Andrea Riddell spoke to Guardian Australia to look inside their philanthropy model that’s forging partnerships with key philanthropists and foundations.
When it comes to choosing a charitable cause or interest area to support, investigative journalism typically isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for funders. But Guardian Australia is trying to change this, courting philanthropists, trusts and foundations in order to fuel its deeper investigative reporting. In Australia, the Guardian’ s philanthropy department is young (only a couple of years old) and small (just a team of one, for now), but with big dreams to harness philanthropy at a time when traditional media and investigative journalism is seemingly on the brink of extinction.
In the UK and US, this model of pursuing philanthropy is more established. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has supported the Guardian’s Global Development reporting since 2011. Subsequent partnerships have followed, including with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation supporting documentary films shining a light on poverty in the UK, and the California Wellness Foundation supporting the guns and lies in America series.
The recent closure of multiple regional papers and news sites, despite more eyes and ears on the news during the bushfires and the global pandemic, is proof that media has yet to find a sustainable model that monetises digital views and readership without compromising quality in-depth reporting.
For Guardian Australia, voluntary contributions and donations remove their sole reliance on advertising revenue and keeps their site paywall free, ensuring everyone has access to news – not just those who can afford it.
This is possible due to their unique ownership structure: the Guardian is owned by The Scott Trust, which was established in 1936 to ensure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity. This model frees the Guardian from commercial or political interference and opens them up to different funding models that other media companies aren’t privy to.
For their funders, partnering with an independent media source gives them a chance to make systemic change at the roots.
“Generally, [funders in Australia] work with projects that are having very real, on-the-ground impact but only affecting a small number of individuals or projects. And that’s very heart-warming.
“But what we can do with philanthropically funded journalism is look into what is causing [the issue] in the first place and try and actually impact this at the root cause – at the systemic level,” says Guardian Australia’s Head of Partnerships and Philanthropy, Susie Bayes.
Garnering philanthropy in Australia
Keen to avoid the use of a paywall, Guardian Australia has a three-tier voluntary funding model: one-off donations, subscriptions and large philanthropic funding.
To combat its lack of DGR status, they set up the Guardian Civic Journalism Trust in 2018 in partnership with the University of Melbourne. This structure follows the launch of theguardian.org in the US in 2017, a nonprofit raising funds, and providing tax exemptions, for large independent journalism projects.
The trust kicked off with support from the Balnaves Foundation for Indigenous reporting, and the Susan McKinnon Foundation for the transparency project on government trasnparency. To this day, over $2.5 million has been committed to investigative journalism projects.
Smaller donations coming through Guardian Australia’s donation prompt on its website are not tax deductible, but large-scale donations such as the recent gift from the Balnaves Foundation are given through the Trust.
With interests in the arts, education, and Indigenous Australia, the Balnaves Foundation first partnered with Guardian Australia in 2018 with a gift of $300,000 allocated to Indigenous affairs reporting. This investigative journalism won Guardian Australia two Walkley Awards.
This year, the Foundation has donated $420,000 over three and a half years to commence an in-depth arts reporting project. This funding will allow Guardian Australia to hire a dedicated arts reporter and expand its freelance contributor base.
“This series has only just started, but we have already seen additional reporting on the government’s refusal to include the arts in their coronavirus support.
“The work which funders support generally involves time-intensive, deep digging into areas of concern. In the transparency project, reporters work through sources like the politician’s expense register or they request and trawl through hundreds of emails via the Freedom of Information Act to investigate questionable use of power or taxpayer funds. Their work has been regularly quoted in recommendations for policy change.
“It’s only by investing significant time into that level of research that we can [make systemic change], and that’s time we cannot afford to pull out of the news cycle without additional philanthropic funding,” says Bayes.
Support from one-off donors is also not insignificant; more than half of their funding comes from this model. At the time of writing, Guardian Australia had 151,540 supporters, whose reasons for contributing can be seen in their digital contributor map.
Comments like, “Even though I have no job, my concern for the diminishing media, in particular the cuts to the ABC, motivates me to go without a coffee one day a week per month to support independent and responsible journalism,” and “I enjoy reading the Guardian. Reading for free is a privilege. To make a voluntary is contribution is an honour. My contribution is very little. I wish I could contribute more, but I’ll do it when my circumstances improve. With this system I do not have to worry about the expiry date. I can contribute whenever I like,” show the collective power of the individual community donor.
Guardian Australia readers have control over when they do and don’t make a contribution, thus shifting the relationship dynamic from transactional (as in the case of most paywalled news) to supportive and empowered.
By focusing on their “north star” of independent journalism, despite the predicament of the media landscape – the concentration of media sources in Australia and the duopoly of Google and Facebook – they have remained transparent to their readers and funders, and continued to generate support.
“The concern to ensure that the Guardian remains in Australia and provides this truly independent voice has been enough to make people want to reach into their pockets, even when they’re struggling,” says Bayes.
Making the front page
With the current climate, people are increasingly aware of the importance of transparent, direct, and correct information. In March, Guardian Australia reached half of all Australians.
“These times are scary, and we need accurate and fearless reporting that’s not afraid to hold power to account,” says Bayes.
At the beginning of their partnership, Neil Balnaves said to Guardian Australia that their “biggest goal was to be making the news, not just reporting the news”.
And this is what Bayes focuses on when approaching prospective partners and grantmakers. Funders are shown the level of influence and impact they can have through the power of quality reporting.
This impact can be seen with their Deaths Inside project, quoted in the Senate as the only record of the number of Indigenous Australians who have died in custody. And recently, powerfully, on the signs at Black Lives Matter protests, featuring statistics from their in-depth reporting.
“The Guardian has set out, from its very infancy, to give voice to the voiceless. With the death of George Floyd in the US, interest in Australia’s record soared – and our reporting provided the facts that fuelled the conversation and concern from protesters, to a Q&A episode and even the Senate.
“All of the numbers that people are quoting are from the deep research that we have done as part of that project. General news projects, just keeping up to date with what’s happening, don’t allow for that kind of investigation,” says Bayes.
Guardian Australia doesn’t have the typical ‘tugging-at-heart-strings’ type stories of lives transformed through philanthropy that most nonprofits have in their arsenal, so focusing on targeting the root cause is crucial to, and effective in, engaging funders.
“[Deaths Inside] is just one example of the influence the indigenous investigations project has been able to have on policy, conversations in government, and school curriculum – all areas at a systemic level that impact more individuals,” says Bayes.
Strategic partnerships that prioritise independence
Guardian Australia is finding that grantmakers and funders are becoming strategic in their approach, looking at how causes can align with their own impact goals, or the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“When I speak to grant makers and people across the industry, they say there has been traditionally a scattergun approach to philanthropy. Funders would help people that they saw needed help or gave help to people who approached them.
“Now, [funders] are looking for strategic ways of genuinely creating impact,” says Bayes.
Bayes works with donors to identify high-level areas of interest. These are overlaid with Guardian Australia’s areas of editorial interest: key areas outlined by the editorial team as topics they wish to investigate and gaps in the current news market. Bayes builds trust with donors, working with them to build structured report KPIs and deliverables.
As an independent news source, finding funders that explicitly trust Guardian Australia and their journalists to do their job without interference is crucial. Once a donor has provided funding, they take a backseat role to the project. All reporting funded through the philanthropy model is clearly marked with the funding source.
“We tell them what we roughly want to do and the broad areas that we wish to look into, but then once they agree to fund it, we report back to them and funders have no role in between.
“Most of the time we don’t know what the stories will be until we start investigating, so we can’t guide them in advance. A level of separation is crucial to ensure that the journalism remains entirely independent.”
“Partnerships need to uphold the integrity the Guardian is known for,” says Bayes.
The future for Guardian Australia
During the pandemic, the Guardian globally announced job losses due to COVID-19. Locally this has translated to cuts to a few commercial roles with minimal impact to editorial.
“It became very clear, very quickly that it was going to be a very challenging period for our business.
“We reached out to the grantmakers we already had relationships with saying, ‘Please can you help support us in any way you can?’,” says Bayes.
Guardian Australia launched the COVID-19 Crisis Project to counteract the loss of advertising revenue. Funding from sources – including the Judith Neilson Institute, which was established in 2018 by philanthropist Judith Neilson to support quality journalism – to this project has helped Guardian Australia pay for their casual staff, a major casualty of the pandemic.
“We needed more news than ever before, meaning we needed more casuals than ever before, and yet, we needed to pull back on costs.”
This was perhaps even more of a sign of the need to rely less on advertising revenue and more on diverse philanthropic funding and voluntary contributions.
Guardian Australia has now recovered from this funding shortfall and is keen to expand its reach and fund investigative journalism in priority focus areas. Their funding wish list includes, but is not limited to, education, technology’s impact on society, the justice system, regional and rural reporting and social equity.
“Most areas that concern philanthropists are concerning for us. The key to collaboration is having a conversation to see where our common interests lie. Some of the best partnerships have come about when funders approach us with their areas of systemic concern so we can show them what we’re keen to do in that space,” says Bayes.
“The biggest limitation is that people don’t know what is possible with us. People don’t know that this sort of journalism can one: be supported, and two: make the kind of impact we’re talking about.”
For more information on supporting the future of independent journalism, you can find Susie on LinkedIn.