Opportunities to advance DEI in nonprofit news: What the INN Index tells us about progress made and room for growth

Institute for Nonprofit News
INNsights
Published in
9 min readOct 24, 2023

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For INN’s 2023 DEI Index Report, the median BIPOC-led outlet reported that 56% of foundation dollars received in 2022 were available for general operating expenses, compared to 70% among white-led outlets

INN seeks to build a nonprofit news network that ensures all people in every community have access to trusted news. A cornerstone of this work is to support nonprofit journalism that is led and staffed by individuals that reflect the communities they serve and is invested in serving the information needs of communities of color and other groups historically and intentionally excluded by mainstream media. DEI is a journey, not a destination, and we are seeing how this journey is unfolding in our field since INN’s last DEI deep dive three years ago, and after a 70% increase in our membership.

As a membership organization of more than 425 nonprofit newsrooms, INN has a unique role and stake in the growth of nonprofit news, and serves as a trusted intermediary facilitating journalism philanthropy on behalf of INN members. Based on findings from INN’s latest DEI Index Report — including data reported by more than 90 percent of the INN membership in 2022 — INN offers the following recommendations across five priorities that we believe will continue to advance DEI efforts in the field:

  1. Invest in BIPOC-led and BIPOC-serving organizations with sustained commitments.

Our DEI Index Report shows that in 2022, the median amount of funding reported by BIPOC-led outlets overall was about 1.6 times higher than the median amount reported by white-led outlets. We wondered what might help explain this pattern — which seemed to diverge from other research findings in the nonprofit sector. The data point to a few factors that can help explain the pattern — a key factor being geographic scope. State and local BIPOC-led outlets reported a higher median amount of foundation funding than white-led outlets. However, this pattern is reversed when it comes to national outlets.

What funders can do: Funders need to recommit to investing in BIPOC-led and BIPOC-serving organizations in 2024 and beyond. The rates of institutional funding awarded to BIPOC news outlets are promising, particularly among start-up organizations that are innovating new models and standards for engaging and serving communities of color. But we want to caution premature celebration here, and instead encourage the sector’s funders to double down. For the effects of this much-needed investment to take root and offer more stability to these newsrooms, funders will need to match and continue their commitments to BIPOC-led and BIPOC-serving grantees beyond one-time grants, and support sustained multi-year, general operating funding. More on this below.

What INN can do: INN and other field-building organizations need to continue making the case to bring more funders into journalism to lift the ceiling for philanthropic funding of news, and call out the particular challenges among those outlets serving BIPOC communities, led by BIPOC leaders, as well as those serving lower-wealth communities.

INN’s work in the field shows that many outlets serving low-wealth communities, including many BIPOC-serving outlets, experience challenges sourcing small-dollar and major individual donors. NewsMatch is one key INN program working to address this. Through NewsMatch, INN is working to scale partner funds across targeted issue areas, introducing non-journalism funders to new pathways to engage with nonprofit news in ways that align with their funding priorities. In addition, the program is building funding structures that incentivize greater individual, corporate and community/family foundation giving directly to newsrooms, including many of the BIPOC-serving and BIPOC-led outlets, creating more opportunities for immediate and unrestricted funds.

2. Remove barriers and create more opportunities for BIPOC news outlets to receive general operating support.
Many BIPOC-led outlets describe how some funder practices perpetuate inequities, citing recent experiences with racial bias in funders’ decisions about whether and how much funding they are willing to give BIPOC-led outlets vs. white-led outlets. INN’s DEI Index describes how this dynamic manifests in terms of who received general operating support from foundations, as opposed to more restricted or project-specific grants. Among white-led outlets, a median of 70% of their foundation funding was general operating support, whereas this median percentage was lower — at 56% — among BIPOC-led outlets.

What funders can do: We encourage funders to examine how they are deploying unrestricted vs restricted funds to nonprofit outlets, especially BIPOC-led ones. Unrestricted funding allows an outlet to determine for itself where best to invest resources to meet its essential goals and long-term mission. Leaders of these news outlets know how to advance the sustainability of their work and are best positioned to determine how to use the funds. Funders will see the greatest impact and success from investments that support that local self-determination and accountability. INN also recommends that funders reexamine how they can simplify often cumbersome grantmaking and reporting processes to ensure equitable access for smaller organizations. As just one example, some funders offer an option for having a recorded and transcribed call with grantees for regular reports, rather than only asking for detailed written narratives.

3. Create opportunities to promote BIPOC leaders, and increase racial and ethnic diversity among primarily white-led organizations, especially at leadership levels.

While 51% of outlets reported increased diversity at the staff level over a two year period, only 28% of outlets reported increased diversity at the leadership level. Overall, nonprofit news leadership remains heavily white.

What INN can do: To INN, the data suggests that there are barriers to leadership pathways for BIPOC persons. INN is committed to continue advancing BIPOC managerial-level and first-time executive leaders through the Emerging Leaders Council. We see long-term investment in cohort-based programming for professionals at this stage in their careers as essential to building skills and networks that advance their influence, visibility, and placements across the field. To serve early-career professionals and build pathways into nonprofit news, INN partners to support more than 40 paid internships and fellowships annually for people from backgrounds historically underrepresented in news with member newsrooms. In addition, INN recruits on behalf of members at journalism affinity conferences and other outreach work. INN will continue to track the diversity of the field using this data as a tool to monitor progress and identify both challenges and solutions to creating a more diverse workforce.

What funders can do: INN recommends that funders continue investing in resources targeted to expanding organizational capacity, including general operating support. What we see in the data are strong indications that an outlet’s capacity factors in a newsroom’s effectiveness and capability to diversify their leadership and staff. Large newsrooms were more likely than smaller newsrooms to report an increase in BIPOC representation at the leadership level. We also recommend that funders monitor the DEI commitments of grantees, particularly white-led and primarily white-serving ones, when determining where and how to provide general operating support.

What INN members can do: In general, newsrooms should have clearly defined diversity, equity and inclusion goals and implement practices that hold their organization accountable to these objectives. In addition, there are more specific actions that can be taken to recruit leaders of color into executive leadership and board work. This could involve expanding a team’s network to engage potential candidates, hiring recruitment firms that value and prioritize strategies geared towards building a diverse candidate pool, and using transitions as an opportunity to intentionally reshape the composition of the leadership team. INN’s annual leadership learning series focuses on DEIB and how to operationalize it across organizations on topics ranging from source tracking to hiring practices to ongoing professional development within orgs. See here for related resources INN offers to members.

4. Acknowledge that diversity, equity and inclusion is not a one-size-fits all goal or approach
While we have basic ways of tracking change in diversity and representation, improving diversity and diversity measures on its own is insufficient. Equity and inclusion — which depends on familiarity with a community, nuanced context, and regional specificity — must be part of the equation. And, as a field, we still have a lot of work to do to better understand measures of “diversity” beyond race and ethnicity.

What funders, INN and other field-building organizations can do: Funders and field-building organizations should use caution when applying general check-the-box DEI requirements for organizations to receive funding or support. An outlet founded, led by and staffed by people of color will not need the same playbook on recruitment and retention strategies as an organization that has historically been led exclusively or predominantly by white people, for example. Instead, funders can ask grantees to describe their DEI goals and offer them central resources and funding to bake those goals into grants. To ensure accountability, funders can ask grantees to report on progress on their DEI strategies.

What INN can do: If we acknowledge that sector-wide indicators aren’t always conclusive in determining whether individual INN member outlet staff and leadership represent the communities they serve — then, from a programmatic perspective, this means continuously checking to ensure we aren’t falling into the assumption of a one-size-fits-all approach. We commit instead to DEI recommendations and approaches in our programming that aim to understand and acknowledge the histories and contexts in which an outlet operates.

What INN members can do: INN members should approach knowing who their communities and audiences are as a top priority, to be continuously revisited. Members should also talk openly about the measures of diversity important in their communities, and the progress they are making in meeting those measures. Additionally, they should talk frankly about how their attention to diversity is shaping their journalism.

5. Accelerate the adoption of diversity, equity and inclusion practices within news outlets of all sizes
While a majority of news outlets (56%) have set goals to increase diversity, setting goals to advance equity and inclusion are far less common. This gap may in part reflect relatively greater clarity around what diversity looks like and how to quantitatively measure it, compared to equity and inclusion, which tend to be more qualitative. Or it could reflect levels of intention or resources.

What INN members can do: Outlets of all sizes can define their diversity, equity and inclusion goals and plans for 2024, paying particular attention to articulating beyond the more common diversity metrics (which is typically demographic tracking) and taking the time to go deeper into equity and inclusion goals. The data show larger, more resourced news outlets are more likely to implement certain DEI practices. Larger outlets could invest in equity and inclusion training, management coaching, formal recruitment efforts, and pay equity audits. Smaller organizations with limited resources may not be able to diversify their staff or leadership teams without added investment, but can and should take advantage of free-to-members INN trainings on operationalizing DEIB in their organizations, pay attention to diversifying their board, conduct source audits where possible, and expand their networks within their communities to scout talent for when they are able to make their next hire.

What funders can do: The data point to a connection between the level of investment in recruitment efforts and the level of diversity among personnel. Simply put, newsrooms that dedicate staff time and money for recruitment have more diverse personnel. Funders can help newsrooms allocate more money toward dedicated DEI efforts like recruitment and providing competitive, equitable salaries to hire and retain staff. Outlets with more unrestricted funding could also use that funding for programs like equity and inclusion training, management coaching, and pay equity audits that help advance organization-wide DEI efforts. Funders can also provide in-kind support and connections to resources that these newsrooms to help advance their recruitment goals.

What INN can do: INN and other field-building organizations need to listen and learn from its members who have adopted DEI practices, amplifying their insights and best practices as a resource for the broader field. We can also do a better job asking BIPOC staff about their experiences working in nonprofit news, and how INN can support them with an intention to listen and respond. It’s important that we take action by providing tangible methods, practices, and coaching to ​​deepen news leaders’ understanding of how to create equitable and inclusive policies and procedures, and how to decenter whiteness and create an anti-racist workplace culture.

We continue to be encouraged by the transparency in the nonprofit news sector. INN commits to tracking change and progress over time through subsequent DEI surveys, reporting back on the long-term trend in foundation funding to BIPOC-led and -serving outlets and how and where we’ve seen shifts in representation and DEI commitments.

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Institute for Nonprofit News
INNsights

INN strengthens and supports more than 300 news organizations in a new kind of media network: nonprofit, nonpartisan and dedicated to public service. inn.org