By Jonathan Gruber | Campus and Community, Einhorn Family Charitable Trust
At the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust (EFCT), we focus as much on helping grantee partners become stronger organizations as on helping them achieve greater impact. These priorities go hand-in-hand, and we invest in the capacity our partners need to enhance and expand their work over time. In supporting a partner’s path to higher performance, we apply—and encourage—a learning and continuous improvement focus rather than sticking to an expected outcome.
Our partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), which is spreading the practice of rigorous reporting about how people are responding to social problems, is a great example of learning and improvement in action. Over the past four years, SJN has gone from a promising start-up to an established nonprofit with national reach.
SJN has a multi-pronged program model; they provide direct support to newsrooms (e.g., workshops, advising, and targeted funding for reporting projects), offer resources to individual journalists, help journalism schools integrate solutions journalism into courses, and create products that bring solutions stories to key actors across society. SJN has direct partnerships with many newsrooms, as well as an online hub that includes practical tools, exemplary solutions stories, and an interactive community that is complemented by offline gatherings in select cities.
This growth comes at a moment of soul-searching for the media, with big questions about how news organizations can contribute to more constructive and civil public conversations and social problem-solving. EFCT has invested in SJN since its launch in 2012, anchored in our belief in the potential of solutions journalism to inspire and equip people to work together across lines of difference to address seemingly intractable challenges.
SJN’s journey has been propelled by a commitment to testing smart hypotheses, assessing and reflecting on progress at multiple levels, and refining offerings in response to different kinds of data. In honing these skills, SJN has developed a nimbleness that’s crucial for an organization operating in a fast-changing media and news environment. Based on our window into SJN’s evolution from the beginning, we’ve identified six aspects of their approach to learning and improvement that other nonprofits—in media and in any field—would do well to adopt.
1. Conduct small experiments
In their efforts to help newsrooms take up solutions journalism, SJN had an early sense of the support that would be most helpful, such as upfront coaching on the design of solutions reporting projects and help in sourcing story leads and related research. However, SJN needed to determine how intensive their engagement with each newsroom needed to be and over what time period to spur the shift from a one-off reporting project to widespread embedding of solutions journalism across beats. Piloting different support models (with newsrooms such as The Huffington Post, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and The Seattle Times) led SJN to see the deeper, lasting impact that flowed from longer-term partnerships. They also gained clarity on the baseline level of catalytic funding newsrooms needed to eventually invest directly in sustaining the practice. For example, The Seattle Times, which is now in its third year of a solutions-focused project called “Education Lab,” is now bringing the solutions journalism approach to other beats beyond education.
2. Revisit initial hypotheses
SJN anchored its newsroom support model in the hypothesis that working with a few highly visible and credible news organizations would create a beacon effect that would lead others to adopt the practice. As SJN developed a range of partnerships (now more than 80) with newsrooms large and small, SJN questioned whether this logic still held true. At the same time, they identified the characteristics of newsrooms that made adoption more likely (e.g., a high-level internal champion, a coverage area where a particular social issue is salient). This enabled them to be more focused going forward in targeting the news organizations they would engage and why.
3. Gather feedback directly from end users
In addition to working directly with newsrooms, SJN is building a network of individual journalists who already bring a solutions lens to their work and who want to get more steeped in the practice. The network has grown quickly to over 2,000 members, As they’ve built out their online hub, SJN has started to gather monthly survey feedback from network members on the value they’re getting from SJN’s products and services and on how they’re integrating solutions journalism into their work. This has shed light on what else SJN ought to do to equip network members to take up and sustain the practice with greater confidence.
4. Assess impact at multiple levels
Since SJN is at once spreading the practice of solutions journalism and strengthening the case for why it matters, they have focused on assessing their progress as an organization as well as building the evidence base for the impact of solutions journalism. They have brought a test-and-learn approach to impact assessment, enlisting partner newsrooms and research entities to conduct small experiments that draw on a range of measurement techniques, such as A/B testing, sentiment analysis, social media analytics, and case studies that describe the impact reporting projects have had on public discourse. This research, while still a work in progress, is helping SJN build a holistic view of the journalistic, civic, and business value solutions journalism can yield when done with high quality.
5. Be open to broader applications of the work
In advancing their research agenda, SJN has demonstrated the potential of solutions journalism to foster public awareness, agency, and hope by describing what’s working—and how—to address seemingly intractable social problems. At the same, they have realized that solutions stories also equip people—including community leaders, policymakers, philanthropists, and educators—with how-to insights and examples to draw on in taking action in their own contexts. This has led SJN to expand its vision and offerings beyond direct engagement with newsrooms and journalists to support a broader set of stakeholders who can benefit from solutions content. An example is Story Tracker, a curated searchable database of more than 1,500 solutions stories tagged by issue, location, publication, media type, and success factors, which anyone can access and put to use. For example, a search for stories about food security that address success factors such as attacking root causes and empowering people turns up an illuminating NPR article from 2015 called “Why A Philadelphia Grocery Chain Is Thriving In Food Deserts.”
6. Nurture and reinforce a learning culture
SJN has grown to a team of 20, and they have been deliberate from the outset about shaping a distinctive culture. This has included nurturing an ethos of curiosity and experimentation in their approach to setting strategy and humility and reflection in making sense of data and assessing progress (including in updates they share with EFCT and other funders). SJN has also built processes for the team to step back and have big-picture conversations and has invested in the development of team members’ ability to define and drive learning agendas for their respective areas of focus.
Solutions Journalism Network has achieved a great deal and climbed a steep learning curve in just a few years. And with their abiding commitment to keep getting better, theirs is a story of impact that’s still unfolding. We are excited for the next chapter of our work together, and we encourage other funders to see how SJN might help to enhance their own journalism investments.
Learn more about the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust at efct.org. How is your foundation using media to communicate important issues? Let us know. Email MIF Communications Director Nina Sachdev Hoffmann at firstname.lastname@example.org.