Funding Model View Culture
Building sustainable funding that supports your mission and goals, allows you to grow, and develops community connection.
Funding is one of the most important things to figure out when it comes to building community/feminist/social justice organizations, publications, events, conferences, collectives and other awesome things.
But funding is really hard.
Even in industries awash with wealth (tech, media), money for things by and for marginalized people is hard to come by. Expect to be discouraged A LOT as you try to raise a few hundred or a few grand for something that will make the world better, while watching white guys almost trivially raise a few million for something that benefits no one but themselves. (Every. Day.)
Still, more and more groups like us are successfully funding their work in tech and beyond, and you can too! In this article, we talk about how Model View Culture funds our operations, and some of our advice on how to do it successfully.
THE ART OF THE BLENDED MODEL
In our experience, the healthiest funding models for organizations like ours use a blended approach. Having multiple sources of revenue allows you to most effectively get funding from community members at various income levels, provides you with financial insulation in case of disruptions or changes to a single funding source, and gives you a way to connect and grow your paying audience/community along multiple axes. These are all particularly pressing issues for organizations like ours, which are highly political, sometimes controversial, and focused primarily or exclusively on marginalized communities.
I think of “blended” as a philosophy of funding that isn’t just about having different sources of income, but having revenue that comes in on different schedules (all at once, like if you have a once-yearly subscription drive; vs ongoing, like monthly recurring donations), permits various levels of labor and investment to fulfill, and can derive from people with different levels of financial ability (more on that later).
We’ve been operating with a blended model for most of the two years of our existence: currently, about 70% of our revenue comes from subscriptions, and about 30% comes from a mix of crowdfunding and sponsorship. With this model, we have money coming in year-round, enable both low and high-income readers to participate in our funding model, and are able to survive moderate fluctuations in funding — like when our overall monthly crowdfunding dips because of technical problems, holidays or just the natural variability of the community.
Honestly, I’d like to see us achieve a 60/20/20 percent split across our funding sources, but even with the majority of our revenue coming from subscriptions, the amount we get from the other revenue streams is really significant to our ongoing operations.
Especially since our subscription drive only goes on for the first few months of the year, our other funding sources provide us with money that comes in on an ongoing basis. Sponsorship and crowdfunding are particularly important for us as far as providing some wiggle room in the budget: if we have an online issue coming out that costs more money to produce because we have more authors than usual, we can take in more money to cover those costs. If we need to make security upgrades to the site, we can raise our sponsorship levels that month, or promote our crowdfunding more heavily over that period. We’re able to use those models to communicate our ongoing needs to our readers, and usually, have them be met! (We have awesome readers:)
It’s important to note that achieving a blended model can be something you build over time, but you should have an implementation plan up front. At MVC, we launched originally just with print subscriptions. A few months later, we added digital subscriptions, an issue sponsorship program, and our Patreon page. And, the “balance” might not be perfect right away, but it’s something you can build over time: even now, we’re not totally where we want to be, but we have that foundation to develop and build on.
Other strategies for your blended model include getting corporate sponsorship, grants and offering membership programs. Some other organizations we admire that use a blended model for their funding:
- Black Girl Dangerous has donations open on an ongoing basis, and also has intermittent crowdfunding campaigns to meet specific goals, like their recent campaign to pay their writers more
- AlterConf offers sponsorships at various levels, direct donations and ways for event attendees to pay variable ticket prices
- The New Inquiry offers both low-cost subscriptions as well as various donation levels with perks
THE ARGUMENT FOR A PRODUCT-ORIENTED MINDSET
Most social justice and diversity-focused organizations think of their funding strategy not as offering “products”, but through the lens of a cause, ideological platform, or charity. While many people support important causes for that alone – because they are invested in the organization’s goal – we find that people are more likely to spend money when they see they are getting some return for their financial support. While we don’t see this as a negative thing — it’s really an opportunity to make awesome things, think critically about your value and build a connection with your community members — it still leaves many initiatives or organizations in a kind of bind: what are you going to offer your audience in exchange for their financial support? What kind of product, gift or other return can you provide? How can you approach your organization and monetization strategy with a product-driven mindset?
I think one thing that’s really important to call out is that you really need to make sure the “products” you are providing are connected with the primary work of your organization, and doesn’t comprise a whole ‘nother business in itself! (A great post touching on that is here, from Fireside Fiction Company). It’s a mistake we’ve made: at the beginning, MVC considered monetizing our core publishing business by offering paid management training to tech companies – I even started building out a presentation for the training. The main problem with this is that management training was basically orthogonal to MVC’s core efforts: producing broadly-accessible media content. Focusing on management training would have distracted from building both our publishing practice and a monetization model based in our true strengths. So, your monetization strategy should really be deeply connected to, and grow and expand from, whatever your core mission is. Otherwise, you’ll be bifurcating your focus and basically trying to build out two different business models at one time – likely a recipe for failure.
So how can you offer products to your community in ways that are aligned with your goals? For media companies: bundle up new or existing content into print issues, a paid newsletter, or a paid digital magazine. For people doing meetups/events and conference: Offer paid access to recorded talks, show notes, blog posts or exclusive interviews with presenters in addition to paid tickets to your gathering. Trying to get a podcast off the ground? Offer some exclusive shows just for subscribers. Building out a community space, or support for community projects? Offer a nice collection of community art work, poetry or writing; special meet and greets; or even just periodic exclusive updates. For people doing ANY type of project: offer a sponsorship, and give your sponsors public love and thanks in return for their donation, and maybe a special dinner or small social event with your team. You can even adopt a product-oriented approach to crowdfunding: we charge our supporters for every online issue we make, so each charge on their credit card is associated with a tangible and specific outcome.
The main key is that, whatever it is, make it something that rewards people for their financial investment, something that highlights what makes you special, and something that you can put a price tag on and deliver on.
One other note: I really encourage people to have a product or monetization engine of SOME sort – even if it’s an early iteration – from the very beginning. Launch is one of those rare moments where you can generate a lot of concentrated excitement and support for your vision and ideas, and what you want to achieve. Offering a product or some way to support right away lets you harness some of that positive energy into direct financial support that will help carry you through the first weeks, months and years of your initiative.
THE BALANCE BETWEEN OPEN VS. PAID ACCESS
Making your content/programs/etc. accessible to the community is super important for organizations like ours: social justice initiatives that are trying to achieve broad change, reach a lot of people, and benefit even those people who can’t necessarily afford to contribute financially to the organization. So, one of the tricky aspects of funding is figuring out how to provide as much content that is open and accessible as possible, while balancing that with the need to productize and generate revenue from some of your content, services and products.
At Model View Culture, 80% of the content we make is published open and free to everyone on modelviewculture.com. This is fantastic, because it lets us build a big audience and thus achieve our core mission of making media on tech culture and diversity that can serve a large population and create broad culture change. Our free content also helps us reach more people, of which some will eventually contribute to our financial model by becoming subscribers or patrons. (By our estimates, over the course of a year, between .3 and .5% of the people who come to our site will contribute financially in some way.) About 20% of our content gets published in our Quarterly issues, which go exclusively to subscribers. And to make even that content more accessible, we let people donate subscriptions so that hundreds of people who couldn’t otherwise afford it have access as well.
Having a majority of your content be open and monetizing a small amount is a good model for social justice organizations, and can be adapted to many “products”: have an event? Charge for some tickets, offer others free to the community. If you work with companies (on say, paid workshops, speaking appearances, consulting, etc.), make some of those materials accessible to a larger audience, or occasionally offer free events. Even if you’re running a personal blog or podcast, you can offer a relatively small amount of your content to paid subscribers while keeping the majority of it free. “Freemium”: not just for large corporations, for-profit initiatives and startups!
WHY YOU NEED VARIABLE PRICING
Regardless of what cause or community you’re focused on, there’s going to be a variety of income levels in your potential paid audience base: from people who can only afford to give you a few dollars, to people with lots of access to wealth who may be willing and able to support you with much larger sums.
One of the biggest mistakes I see independent organizations make is NOT offering higher-priced paid items or tiers of contribution, thus missing out on the people in your audience who CAN afford to give at higher levels. The other mistake I see is not offering enough low-cost contribution levels, thus missing out on giving people with lower income levels the opportunity to participate in your funding model.
At Model View Culture, we have several tiers of financial contribution and product price-points to try to meet as many of our readers where they are as we can. For people who want to contribute small amounts of money, our Patreon page gives an ongoing and easily adjustable way to give something to MVC. They can cancel, increase or decrease their payment amount at any time — perfect for people who are freelancers, consultants or just have changing financial circumstances. For people who want to contribute more money, our sponsorships let people give $100, one-time, issue-specific support.
Even though our subscriptions, we offer multiple price points and packages, anywhere from $50 to $600. First, we offer two formats: print and digital. Since print is more expensive to produce and ship, and has a fairly unyielding financial burden even as you scale, our print Quarterlies cost more, starting at $60 plus shipping and handling, for a total of around $70 base. On the other hand, you can get our digital subscriptions for $50 for the full year. For larger teams, organizations, startups and companies, we offer organizational subscriptions starting at $180 plus shipping and handling for a three pack. We also have more expensive price points to ship 5 and 10-packs. While our organizational subscriptions only comprise 10% of our total subscription revenue, it’s still a good chunk of money and makes an important contribution to our bottom line. It also signals to readers who are part of well-funded companies that this is an avenue they can contribute through, while also reaping the benefit of high-quality educational material for their whole team.
In addition to offering various “products” with different price points, you should also offer different levels of pricing for the same material, and then people can choose the level they want to contribute at. This obviously works well for crowdfunding, but can also work extremely well for products themselves: we offer both a “supporter price” and “super supporter” price for our subscriptions, so people who are able and willing to contribute more can do so at a higher level. The price difference doesn’t have to be huge – our super supporter tier for print editions costs just $15 to $25 more per subscription – but has a big impact on our overall revenue: about 40% of individual subscribers pick the “super supporter” tier, and the overall revenue they contribute is almost the same amount as base supporters.
We also let people donate subscriptions – this allows people who are financially privileged to support others in a really direct way. Some people donate two or three subscriptions, so they directly support multiple people having access, which is a win-win for everyone. We’ve also seen other media projects like BubbleSort zines use this approach effectively. AlterConf has a similar model, only pertaining to events: you can purchase tickets at higher tiers that support scholarship tickets for people who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend.
A side benefit of using variable pricing is that it provides motivation and incentive for you to make your content available in a variety of ways: i.e., building out digital versions of products at a lower price point, packaging different amounts of content in differently-priced packages, etc. This has the positive effect of letting you reach a wider audience, and people who want to consume your work in different ways. When you think of your overall potential paid audience, don’t assume that one size fits all – within that category you need to be able to appeal to multiple modes of consumption, multiple price points and delivery models to get as much money as you can!
In addition to your primary revenue streams, remember that you can always supplement those revenue streams with shorter-term funding initiatives. These can be great to cover small projects you want to do: for example, we offered a special essay collection from our editor to cover the costs of our website redesign, which launched in late 2014. This has generated enough revenue to pay off the website redesign as well as cover ongoing fees like hosting, upgrades by consultants, etc.
You can also use spot financing projects to cover things like travel costs for your team to a specific events, raise funds to hire new talent or pay authors more (like Black Girl Dangerous has done), cover scholarships for community members (like #INeedDiverseGames) or other things. One of the reasons this approach can work well is because it’s related to a very specific goal or set of outcomes, which is great for motivating your audience and making them feel as if they’re making a concrete contribution.
Funding. is. hard.
Designing a monetization engine takes lots of time, critical thinking and energy – but the end reward is worth it: sustainable, diverse funding that supports your core mission and goals, allows you to grow, and builds community support and an ongoing connection with your audience.
Stay tuned for three more in-depth posts in the coming days on Sponsorship, Crowdfunding and Subscriptions for more specific strategies on how our funding model works, what we learned along the way, and how to succeed with each of the different tactics we use.