Building a strong and active board.The News Literacy Project, a group created five years ago to give students a critical understanding of the news media, landed Vivian Schiller asmits board chair. At the time, Ms. Schiller was general manager at NYTimes.com, and she later became chief digital strategist at NBC News and head of NPR.
The news project’s founder, Alan Miller, credits Ms. Schiller’s leadership with helping the group land a $200,000 Ford Foundation grant in its first year.
Keeping overhead expenses in check. Summer Advantage USA has no office, instead relying on computers and other technology to link its seven full-time employees. The group also saves money marketing its programs by enlisting parents, teachers, and others at participating schools as volunteers to spread the word.
Capitalizing on social media to engage supporters. Pencils of Promise, founded in 2008 to build schools in developing countries, decided one of its top priorities was to create a digi tal footprint interesting enough to draw grass-roots support, especially among young people, and impressive enough to attract corporate sponsors. It has made its Web site a hub of digital activity—with, for example, an opportunity for supporters to “donate Twitter status” by posting already composed tweets about the charity.
Cultivating a go-for-it attitude. Joey Feinstein, who started the environmental charity Climate Cycle in2008, literally “reached for the stars,” he says, when he asked the entertainer Jack Johnson to perform at the group’s first fundraiser, a bike race. The Grammy-nominated singer declined, but the bold request did land Climate Cycle one of its first substantial gifts—a $2,500 donation from Mr. Johnson’s foundation—and an invitation to participate in a charity expo at two of his concerts.
Bold thinking by a motivated leader is often the impetus behind a charity start-up in the first place. Mr. Phalen says a mentor had advised him against starting Summer Advantage when the economy was in such a mess. But seeing the need, he says, he persisted.
“I knew the financial circumstances would be hard,” Mr. Phalen says, “But my thought was, If I’m going to sit on the sidelines when it’s raining outside, then shame on me.”
Strapped for Cash, an Education Charity Creates its Own Evaluation Tools and Wins New Grants
In August 2008, the future looked bright for the News Literacy Project, a charity that was planning to start a program to teach students how to become savvier consumers of digital and print information.
Just a year earlier, the project had received money to map out its program from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and it had just received its first grant from the Ford Foundation to help it begin work in earnest.
Alan Miller, who left his job as an investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times to start the organization, says plans were under way to start bringing journalists and other resources into classrooms around the country.
The News Literacy Project got its Web site running the following month, but a few days later, the bottom started to drop out of the economy.
“I’d never recommend starting your first nonprofit in the deepest recession of your lifetime,” Mr. Miller says.
But he pushed on, he says, moving quickly to meet the expectations of the group’s initial donors and to create a track record to draw new ones.
“Funders want to see results,” he says.
And the News Literacy Project was ready to provide them from the outset—a critical advantage when grant seeking, he says, especially when foundation money grew tight.
Money was tight at Mr. Miller’s nonprofit, too. It couldn’t afford to hire consultants to evaluate programs,so the News Literacy Project created its own assessment tools, including surveys for student and teachers to take before and after participating in the news program.
And by February 2009—when high schools and middle schools in Bethesda, Md., and New York started offering students News Literacy Project courses—the organization was ready to capture classroom video and testimonials from participants.
The feedback, Mr. Miller says, went a long way in building relationships with foundations and prospective donors and continues to be a central selling point. The Charles H. Revson Foundation, for example, awarded the group a three-year, $600,000 grant after officials made a site visit to observe a news-literacy program at a New York school.
Collecting Data Online
The News Literacy Project continued to make improvements to its surveys and moved online the process of collecting and analyzing the data. Last year, it was able to use some grant money to pay a consulting company to evaluate both its programs and its ability to assess their impact.
Says Mr. Miller, “We have always been willing to invest in the process of formal assessments because that is how you judge whether you are meeting your goals and how others can judge whether they want to invest in helping you meet those goals.”
News Literacy ProjectYear founded: 2008
Mission: Teach students to think critically, judge the quality of information, and appreciate the value of good journalism
A key to success: Clear, consistent, and well-communicated evaluations of the program’s results
So far: Has brought visiting journalists and news-oriented education programs to nearly 10,000 students in the New York, Chicago, and Washington areas, leading to what an outside evaluator called “noteworthy changes in attitudes and knowledge about news and information”
Next: Plans for this year include raising $1.2-million; testing a teacher-training program in Chicago; and bringing a summer library workshop to new locations in California and Texas