The membership program will be a critical pillar for a robust editorial knowledge community, ultimately improving the journalism itself and increasing our impact on the community.
- Costs: The overhead to maintain a membership program will be offset by the benefits.
They then distilled each hypothesis into a question that data could answer, and identified a “learning time frame” for answering the question, using data from previous donation drives as a baseline.
- Acquisition: Does this convert better than our previous campaigns? (1 month)
- Retention: Do people cancel recurring contributions at a slower rate? If yes, what about the membership program causes this change in behavior? Is it the “membership” framing or specific initiatives within the membership? (3 to 12 months)
- Knowledge community: Have membership initiatives increased our interaction with our community? Has the quality of our stories improved as a result? Has the reach and impact of our stories increased as a result? (1 year)
- Costs: What is needed to maintain a membership program and how much does it cost, now and at scale? (1 year)
They decided that if membership did not create incremental revenue but “enabled us to create a feedback loop that we weren’t able to have without it, it was valuable.”
They also identified revenue milestones that would tell them the role membership would play in the larger financial model. For instance, if membership took 50 percent of an employee’s time to administer and maintain, did it actually pay for itself? And if not at the time, at what size audience would it begin to make sense?
Almost two years after launch, they have more than 1,100 members across the U.S., have generated insights into their four hypotheses, and added one more after launch. This bolstered the case for hiring a dedicated person to support membership.
Acquisition: They did not see a significant spike in member/donor acquisition in the first two months. Membership grew at about the same rates as their newsletters did.
Retention: Member/donor retention started in the high 90th percentile, and it has remained high since.
Knowledge community: They have found that it’s easier to engage with members than it was to engage with donors because of the ongoing communication with them, but they are struggling to build local knowledge communities because the membership program is run centrally, at the national level. Kary Perez, who runs their membership program today, says: “As our national team grows, we can continue testing what a national-level knowledge community might look like.”
Costs: “Our [newsletter] subscriber to member conversion numbers are average. Even at average, we know we can do better. The membership program conclusively pays for itself – the ROI isn’t super high, but it pays for itself. …Even at the launch of the membership program, it was clear it was worth the investment,” Perez wrote in an email. Their launch year, they brought in $53,000 from members, not quite hitting their $60,000 goal – but the following year they brought in $80,000, exceeding their new $55,000 goal.
Synergies with other initiatives: Chalkbeat uses the end-of-year membership campaign to bolster major donor giving and vice versa, such as having a major donor offer a match to motivate readers to become members. Plus, the development team can reuse membership assets and content in their outreach to major donors.
After their successful launch and end-of-year campaign in 2018, they knew they should invest in a grander version of individual donations, and that they needed a more dedicated resource to do that. In 2019 they hired Perez as the senior marketing manager to manage the membership program.
What they learned
Membership has proven to have both revenue and engagement impact for Chalkbeat. That’s why Perez, the organizational point person for membership, sits between the revenue and editorial teams. They’re still trying to understand which is the primary role it plays, she says. The $80,000 membership brought in for 2019-20 is substantial, but that was only 1 percent of their budget due to their foundation and major donor support. For this reason, it might end up being more critical as a mechanism for greater engagement.
Having membership raises questions about inclusivity. Member benefits are inherently exclusive, and Chalkbeat is asking itself whether it’s possible to square special experiences for members with their organizational commitment to equity and inclusion. “The whole point of our model is that everyone should have access to our work. The questions we ask ourselves are: How does any nonprofit have a membership program? How are we meant to be accessible for everyone while also offering member benefits? How can we create a truly inclusive membership program?” Perez says.
So far, they have decided that they won’t limit access to anything that’s useful for creating educational outcomes, and they’re exploring how they might create pathways to membership that don’t require a monetary exchange.
Key takeaways and cautionary tales
A membership program needs measurable goals. Setting off on a path to membership without defining success makes it difficult to assess whether membership is having a positive enough effect on your organization to be worth the significant investment it requires. As Go noted, membership isn’t a quick experiment that can be wound down if it doesn’t “work.” Chalkbeat’s effort to distill its membership experiment into four hypotheses that could be tested and measured within a year of launching a membership program is instructive for news organizations trying to come up with their own definition of success.
- Chalkbeat, strategic plan: Chalkbeat 2025: A Five-Year Plan to Build the News Our Democracy Needs