How civic-minded locals are helping nonprofit news organizations thrive
Volunteers are the lifeforce behind many nonprofit organizations — generating hundreds of billions in economic value every year. According to Americorps, roughly a quarter of Americans — more than 60 million people — volunteered with an organization in 2021.
Nonprofit news is a business, covering local, statewide, national and global issues while paying salaries that are generally on par with those at for-profit media outlets. But it is also a movement, providing news as a public service, and one about which people feel passionately enough to volunteer their time.
The 2023 INN Index survey revealed that about a quarter of INN’s membership — more than 100 nonprofit news outlets — regularly work with volunteers in some capacity.
The way volunteers plug into a nonprofit news organization varies. For some startup outlets, founding teams are volunteers until they get the seed funding needed to transition to paid personnel. In other, more established organizations, volunteers are part of a lively membership program, volunteering with their time instead of their money. The volunteers spend their time in a variety of ways — covering town hall meetings, stuffing fundraising packets, transcribing interviews and leading team meetings — and sometimes, even doing yard work.
In honor of National Volunteer Month, INN spoke with dozens of nonprofit news outlets about how and why they work with volunteers. Here are just a few examples of organizations that are succeeding with the help of unpaid contributors.
Want to learn more about how one news outlet works with volunteers? Jump here to read about how volunteers helped launch and now sustain NancyOnNorwalk, a local outlet covering Norwalk, Connecticut.
The Harpswell Anchor
The Harpswell Anchor is a hyperlocal monthly printed newspaper that launched in 2021. Distributed for free locally, the publication also mails 400 subscriptions to out-of-towners — a process that Janice Thompson, the director of development and operations, says was a tedious job.
But the community members of Harpswell, many elderly retirees, were happy to jump in. Now, she says, a rotating group of 45 volunteers come together every month to stuff and label envelopes for shipping. The key, says Thompson, has been making the experience fun for the volunteers so that it becomes a social occasion as well.
“I think people like to come here because it’s fun,” said Thompson. “We’re doing this work, but we’re doing it together. I always put out snacks, I have music going.”
The volunteers are so committed that she often has to turn people away, or limit the amount of tasks a single person can do in a given month. They even dubbed themselves the Kedgers — a type of small, personal anchor — to connect their contributions to the Anchor.
Thompson said she’s also careful about what — and how — she asks for help. She’s learned from previous volunteer management experience that outsourcing large, complex projects like fundraising can be challenging for an unpaid group. But it makes people feel good to be asked to assist with stuffing envelopes, delivering papers or hosting an event. “They feel like they are really making a difference, and they are,” she said.
“Try to just be very, very clear,” she recommends. “The other thing that I always say to volunteers is I’ll say, ‘I will ask you many things. I’m just going to keep asking you for your help. I need you to cry uncle, because I’ll continue to ask you until you do!’”
The Oglethorpe Echo
In 2021, The Oglethorpe Echo was about to close after nearly 150 years when it was converted to a nonprofit outlet by regional newspaper magnate Dink NeSmith. An arrangement with the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University Georgia then led to editor Andy Johnston and instructor Amanda Bright leading teams of students to create the editorial content for the paper and its six new digital products.
The weekly newspaper that covered rural Oglethorpe County was a beloved institution for locals, and they were eager to help the paper regain its footing in its new iteration. So, Bright says, a call went out for people to help them rebuild — literally.
“People came and they brought lawn mowers and hedge clippers, and they renovated the inside of the building too and helped clean it out,” Bright said. In the months following, volunteers helped staff the paper’s front desk, sell ads and sponsorships and collect obituaries and legal notices.
Bright said residents of the area knew that if they didn’t contribute, there wouldn’t be local news coverage in their community. She also credits NeSmith’s charisma and standing in the community for attracting such devotion and loyalty. At an early event for community members, she said NeSmith was not shy in seeking out help. “Dink was walking around, like, ‘What do you want to sign up for?’” she said. “Here are five options of ways you can volunteer.”
When Alameda Post launched in 2021, publisher Adam Gillitt says that residents were excited to have a daily online publication covering local news for the first time. Volunteers have been critical to getting the outlet up and running — Gillitt himself is still unpaid — but he plans to eventually compensate everyone fairly for their labor.
The Post has leaned into Alameda residents’ unique interest in local history. One of their most prominent volunteers is an award-winning local historian who offers walking tours around the city. Gillitt says that the tours have been a great fundraising opportunity for the outlet, as well as a way of recruiting volunteers and contributors.
“It’s great PR, because while he’s busy talking to this group of people, people are driving by saying, ‘What’s that? Who are you people?’” said Gillitt. “And so I run around behind with business cards and hand them out and tell everybody who we are and what we’re doing.”
He says that he hasn’t had to actively recruit volunteers because so many have offered to help. Gillitt says his approach is to find people who are solid writers with an interesting niche and “let them do what they do.” Local residents cover niche areas like the history of area houses, the environment at a former naval base and reviews of local theater productions.
Gillitt says that the geography of Alameda, which is across from San Francisco and has no freeway running through it, has created a sense of community-mindedness. “Emotionally, we’re an island,” he said. “The city cares about supporting things that it cares about.”
San Quentin News and the Prison Journalism Project
Both San Quentin News and the Prison Journalism Project face unique challenges that make them uniquely dependent on volunteers. All of their writers are all incarcerated, which means they have limited access to the Internet and other tools.
San Quentin News relies heavily on local college journalism students in Northern and Central California to help edit and produce its monthly newspaper. Jesse Vasquez, executive director at the nonprofit Friends of San Quentin News, says he reaches out to local journalism professors and tries to pick out students who are committed to their vision and to criminal justice reform.
He generally prefers a several-month long commitment from student volunteers because of the tedious process of clearing them to visit the prison. But he says they try to make sure their volunteers feel appreciated; he hosts an annual volunteer appreciation day and monthly outings to help keep them engaged.
At the Prison Journalism Project, which works with hundreds of incarcerated writers across the country, people have volunteered their time to transcribe and edit the handwritten articles. Community manager Brooke Lochiatto says they’ve received so much interest from professional journalists that they’ve been able to require at least five years of newsroom experience for volunteer editors, which has helped improve the quality and created more opportunities for mentorship of writers.
The management of the volunteers has evolved, said chief operating officer Teresa Tauchi. What was originally an open system — where volunteers could jump into a shared drive and transcribe any articles that needed to be digitized — has become more orderly and assignment-based. “We had some wonderful volunteers that were super, super active, and they would grab the majority of the stories that needed to be transcribed,” she said. “And then other volunteers would show up and they would go to the drive, and they’d be like, ‘Oh, there’s nothing here. I guess they don’t need me.’”
The needs of their incarcerated writers are primary. “The decision-making around volunteers’ activities is definitely guided by what will benefit our writers the most,” said Lochiatto.
Key Peninsula News
In Vaughn, Washington, every household in the 22,000-person area gets a free copy of the monthly Key Peninsula News. Lisa Bryan, the executive editor, says that residents of the rural area are deeply committed to the paper — and happy to jump in and help whenever possible. “We just couldn’t do it without volunteers,” she said.
Unpaid contributors do most of the writing for the paper. Bryan says that they’re lucky to have highly accomplished locals — many of them retirees — who contribute regular columns on science, medicine and nature, as well as a professor who produces an original comic strip. She says writers are eager for their turn in the rotation, and happy to share their work with friends and family online, which helps grow the paper’s audience.
“We have people that tell us — I mean, we hear it all the time — we love this newspaper. And people that don’t even live here, read it and love it and say they can’t believe this is happening in this far flung place,” said Bryan.
About an hour outside Seattle, Key Peninsula is part of an unincorporated county where, Bryan says, people are used to receiving little government support and figuring things out for themselves. She says that’s contributed to the community-minded nature of residents who are happy to donate their time to the paper. And she says that producing a physical newspaper is still vitally important on the peninsula, where many residents have inadequate or no internet connection.
But the small paid editorial staff ensures that the writing remains well-written and carefully fact-checked. “We live in a community that is, like all other communities, very polarized,” said Bryan, adding with a laugh, “and we need to get money from all those people. We need donations. They need to love the paper no matter what variety of politics that they appreciate. So, it’s an interesting balance. It keeps us honest, it keeps us fair. It’s a good thing. I hear all the time — people really believe in us. They believe that we’re being fair, they believe that we’re telling the bigger picture.”
In many communities, nonprofit news outlets are a vital local resource that residents are eager to support with their time and energy. “We call it the rock band model,” said Douglas Donley, executive director of Cecil Public Media in Maryland, of the volunteers who keep his public television channel going. “No real promise of striking it rich. You do it because you love doing it.”