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THE MEMBERSHIP IN NEWS FUND

Membership Puzzle Project and Media Development Investment Fund are excited to announce the reopening of the Membership in News Fund, a global fund to catalyze membership design in newsrooms around the world. Thanks to our funder, Luminate Group, we will be awarding a total of $400,000 in grants to newsrooms.

The Membership in News Fund provides financial and venture support to help news organizations build strong and flexible relationships with their audience members that can drive greater sustainability and impact – and help expand the journalism field’s understanding of what works. 

Membership Puzzle Project first launched the Membership in News Fund in 2018. The $700,000 fund supported 23 membership experiments in 13 countries with grants between $10,000 and $60,000 each. Grant recipients received funding, targeted coaching, and an opportunity to join a global community of practice built around membership.

Ahead of Membership Puzzle Project’s August 2021 sunset, we’re reopening the fund to support membership development projects in the following regions: Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia (the U.S. and Western Europe are out of scope).

The 2020 fund totals $400,000, and we will give a maximum award of $40,000 per proposal. Applicants will be asked to propose a grant amount that is commensurate with the cost of implementing their proposal. Based on the size of our fund and the level of venture support that MPP and MDIF intend to provide to selected proposals, we anticipate selecting no more than 15 proposals.

We will accept registrations of interest until 5 p.m. ET on Nov. 6, 2020 (find the form below). You will be notified by Nov. 13 if you have been invited to formally apply to the fund. The entire selection process will conclude before the end of 2020, with funding and support to be received beginning in January.

Criteria

We encourage applications from sites that publish coverage that is local/place-based; national (and with further reach); and subject matter/topical. We’ll consider relevant projects from non-profit, for-profit, and cooperatively owned news organizations. There is a strong preference for proposals from the following countries where Luminate already supports independent media: Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, India, and Myanmar. However, strong applications from other countries where MDIF works in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe are also eligible. Eligibility is determined based on what you cover, where your primary audiences live, and/or where the majority of your staff is based, rather than the country your entity is officially registered in. (This is because MPP and MDIF understand that it can be challenging for news organizations to register in the countries they cover.) If you have additional questions about eligibility after reviewing the full list of eligible countries, contact fund director Ariel Zirulnick at ariel@membershippuzzle.org.

To be eligible for consideration for the Membership in News Fund, a media organization must also meet these Media Development Investment Fund criteria: 

  • have a reputation for providing unique, credible, independent news, information or debate in the public interest; 
  • produce a significant amount of content that (a) is news and information and/or (b) provides a range of political opinions and promotes informed societal debate. The applicant must be independent from the government or of any other interest group;
  • have a record consistent with fostering democratic practices and institutions, political pluralism, transparency, human rights, and dignity and equal rights for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion and other subjects of discrimination; 
  • be legally registered according to all applicable laws;
  • have no part owned by a government or state agency, a foreign legal entity or any political or economic interest. This restriction may be waived where the applicant’s editorial independence is not in question.
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What do we mean by ‘membership’?

Applicants should understand before applying how Membership Puzzle Project distinguishes between membership and other audience engagement and revenue models. 

Membership is a social contract between a news organization and its members in which members give their time, money, energy, expertise, and connections to support a cause that they believe in. In exchange, the news organization offers transparency and opportunities to meaningfully contribute to both the sustainability and impact of the organization. 

Membership is an editorial orientation that sees readers and listeners as much more than a source of monetary support. Members actively contribute. In its deeper forms, it is a two-way knowledge exchange between journalists and members. (Learn more about how MPP distinguishes between membership and subscription, donations, and crowdfunding.

A membership strategy defines where membership fits within the vision for your organization, including how you will sustain your journalism and the role audience members will play monetarily and otherwise. 

Memberful routines are workflows that connect audience members to journalism and the people producing it. They are the basis for a strong membership strategy. Notice that audience members are specified here, which is likely a wider group than those who have signed up to be members. An increasing number of subscription-based organizations are adopting memberful routines.

A membership program is the product your reader interacts with in becoming a member. It’s a container for managing the individuals who contribute financially to your organization. When people talk about membership, this is often what they refer to. It includes the page you land at when you click on, “become a member.”  

We think these distinctions are helpful for understanding what membership is, but we also understand that in practice subscription, donation and membership are often combined. The Guardian, for example, has subscribers for its print product, and members for its online edition— and it accepts donations from fans. These different forms of support all work together. 

For us, “membership” means you are looking for not just money, but also participation, interaction and knowledge from your strongest supporters. So we’re open to working with organizations that are pursuing hybrid models. We’re not trying to encourage newsrooms to rely on members alone for revenue and engagement, but to explore how membership can help journalism organizations sustain themselves and better represent the needs of communities whom advertisers aren’t interested in reaching.

Your proposal could be a good fit for the Membership in News Fund if:

  • Membership is part of your organization’s sustainability and engagement strategy. You may ask community members for money, but you also encourage supporters to participate meaningfully in making the site work and making its journalism better. In other words, even if revenue generation is a key component of your proposal, applications that are a pure fundraising play are not a good fit.
  • Your organization is operationally ready to pursue a membership strategy. If your proposal is selected, you should be prepared to begin work in early 2021. MPP sunsets in August 2021, and we are looking to support projects that can make meaningful progress in a six-month time window. In other words, you should be able to say “yes” – or see a pathway to being able to say “yes” – to MPP’s nine questions to ask yourself before pursuing a membership strategy
  • Your organization has experience working alongside community members –
    or you are enthusiastic about bringing this way of working to your organization. 
  • You are excited about the prospect of joining a global community of practice and research effort. You should understand that doing so requires a high level of transparency about what’s working and what isn’t, plus a willingness to share that with the journalism industry. (See our Membership Guide to better understand our practical research style.)

The Membership in News Fund is not likely to be a good fit if:

  • You are seeking money to operate, with no questions asked. The venture support model is of key importance in this work and in our ability to study patterns in the industry. We’ll be providing regular coaching based on what we’ve learned. If you want a funder who is in touch with you only at the beginning and end of a grant period, you might look elsewhere.
  • You want to be told exactly what to do. Although membership models in news have grown in power, sophistication, and depth in the last couple years, membership is still quite new, particularly in the four regions where we will focus this fund: Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia. If you are looking for a one-size-fits-all approach for how to succeed at membership, you might look elsewhere. MPP and MDIF’s coaches will help you make smart decisions based on the Membership Guide and your knowledge of your audiences, and will help you iterate as your project progresses. At MPP, we believe that the basic unit of membership practice is the “try.” Every organization’s social contract with its audience members is different, and that means there is no one-size-fits-all answer to questions of how to implement membership. So we won’t give one. 
  • Your project has no lessons for other news organizations.
    While we encourage you to study your prospective members, pitching a research project that will exclusively serve your site’s growth – but won’t teach other followers of the project much that they can put into practice – is unlikely to be funded.

Still unclear about what we’re looking for? See the FAQ below the registration of interest for additional detail about what a strong proposal includes. To begin the application process, please submit the brief registration of interest below. 

Registration of interest

We will accept registrations of interest until 5 p.m. ET on Nov. 6, 2020. You will be notified by Nov. 13 if you have been invited to formally apply to the fund. The entire selection process will conclude before the end of 2020, with funding and support to be received in January.

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Frequently asked questions

What do you mean by membership? Can I pitch a proposal to help bolster my site’s subscriptions?

At the Membership Puzzle Project, we differentiate between memberships, subscriptions, and donations, the three primary ways that readers provide financial support to news organizations. A subscription-based publication could submit a proposal to develop memberful routines with their subscribers, but a proposal focused on, for example, how to convert subscribers through use of registration walls would not be a good fit. 

You can read more about how we distinguish between the various models, and where hybrid models fit in, here.

Do we need to already have a membership program? 

No. The fund is equally able to support existing membership programs and help new membership programs get off the ground. If your newsroom has already landed on a project to give membership a go, that’s great. Please detail it in the application.

But you don’t have to be that far along to work with the fund. We are looking for organizations at different points in their work with members. Having a strong hypothesis about what will resonate with your audience members and help with your organization’s sustainability is adequate at this stage.

What constitutes a membership development project? 

A strong membership development project will explore a way that your news organization can enlist your strongest supporters in your quest for impact and sustainability. It can be revenue generating, but it doesn’t have to be.

Here is another way to think about it: what is your membership “try”? A try is any experiment with members where the outcome is unknown. What questions do you have about implementing membership strategies in your organization that we could help you answer through a combination of funding and coaching? 

We’re especially keen to support projects that include the following themes or elements:

  • Participation path design: What are examples of successful practices for community members to be involved in news reporting, production, and site growth? Is there a continuum of practices that make for the most agile membership programs?
  • Inclusion and equity: Not everyone who cares about journalism can afford to give money, and not everyone who supports the work has a lot of free time to devote to it. If membership is in large part about participation, then part of the participation “puzzle” is how to make it possible to include as many people as possible as members and participants, no matter how much time or money they have.
  • Metrics: As sites change what they’re optimizing for, what metrics make sense to measure news organization health (e.g., retention, diversity, inclusivity)? What are the key performance indicators most worth watching? And when numbers can’t tell the story, what can?
  • Organizational listening: How can news sites with membership make listening and two-way dialogue a routine part of their operating style in an industry that still often broadcasts one way?
  • Member knowledge: The project team aims to see proposals that advance the practice of combining member knowledge and expertise with what journalists can dig up on their own.


Here are a few examples to get you thinking:

These are not meant to be recommendations, or prescriptions for how membership should be done. They’re merely examples that can give you a sense of the parameters of potential projects. You can also see the projects we funded in 2019, and we encourage you to browse the Membership Guide’s case studies as well. 

What types of proposals wouldn’t be a good fit?
Some examples of projects that are unlikely to fit the parameters of the fund: editorial projects that do not involve members; general site improvements; internal tool development;and projects to expand production capacity. 

Can we apply for funds to create and hire for a new position?
As we’ll fund projects one time only, we don’t recommend this approach (what will you do when the funds run out?). But we’re open to projects that use funds to bring someone on temporarily who can take some daily tasks off a project lead’s plate to allow them to focus more on membership and engagement. 

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