How Grist Increased Its Monthly Donor Base 88% by Honing Its Asks

The climate change publisher worked with the News Revenue Hub

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For climate change publisher Grist, a partnership with the News Revenue Hub has confirmed the old adage: The squeaky wheel gets the, well, eco-friendly lubricant.

Grist worked with the nonprofit News Revenue Hub, which helps publishers grow their membership revenue, over the course of a year to refine its strategy for converting readers into monthly supporting members. To prompt these conversions and grow revenue, Grist made a number of key adjustments to its reader acquisition methods, messaging, website design and newsletter strategy to align them with a core mantra of the News Revenue Hub: that you cannot be shy when asking for money.

“Fundraising is a numbers game,” said membership director Jessica Alvarado-Lepine. “The more we can increase the overall audience, and the more we can put persistent calls to action on our site to convert readers to newsletter subscribers, the greater number of leads that I have to then generate monthly sustaining members and one-time donors.”

As publishers across the media spectrum intensify their focus on digital subscriptions—and tout the value of community—they might find value in adopting the techniques of their non-profit peers. In fact, Mary Walter-Brown, the chief executive and founder of the News Revenue Hub, envisions a future in which far more publishers embrace not just their donation software, but the mentality that undergirds it. At the moment, 9% of its 68 clients are for-profit newsrooms.

“We want to prove to publishers, like we’ve done with other nonprofits and for-profits, that your community may give you more than you think,” Walter-Brown said. “And it could be not only an alternative to a paywall, but more lucrative and effective than one.”

Membership and revenue growth 

In October 2021, when the hands-on component of its partnership with the News Revenue Hub concluded, Grist had grown its number of monthly members to 1,035, an increase of 88%. In total, the climate change nonprofit now has 3,950 recurring or one-time members and believes that figure will climb to nearly 5,000 in the coming year.

The News Revenue Hub also coached Grist to change its north star metric to membership revenue, rather than member volume, a strategy that leads to higher customer lifetime value. Grist still brings in the vast majority of its total revenue—$8.1 million in its last financial year—through philanthropic giving and major gifts, but the shift helped it increase the revenue it generated via monthly donations.

In FY 2021, which ended last September, Grist raised $89,185 from monthly revenue, an increase of 28% from the year prior. In total, it generated $277,226 in membership revenue. In FY 2022, the publisher is on track to generate $140,000 in monthly revenue, an increase of 57%, and is forecasting $400,000 in total membership revenue.

And while Grist and the News Revenue Hub specifically sought to raise monthly membership revenue, its efforts to do so also act as a flywheel for other sources of revenue, according to Walter-Brown.

“The fact that the messaging is peppered across the site and woven into all the newsletters has a bigger influence on major donors who are constantly seeing these calls to action,” Walter-Brown said. “The foundations that support Grist are seeing their value proposition threaded into everything they’re reading.”

Plus, members make for consistent, enthusiastic donors, who are in many ways more desirable than their institutional peers, said Richard Tofel, principal at Gallatin Advisory and the former president of ProPublica.

“Individuals, once they decide they want to support an organization, are likely to keep giving so long as that organization continues to do what they were doing,” Tofel said. “By and large, they are very stable.”

Monthly cadence and donor revenue

To increase its monthly recurring revenue, Grist refurbished several parts of its reader pipeline with the guidance of the News Revenue Hub.

The publisher began by improving its top-of-funnel efforts through a mix of headline training, search engine optimization and auditing its paid acquisition efforts. Whereas Grist had formerly hesitated to present its fly-by readers with its calls to action, the News Revenue Hub team also encouraged the publisher to incorporate its messaging throughout the website. 

In addition to increasing the prevalence of these donation touchpoints, the publisher also adjusted its language to present a monthly donation as the default option. As a consequence of behavioral psychology, this change alone increases the propensity of a donor to become a recurring giver, said Alvarado-Lepine. 

Plus, once a reader enters the donor pipeline, the publisher can then target them using email newsletters to increase their donation or its frequency.

Beyond pushing one-time donors to become regular supporters, Grist also runs campaigns to target lapsed donors and to promote seasonal giving. The newsletters themselves now carry more calls to action, another suggestion from the News Revenue Hub, and Grist had access to a library of email copy that it could use in its messaging.

“The News Revenue Hub pushed us to be comfortable with asking our readership to join us as monthly sustaining members,” Alvarado-Lepine said. “That was the big flip for us.”