Financial Challenges Ahead, But So Too Opportunities To Tap Our ‘Network’

April 15, 2012
Carolyn Whetzel

SEJ President's Report

By CAROLYN WHETZEL

SEJ begins its 22nd year a strong, vibrant, and vital organization. This is good, because like many nonprofits in the current economy, SEJ is facing some tough financial challenges. But challenges are opportunities.

Balancing the organization’s current operating budget is crucial to keeping SEJ on track for a sustainable and high-impact future. That’s why at its January 28, 2012 meeting, SEJ’s board of directors took steps to increase revenues and cut expenses for the short term as the board and staff pursue effectiveness studies and efforts to bring in new unrestricted gifts, new foundation grants, new university and media support, and new earned income.

The board, in approving the 2012 operating budget, increased member dues and put on hiatus unfunded TipSheets and the fall issue of the SEJournal.

These decisions stem from the fact that over the last few years, SEJ’s gift and grant income has not kept pace with expenses of current operations. In 2008, SEJ lost two multi-year foundation grants totaling $275,000. As a result, the organization has been drawing down its carefully managed unrestricted reserves.

Increasing dues from $50 to $70 a year ($60 if you pay for two or three years at the same time) was not an easy decision. The membership committee pointed out that the hike, which is effective April 1, brings SEJ dues in line with those of the Society of Professional Journalists, $75, and Investigative Reporters and Editors, $70.

Putting the fall issue of the SEJournal and biweekly TipSheets on hiatus was an equally tough decision.

Reactions are already rolling in. Thanks to the members who recognized that SEJ dues have been “incredibly low for years”and to those who labeled the hike “paltry” given what they get from SEJ in return. Likewise, we appreciate the concerns expressed about the suspension of TipSheets and the fall issue of the SEJournal. We want to hear why you think these publications are important, how you use the information in the TipSheets, and how SEJ publications, services, and programs can be improved.

Thanks to an organizational effectiveness grant from the Brainerd Foundation, SEJ is launching a research project to help gather this and other information that we can use to chart a path for the next three to five years. As part of the project, SEJ will be reaching out to its membership to ask questions about current programs and initiatives and generate new ideas.

Along with identifying external forces that will affect SEJ, everything from economic forces to the changes in the industry, the project includes a needs assessment to determine what members and other journalists need most from SEJ to produce and distribute more high-quality, high-impact journalism.

The grant also opens the door for SEJ to do something its leadership has wanted to do for some time, identify the organization’s most effective initiatives and inventory its strengths and weaknesses.

Ultimately, the goal is to ensure SEJ is providing the most cost-effective and highest-impact initiatives possible.

SEJ’s Executive Director Beth Parke often calls SEJ “the original social network.” That’s right, before Facebook, Twitter, or even Myspace — there was SEJ. Sure, it’s a different animal than these ground-breaking web-based social networks, but SEJ is a powerful network of over 1,450 journalists who cover environmental issues.

SEJ’s biggest strength is this network of journalists, members and nonmembers, and its friends. It’s this network that SEJ needs to tap throughout 2012 and beyond as it tackles the challenges ahead.

While SEJ’s leadership will be doing most of the heavy lifting, the board of directors urges every SEJ member and friend to join us in this effort.

So, how can you help?

  • Talk to potential donors about SEJ and the impact the organization has had on your own work and that of fellow members, and encourage them to make a gift of any amount.
  • Share messages about SEJ through your social networks and encourage contacts to support the group’s work to strengthen environmental journalism.
  • If you know of a donor-advised fund or a family foundation that may be a good match with SEJ and would welcome a formal inquiry, forward contact information to any board member or to Beth Parke at SEJ headquarters.
  • When you are surveyed as part of the strategic planning project funded by the Brainerd Foundation, please respond. We need your input.

Just think, if each of the organization’s 1,400 members raised $150 from friends, family, co-workers, and others in 2012, SEJ would be over two-thirds of the way — $210,000 — to closing the $275,000 gap that resulted from the loss of general support grants. If 200 members brought in $150 each, it would raise the $30,000 needed to resume the TipSheets.

The encouraging news is that new universities, foundations, media companies and individuals continue to join SEJ’s list of underwriters. SEJ anticipates meaningful income from conference-related fees, dues, ads and subscriptions, and new grants in 2012. Loyal foundation funders continue to support SEJ. Project funding for the Fund for Environmental Journalism mini-grants has increased and university sponsorship for annual conferences remains strong. Exciting partnership opportunities continue to emerge for SEJ.

In 2011, for the first time the organization began accepting unrestricted gifts of general support of up to $15,000 from any source who supports SEJ’s mission and work. This source of support has great potential for SEJ. Last year, SEJ raised $7,000 from these sources. Gifts from individuals totaled $27,560.

We know SEJ can increase those numbers, with strong strategic planning and with the support of our membership.

Carolyn Whetzel covers environment issues in California for Bloomberg BNA.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2012. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.