Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Membership increases revenue, community at nonprofit Voice of San Diego

Nov. 1, 2013, 8:58 a.m., Posted by Michele McLellan

voiceofsandiego

Above: Data on Voice of San Diego from "Finding a Foothold: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability." 

Voice of San Diego is banking on membership, not only for revenue but to strengthen its ties to its community.

Scott Lewis, CEO of the nonprofit news organization, believes attracting local residents to contribute recurring membership fees will play a critical role in Voice of San Diego’s financial future. It’s also part of a larger strategy of building community loyalty through events and online interaction, he said.

Voice of San Diego is one of five nonprofit news organizations with membership programs in a new Knight Foundation study of 18 organizations, “Finding a Foothold: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability.” Voice of San Diego, launched in 2005, produces news and investigative journalism focused on local government and politics, education and the environment.

Voice of San Diego reported 1,338 members in 2012, more than double the 2010 total. Members contributed an average of $150 each for a 2012 total of more than $200,000. The nonprofit’s total revenue in 2012 was nearly $1.4 million.

Lewis said a steady stream of small member donations is just the start.

 “Why pursue membership so fiercely? We believe it’s not inconceivable to build a 5,000 to 10,000 strong membership base,’’ Lewis said, noting that the public radio station in San Diego has 50,000 members.  At an average donation of $100 a year, Voice of San Diego could raise $500,000 to $1 million a year, he said.

“More importantly, this would be a massive base for attendance at events, readership and a major source of credibility in applications for foundation grants and sponsorships,” Lewis said.

The membership base is also a vital source of leads for major donors and sponsors, Lewis said.  “We’ve learned that it’s very difficult to approach people who don’t know about [Voice of San Diego] for major funding. By contrast, it’s much, much easier to ask members to give more.”

Voice of San Diego has four levels of membership and benefits include being “part of an inner circle that is invited to participate in our discussions and attend our special events,” Lewis said, as well as e-newsletters, a first look at special investigations and an insider newsletter, and a subscription to VOSD Quarterly magazine.

Vice President Mary Walter-Brown estimated Voice of San Diego spent about $90,000 on membership in 2012, plus a significant amount of her time to revamp the program that year.

The effort paid off.  The number of members increased 30 percent in 2012, helping boost total revenue 80 percent.

Voice of San Diego made its membership program more systematic in 2012, tracking members and reminding them to give again. The organization used reader surveys to understand membership potential and expectations.

The membership effort was part of the development of more sophisticated business practices in 2012 after Voice of San Diego missed its revenue goals by $200,000 and had to lay off three reporters late in 2011. Lewis said the nonprofit has since added one full-time employee on the business side and has a total of 11 on staff.

Money aside, Lewis believes the power of the community Voice of San Diego is forming with its members is a major benefit. Ultimately, he said, the community will grow to a point where the nonprofit can offer members discounts to events or products from sponsors or events.

 “If we are ever going to get the members we need, it’s going to have to be a personal experience,” Lewis said.

“We have created them into a self-reinforcing community driving attendance to events and sharing our stories and goals,” he said. “They’re hosting events for us at their houses in which they use the pronoun ‘we’ to describe the service. They’re identifying as part of it, not just readers or subscribers.”

Michele McLellan, consultant to Knight Foundation