Our nonprofit organization has some exciting projects and programs under way, including work on a redesign of the Bay Journal, some enhancements to our website, and even some new products and media partnerships.
But as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Bay Journal’s founding, one of the most important things that has been happening with our organization has been a thorough look under the hood and mapping a clearer path into the future.
It started a couple of years ago, when I was getting that hamster-in-a-treadmill feeling that no matter how hard you run, you never feel like you get anywhere. As executive director, I had less time to do reporting and writing as I tried to keep up with administrative chores such as writing reports and grant requests, and making sure everyone got paid on time.
It was time to get professional help. We turned to a former vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who now consults with a number of smaller nonprofits. Ed Allenby came highly recommended, and after several phone conversations in which he asked a series of probing, but insightful questions, I realized he was the person to help us.
Ed conducted one-on-one interviews with staff, board members, executive directors of other nonprofit organizations, foundations and other funders, and other nonprofit journalism enterprises — dozens in all. He also brought the staff and board together in person (for the first time) to discuss our future.
The good news is that our main product, the Bay Journal, is viewed as a trusted resource, and is highly respected. But there was confusion that our nonprofit organization’s name is Chesapeake Media Service, though our main product is the Bay Journal.
And while our stated mission is to expand unbiased reporting that informs the public about the Bay and regional environmental issues, the review found our overall goals were vague.
And, for professional communicators, it turns out that we often aren’t as good as we need to be telling our own story. The review found that few people are aware of our scope or reach. They know we publish the Bay Journal and manage its website, but they were less likely to know that we also operate a syndication service that distributes news and op-eds to scores of other media outlets, reaching millions of readers each month. Nor did they realize that thousands of copies of the Bay Journal are used in classrooms across the watershed. Or, that we partner in radio and television productions, and this year supported a documentary, Beautiful Swimmers Revisited, which has aired throughout the region.
In a report to the board and staff, Ed presented a prioritized list of things that we need to address to fulfill our mission and build a sustainable organization. Some, in retrospect, were just common sense. We didn’t have a clear succession plan for senior positions. A couple years back, I broke my hip in a bicycle crash. At our staff/board meeting, people wondered what would have happened to the organization if I had landed on my head instead?
The report said that our staff is small for what we do, especially compared with “peer” nonprofit organizations. Still, we need to improve our marketing, add staff to fill organizational and reporting gaps. We also need to boost efforts to reach younger readers, among other things. Our donors have been incredibly generous in the past and have helped fuel what we’ve accomplished to date, but we likely will need to raise more revenue in coming years to address the prioritized issues.
It’s been a challenging process, and is still ongoing, but a clearer vision of our future — a still small, but even more effective, and more sustainable organization — is beginning to emerge. That makes the work worthwhile. After all, if you’re running, you might as well be getting someplace.