12 grantees, 13 mentors, 6 ambassadors, 6 events, 550 event participants, 2,400 newsletter subscribers… and an evaluation.
Money might seem like the way to a grantee’s heart and to enabling them to be resilient for the long term. And many grantees, as well as organisations delivering programmes that support them, consider grant funding as an ultimate means to start and grow their mutual relationship. But as me and my team have learned during 20 months of developing and delivering the Engaged Journalism Accelerator (the Accelerator), grant funding alone is not the holy grail for grantees, nor is it mutually beneficial for the organisation(s) supporting them.
I remember when I first worked at a philanthropic organisation in 2013, people used to circle around me at every event I attended. Simply because they saw me as a walking £ sign, a cash cow, a social innovation gold mine (insert any other relevant metaphor). I had mixed ideas of feeling empowered and influential, together with feeling baffled sensing that so many people wanted to associate with me purely for a financial transaction. Yet that organisation, and indeed the EJC, are so much more than money.
As we near completing the Accelerator evaluation and impact analysis, today we’re publishing interim key findings. We also reflect on how what we have learned during the programme aligns with our original assumptions about what the need is for community-driven journalism in Europe and for individual news organisations innovating in this space.
In late 2017 — early 2018, EJC director Adam Thomas and strategy/change consultant and coach Lucia Adams engaged with and captured six key lessons from 35 European journalism innovators from 13 countries. They subsequently established the 10 guiding principles for the Accelerator, and shared their ideas and decisions about designing the programme and the types of organisations it should fund. The programme purpose and its different components were then established, as too its mission.
Subsequently, the Accelerator team (me, the director, engagement lead Ben Whitelaw and project manager Madalina Ciobanu) came into post. We developed and delivered the Accelerator with a very clear methodology, purpose and mission that went beyond throwing money at shiny one-off innovation projects or at news organisations as a short-term tick-box exercise. We gathered intelligence, listened, strategised, mapped the ecosystem, built partnerships, developed an impact framework, developed robust selection criteria, and application and reporting processes, reflected and iterated.
To most effectively meet the needs of engaged journalism organisations and address their key challenges around ‘media’, ‘innovation’ and ‘trust’, the Accelerator focused on three core objectives: support, connect, inspire. Within these pillars, we established more specific objectives that all programme strategies and outputs were aligned with to ensure robust delivery, and maximum effectiveness of programme outcomes and impact — for and by our grantees, for other Accelerator participants, and for the wider engaged journalism community.
We awarded funding to two cohorts of grantees (cohort 1 and cohort 2 comprising 12 organisations from nine countries). Each cohort had approximately nine months to a) deliver the core objective that they were awarded funding for, b) access mentorship and coaching, c) run two experiments, d) run a meet-up with their community and e) participate in six Accelerator events. Grants were awarded to organisations with proven community loyalty, that are developing or pivoting to a resilient business model, and need support in financing expansion, business and product development, and enhancing and managing loyalty. Each grantee was awarded between €45,800 — €50,800, with €3,800 of the funding being provided to each to cover events travel and meet-up costs.
Grantees had access to a pool of 13 mentors who provided free, light-touch support in areas of expertise that aligned with grantees’ needs. Coaching was provided through a dedicated bootcamp, and masterclasses on ‘five key ingredients of resilience’ that we identified in working closely with grantees and other Accelerator participants. Ad hoc coaching and guidance were also provided by our engagement lead via phone calls and emails.
As a direct result of grantees’ participation in the Accelerator:
✔︎ 100% said they have learned more about their community
✔︎ 100% said they have increased engagement with/ participation from their community
✔︎ 100% said they have increased the reach/ size of their community
✔︎ 11 of 12 said they have developed a competitive advantage
✔︎ 11 of 12 indicated specific ways that they have increased brand awareness among at least one of the following: their community, the wider journalism ecosystem (in their country, Europe and/ or further away), journalism academics and researchers, non-journalism organisations, governments, funders, or other stakeholders.
✔︎ The grant funding was distinguished by grantees compared with other grants that they have had as being tailored, helping them deliver a core objective to support organisational resilience, and enabling them to invest in operational capabilities
✔︎ 7 of 12 indicated that their mentor(s) helped them improve their knowledge, experience, or skills in community-driven product or technology development. With several grantees indicating their mentor(s) had made a significant contribution to their project management and ideation
✔︎ Participation in the Accelerator resulted in an uptake in focus on memberships and subscriptions, with double the number of grantees (10) exploring this revenue stream post-Accelerator. This has been attributed to improved knowledge, experience and skills in community-driven business models gained through the Accelerator
✔︎ 100% indicated specific ways and tangible areas of support in which the continuous guidance from our team/ engagement lead helped them to achieve milestones, KPIs or other activities
✘ 4 of 12 indicated they have made progress towards a resilient financial/ business development trajectory. 7 of 12 indicated their status has remained the same. 1 of 12 indicated their status has declined. (Grantees were asked to choose their status on the trajectory of ‘viable->sustainable->resilient’ when they applied to the Accelerator and also at the end of the Accelerator.)
✘ Almost 60% indicated that nine months was too short for them to effectively deliver their core objective.
Creating a network effect has been at the core of the Accelerator. We focused beyond simply creating opportunities for people to network in the usual sense of ‘chatting about work over post-event drinks’. Instead, we built and enabled a community of practitioners that weren’t previously united or engaged within such purposeful or continued ways. We delivered a series of six mission-driven events comprising closed roundtables for grantees, invite-only workshops for grantees and other participants within the Accelerator community, and large, open events that organisations from the wider engaged journalism community could also participate in.
As part of the peer-to-peer activities, we granted €5,000 to six people that formed the Accelerator Ambassador Network, who ran an experiment within their organisation and delivered two engaged journalism meet-ups for practitioners in their countries. We established the Accelerator community and monthly community calls, both of which were available for anyone to join and participate in, and continued to develop the Engaged Journalism in Europe Database with tangible ideas for people to benefit from it.
✔︎ The most valuable part of the programme (beyond grant funding), consistently indicated by grantees and other participants within the Accelerator community, was the events. These were singled out for their masterclasses, workshops, and opportunities to learn from — and collaborate with — other engaged journalism organisations
✔︎ 95% of ‘community respondents’ (participants within the Accelerator community beyond grantees and Ambassadors), “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that the Accelerator successfully identified and showcased positive role models in engaged journalism. And that the events were considered as the most effective forums for this
✔︎ Almost three quarters of grantees and Ambassadors “agreed” that showcasing positive role models prompted them to “apply learnings and good practice in their own organisation”. The events and other peer-to-peer activities, in particular, were deemed as very valuable in facilitating this
Participation in the Accelerator was perceived as having a significant positive impact on the Ambassadors’ organisations:
✔︎ 100% said that participation in the Accelerator improved their confidence and their knowledge of community-driven business models
✔︎ 5 of 6 said that they better executed their role within their organisation, and undertook strategic or business planning as a result
✔︎ 5 of 6 believe their organisation has developed a competitive, primarily through their organisation’s increased willingness to build and engage with its community
✔︎ 100% indicated that their experiment was the core asset in elevating their organisation’s community engagement — all noting their experiment was “very useful” or “extremely useful” in helping them test new ideas to build further engagement with their community.
We had an ambitious vision that through the Accelerator, we could start to inspire and enable all news organisations across Europe to empower communities and their conversations and create long-term solutions that can positively impact journalism and society. Producing relevant, practical and accessible resources not only for programme participants but also the wider journalism community, was something our team focused a lot of attention on. These resources included the fortnightly Engagement Explained newsletter and case studies, guides and reports (produced by us and also by some of our grantees), key insights from Accelerator events and other activities (including the evaluation), reading lists, the Experiments Directory, and the soon-to-be-published impact analysis.
✔︎ The provision of case studies, articles and other online resources that we produced were consistently indicated as “outstanding” by grantees, Ambassadors and other participants of the Accelerator
✔︎ Despite the relatively short timeframe of the programme, 5 of 12 grantees indicated that participating in the Accelerator has resulted in securing additional financial investment. And a further 2 indicated that their participation has helped them to engage more effectively with other funders
✘ The objectives within the ‘inspire’ pillar were somewhat over-ambitious. Attributed largely to the short timescales of the programme and the scale of work (by grantees and more widely) required for systematic change to be adopted, implemented and embedded across the wider ecosystem.
Until 31 December 2019, the Accelerator was supported by a €1.7m fund from the News Integrity Initiative and Civil Foundation, and designed and delivered by the EJC. The EJC commissioned MTM to work with the Accelerator team to undertake the evaluation. We will publish and share the full evaluation and impact analysis at the end of March 2020. This will further assess how grantees made progress and created impact as a result of their participation in the Accelerator, and also assess how the programme met its objectives. It will also include recommendations for the engaged journalism space in Europe, as well as for the EJC’s (and other funders’) approach in delivering support to emerging news organisations.
Sign up to our Engagement Explained newsletter to keep up to date with the full evaluation and impact analysis.
Also contact me at hello[at]engagedjournalism.com or on Twitter about your thoughts and questions about the interim key findings. For example, how will they help you and your organisation in your community engagement or business development? Or what has really stood out for you as compelling?