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Check out funders and maintain editorial firewall

This essay is part of “Charting new ground: The ethical terrain of nonprofit journalism,” API research exploring the philanthropic funding of journalism. Read the other essays.

The first potential donor to the New England Center for Investigative Reporting came through the door without an ounce of effort on our part.

It was September 2008, three months before NECIR’s official launch and the donor wanted to support investigative reporting for personal reasons. The multi-millionaire Irish-American businessman had just won a $2 million settlement against a co-op board on Boston’s pricey Beacon Hill. The board — dominated by blue-bloods with ancestry dating back to the Mayflower — had rejected our donor-to-be’s attempt to buy a co-op in their luxury building overlooking Boston’s Public Garden. He sued and was the victor.

A newspaper columnist had taken up his cause and so the business owner wanted to return the favor with a $25,000 donation to our journalistic effort. His promise: the donation would be the first of many. He even told one local reporter he would give $1 million to NECIR over the next year.

We considered ourselves lucky for one very short minute … until a front page Sunday Boston Globe story a few weeks later named our sugar-daddy-to-be as one of a few individuals who had given $10,000 checks to a Massachusetts state senator charged with taking $23,500 in bribes — including ten $100 bills the senator stuffed into her bra as the scene was recorded by the FBI.

The senator — soon to be a federal prison inmate — had sponsored legislation that would have strictly limited the reasons why a co-op board could reject a potential purchaser. Our donor-to-be claimed the $10,000 check wasn’t payback for the bill but was given out of the goodness of his heart to help the senator pay off some mounting debt.

“Now what do we do?” we asked ourselves and quickly answered. We had no choice but write our donor a letter saying, in essence, thanks but no thanks. We clearly couldn’t accept a donation from someone with a connection to a major political scandal dominating the news.

We had no choice but write our donor a letter saying, in essence, thanks but no thanks. We clearly couldn’t accept a donation from someone with a connection to a major political scandal dominating the news.

That potential donor was never named in an indictment, never charged with a crime. However, accepting money from him at that point in time would have tarnished our center’s name and raised questions about our ethics and integrity before we even opened our doors. So began our journey down the mine-filled road of fundraising for a non-profit news outlet.

Since then, whenever NECIR receives a donation of $1,000 or more, we do some background research on the donor to make sure he or she is someone who we feel comfortable being associated with our center. If we find something that raises a red flag, we run it by our board. That’s only happened once in six a half years.

Most of NECIR’s philanthropic revenue comes from national foundations that we find have not attempted to influence what we report or how we report it. Those foundations include the Knight Foundation, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Buck Foundation, the McCormick Foundation, Open Society Institute, the Hearst Foundation and the Deer Creek Foundation. Those foundations, in our experience, have been totally hands off. They provide us with funds for a project or general operating expenditures, we report back on how we spent their grant and that’s it. There are no strings attached.

The only exception to this was one national foundation that, in the course of conversations, seemed to be insinuating that if we approached a specific subject with a point of view that matched its own, it would improve our chances of securing a grant. We chose not to apply.

Local foundations can be a bit trickier. In many cases, the money behind these foundations comes from wealthy business owners who might end up being the subject of one of our investigations. In fact, that was the case just a few months ago when a story we published raised questions about whether a well-known suburban Boston office park was misleading tenants by claiming its buildings were LEED certified or energy efficient.

It was a relatively small story but we quickly found ourselves facing accusations that we chose to run the story because the office park owner’s family foundation had rejected our center’s request for funding. The controversy pointed out just how important it is to maintain a very high wall between the journalism and the fundraising arm of a nonprofit center like ours.

The idea for the story came out of an investigative reporting class NECIR taught at Boston University in the spring of 2014. Students in the class — from BU and Emerson College — came up with the idea and did the initial research. In June, we assigned a freelance journalist interning at the center to finish the reporting and write the piece. He submitted a first draft by September. The story then was put on a list for editing by our part-time investigations editor who had two major projects consuming most of her time. Editing didn’t begin until December.

The controversy pointed out just how important it is to maintain a very high wall between the journalism and the fundraising arm of a nonprofit center like ours.

In November 2014, NECIR hired it’s first full-time development director who suggested we send a letter of inquiry to a family foundation she thought might consider providing scholarship aid for minority high school students interested in attending our center’s summer investigative reporting workshop. We both thought it was a long shot. Within a week we received the rejection letter we expected and moved on.

The reporter and editor working on the story had no idea we were sending a funding request to a foundation connected to the owner of the office park mentioned in the story. NECIR’s development director had no idea the story was in the works. I, as executive director, didn’t know of any connection until I read the story in January and noticed the name of the office park and the name of the foundation were the same. I didn’t share that with anyone and left it to our editor to decide if and when the story was ready to be published.

There was complete separation between our investigative reporting and our fundraising but that didn’t stop the family that owns the office park of accusing us of running the story in retaliation for their foundation’s decision. We responded immediately, thoroughly explaining the story development timeline and the fact that NECIR’s journalism and fundraising efforts are on opposite sides of a wall.

There are, of course, occasional exceptions to that rule. If a reporter comes up with a project idea that needs funding, that reporter will work with our development consultants to help craft the most compelling proposal possible. The reporter likely won’t know which foundation or foundations we’ll be approaching. In most cases funding requests for specific stories are sent to national foundations, not local foundations funded by business owners or very wealthy individuals who might end up being the subject of one of our stories.

If a reporter comes up with a project idea that needs funding, that reporter will work with our development consultants to help craft the most compelling proposal possible.

Some of those who read this might end up concluding that we are too cautious in our approach to fundraising. I know a few other center directors who proudly proclaim they are revenue agnostic. In other words, they don’t care where their money comes from. In the Boston area, another nonprofit investigative reporting center is funded by a family that’s been the subject of investigative reports in the past and now is owner of a large chain of nursing homes and assisted living centers in New York and Massachusetts. Potential conflicts of interest? Most likely.

NECIR prefers the safer road to building philanthropic support for our work. In fact, we have put much more effort into growing earned revenue than in pursuing foundation and individual donor support. More than half of our 2015 budget of more than $1 million came from training revenue, content sales and media partnerships. We have more control over our destiny by taking this approach. When it comes to major donors or foundation fundraising, our eyes are wide open, our firewall is high and we emphasize making ethical decisions and avoiding potential conflicts of interest.

Joe Bergantino is the co-founder of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news outlet launched in 2009 and based at Boston University and the studios of WGBH (PBS & NPR in Boston). Prior to creating NECIR, Bergantino headed up the award-winning investigative team at WBZ-TV (CBS-Boston) and was a correspondent for ABC News.

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