PublicSource is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, digital-first media organization dedicated to serving Pittsburgh and the region.
Match funds – in which an organization secures a large financial commitment from a foundation, contingent on raising an equal amount of money from other sources – are a key component of many American nonprofit newsrooms’ fundraising efforts. That’s the premise behind NewsMatch, a national U.S. matching gift campaign that runs annually from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31. If a NewsMatch participant reaches a predetermined fundraising goal, it gets a portion of the national match pool.
However, starting in 2021, news organizations with annual operating expenses over $1 million were no longer eligible for national match funds from NewsMatch. In 2022 Pittsburgh’s PublicSource, previously a beneficiary of the NewsMatch national match pool, built its own match pool, first by securing NewsMatch partner funds and then by rallying individual supporters to form their own match pool. They were able to form a $50,000 match pool, which they leveraged to raise another $60,000 in their year-end fundraising drive.
Why this is important
Match campaigns have become a staple of American nonprofit newsrooms’ fundraising strategy. They add urgency and impact to fundraising campaigns, making it easier to pull in first-time supporters and to get additional funds from existing supporters. PublicSource’s most successful fundraising drives – in terms of number of donors and greatest donation amounts – are now ones with match funds attached.
Although many newsrooms across the U.S. employ match campaigns, MPP chose to highlight PublicSource because their approach highlights a way to leverage your board and highest contributing members, not just foundations. Newsrooms that aren’t eligible to receive foundation support, because of for-profit status or government restrictions, could employ this tactic not just with individuals, but companies. It also provides a great example of how to give your board a task that leverages their network. MPP believes that this approach could also be applied to longtime members who have shown interest in contributing more than financial support.
What they did
PublicSource began experimenting with match campaigns as part of NewsMatch. With NewsMatch, if a newsroom reaches a predetermined fundraising goal, it gets a portion of the national match pool. When NewsMatch changed the eligibility criteria for receiving matching funds, PublicSource took what it learned about successful match campaigns and created their own Pittsburgh-based pool.
Here’s how they did it:
Step 1: Source foundations who might be interested in contributing to a match pool
PublicSource received seed funds from several local foundations to help launch their newsroom, but Alyia Paulding, PublicSource’s membership & development manager, said they couldn’t rely just on those organizations forever if they wanted to be sustainable. It’s important to continue researching and prospecting for local foundation support, including smaller foundations that haven’t funded journalism before.
One way PublicSource found new prospective funders is through community listening tours. They created a network map of local philanthropic foundations, devised a plan to meet prospective funders, and developed a series of questions to find out what philanthropic leaders are concerned about, what issues they’re focused on, and where they’re getting information.
“We’re just inviting people to have 15- to 30-minute conversations with us,” Paulding said. “It’s been wonderful. Sometimes it will lead to funding or support and sometimes it won’t, but it always leads to a connection.”
Paulding and her colleagues maintain a record of who they’ve talked to, notes about background and experiences, and takeaways from each conversation.
“We conduct these conversations with people at all levels of giving capacity,” Paulding said. “While philanthropic leads come out of these chats, we very much want to be in contact with our community, and this is one way of doing that.”
Step 2: Pitch foundations on joining a matching pool
Once you’ve identified prospective local foundations, “a small match grant ask can be a great door-opener, especially if you have a foot in the door already,” Paulding explained.
“Perhaps there’s a foundation who appreciates your work but has indicated they don’t want to give at a large level, or with whom you’ve discussed a particular program or project that didn’t end up panning out,” she added. “Maybe a $5,000 matching grant would fit perfectly for them.”
Many times, foundations don’t want to be the first to support something, so it’s helpful to already have some matching funds secured if you’re pitching someone for the first time. For existing and past funders, staying in touch and passing along articles from your newsroom that are relevant to their priorities can be a good starting point for a conversation about being part of a match pool, Paulding said.
“We make connections for them between journalism and their areas of interest,” Paulding explained. “For an organization with an education focus, we’ll point to our education reporting.”
Paulding also added that it’s helpful to have evidence showing the success of matches in the past.
End-of-year campaigns are a prime opportunity to ask foundations for donations in smaller amounts (between $1,000 and $5,000, for example) because they might have funds they need to allocate by the end of the year.
Step 3: Pitch individuals on joining a matching pool
The PublicSource team knew that they couldn’t rely solely on local foundations for matching grants, so in 2022, they reached out to regular individual supporters to pitch them on helping to create a match pool for individual supporters.
First, Paulding sent emails to existing supporters, including versions for supporters with no additional gifts scheduled for the year, those with an upcoming recurring gift, and donors with a history of end-of-year giving. In those emails, she explained the idea behind the match pool and offered to schedule a Zoom or phone call or meet for coffee to talk about it further.
“I wondered if you might be interested in using this year’s gift as a match to inspire other readers,” she wrote in an outreach email. “We typically have a year-end match pool where some of our donors pledge to match gifts in November and December. Matching is a very powerful tool and routinely results in our biggest fundraising response; our readers really love to give when their donation is matched!”
Paulding also made a presentation to PublicSource’s Board of Directors in which she outlined PublicSource’s fundraising goals and asked board members to help by recruiting their personal contacts to contribute to the match pool. Her pitch: “The power is in inviting people to join you.” She even role-played a conversation with a board member and potential match donor and gave board members an email template they could use.
PublicSource raised $5,000 in matching funds for their spring 2022 campaign, all from just one foundation donor.
For their 2022 end-of-year campaign, using the tactics outlined above, they secured a $50,000 match pool. Of that, $30,000 was from two foundations, partner match funds secured through NewsMatch. The remaining $20,000 came from 11 individual donors. The median individual donor gift was $1,000.
The last stage of a match campaign is the small-dollar fundraising drive to bring in as many donations as possible. You’ve likely gotten emails from a newsroom saying something like, “Donate today to help us unlock $20,000.” That’s this stage of the match campaign.
In a typical match campaign, the organization only gets to keep the match pool if they reach their small dollar fundraising goal; the urgency is a motivator for new supporters. PublicSource’s goal was $50,000, equal to the size of the match pool.
Their fundraising drive included:
- Drafting email signatures to advertise the campaign and sending instructions to PublicSource staff members to adopt that language
- Creating onsite appeals, including pop-ups, in-story ads, and homepage banners
- Drafting a robust email campaign for all newsletter subscribers
- Preparing social posts, including slides for Instagram stories
- Compiling a list of reader testimonials, to quote in social posts and newsletter toppers
- And creating a calendar to keep track of social posts, fundraising emails, and newsletter toppers throughout the campaign
The 2022 end-of-year small dollar campaign raised $62,635 from over 300 donors. More than 100 of them were first-time donors. PublicSource also unlocked an additional $4,000 in match bonuses. In total, the campaign brought in $116,635.
“We were fortunate and grateful to receive a couple larger gifts, but as always, overall success came down to small-dollar donors stepping up,” Paulding said.
Raising their own local match pool, rather than tapping the NewsMatch pool, gave PublicSource much greater flexibility, she added. NewsMatch’s pool came with restrictions, such as a $1,000 maximum per donor and only matching double the one-time amount.
Their own local match pool had no such restrictions. This allowed them to shift to a triple match to energize their campaign when it hit a slump in mid-December (in a triple match, a $10 contribution would be matched at 3x, so $30).
“[It] allowed us to overcome the late-campaign stall-out many other newsrooms were experiencing,” she said.
Editor’s note: MPP did not go into detail on how PublicSource runs its small-dollar campaign because it has substantial overlap with advice already given in the section “Growing your membership program.” In the “Resources” section, you’ll find their campaign schedule. MPP also recommends reading case study “How The Tyee plans a crowdfunding campaign in a week” to get a detailed overview of a successful 6-8 week campaign.
What they learned
Start with existing supporters. PublicSource began soliciting individual contributions to the match pool by identifying people who they deemed “very reliable supporters” – those who made recurring donations, attended PublicSource fundraising events, or given generously in the past.
Paulding reached out to one donor with a recurring $1,000 gift that would be charged soon. “We said, ‘Hey, your gift is coming up, would you like to be part of the match pool?’” Paulding recalled. That donor not only said yes, but asked to increase her gift to $5,000. “You never know when asking will pay off,” Paulding said.
Connect your ask to something they care about. When reaching out to existing donors, whether foundations or individuals, Paulding relies on information she’s compiled about the issues they care about, such as a comment they made about a specific beat or an event they attended in the past. The community listening tour mentioned above is another good source of information. “It’s easier than designing an entire fundraising campaign for anyone and everyone,” she said.
Finding community support isn’t just about fundraising. Paulding and team track all of the takeaways from their community listening tour conversations in a master document. That document is important for tracking philanthropic leads, but also helps them get a sense of overall themes about people’s information needs, media habits, and areas of interest – valuable information they share with the PublicSource editorial team.
Matching works. Match campaigns are a major driver for new individual donations. “We’ve seen the greatest number of donors and the greatest donation amounts when gifts are matched,” said Paulding, adding that many donors will specifically leave comments with their gifts that say, “I’m giving because of the match.”
“I have the sense that people wait all year for these opportunities,” Paulding added. “People give because they want to feel like they’re part of something that’s doing good, and when they feel like they’re doing something that’s doubly good, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Key takeaways and cautionary notes
Don’t rely too heavily on one source of funding. Many newsrooms, not just PublicSource, had to shift their approach to end-of-year fundraising after NewsMatch changed its requirements. The NewsMatch decision is a good reminder that foundation goals, strategic focuses, and criteria for support can change, sometimes without much notice, and being dependent on any one funder, even just for an annual fundraising campaign, is risky.
Be willing to be vulnerable. In 2021, when PublicSource began building a relationship with a new foundation, they told them about the NewsMatch change and how it would affect them. That foundation agreed to give them a $25,000 matching grant to make up for the shortfall. “That was absolutely catalytic for us,” Paulding said. “We realized we don’t need gigantic operating support [from Newsmatch] in order to help us do what we know works.”
Small donations add up. “When someone says that they’ll give a $200-a-year donation to the match pool, I’m excited,” Paulding said. Combined, those smaller donations can build to a sizable match pool that brings in even more donations.