Can non-profit journalism make it in Canada?

Bilbo PoynterThe funding environment in Canada may not be as crowded as in the U.S., but Canada does suffer from a lack of foundation support for media ventures, writes Bilbo Poynter.  Poynter explains what’s needed for non-profit journalism to get off the ground.

Cecil Rosner, in his recent column, “Can investigative journalism thrive without profit?” highlighted some of the issues the new crop of U.S. non-profit investigative organizations face securing stable funding, posing the question: “How will they survive?”


This is a question we here at the newly charitable Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting (CCIR) consider all the time.

Journalism ethics expert Stephen J.A. Ward recently asserted that “the non-profit sector will have to be smarter about its ethics [than mainstream media]” and then asked “But how?”

Double Gulp.

As I wrote in an earlier J-Source column, “Staying free from influence in non-profit journalism,” the ethical considerations of a non-profit news group raising money without strings, is a “forever problem” for us.

Of course these two issues; the ethics of raising money, and raising enough money, are interrelated. And the fact that the CCIR is a registered charity means that there are restrictions from the start on where and how we can raise enough money to meet our goals.

More money, but more competition in U.S.

The example of the U.S. groups informed much of the early thinking of the CCIR, but it has its limits: On the one hand the CCIR is not competing in as crowded an environment as our U.S. counterparts for foundation grants. On the other hand there aren’t anywhere near as many foundations, or as much wealth to draw upon as there is in the U.S. Nor has there been a decades-long tradition of philanthropic giving to media ventures specifically, as exists down south.

Public interest journalism shows including Frontline often close with the names of to major donors such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Open Eye Institute and the Pew Charitable Trust. These are the same organizations that sustain most of the non-profit news groups in the U.S.

The right to a free press is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and is considered a bedrock value of their democracy. Whereas Canadians tend to view access to universal health care as the value that defines us, and so a great deal of charitable giving in this country is focused on health-related causes.

The traditional source of revenue for any major media organization is ad revenue, and in Canada, some government subsidies through programs like the Canada Magazine Fund and the Canada Television Fund.

Hypothetically, we at the CCIR could have hung a shingle out and promoted ourselves as a private for-profit boutique investigative news group, but I don’t think we would have been nearly as effective over the long run, because we would not have been providing something unique. So when we modeled ourselves on existing U.S. non-profit investigative groups some of the funding choices were made for us.    

Funding options
For example, The Walrus Foundation, who, like the CCIR, is mandated to be an
educational organization, sustains its magazine, The Walrus, in part
through advertising dollars. The CCIR has no plans to generate revenue through advertising from a “related” business, which is allowed for under the Charities Act.

There goes that revenue stream.

Other Canadian charities don’t have ethical considerations accepting direct industry or corporate donations i.e. a major bank sponsoring a cancer hospice. Nor should they, but the CCIR understands that we cannot accept direct donations from corporations if we are to succeed in our watchdog role.

There goes that revenue stream.

Many Canadian charities benefit from government programs, such as a church-run group home receiving government dollars for each bed it offers an at-risk kid. The CCIR determined early on that we could not take direct government assistance if we are to hold those in power accountable.

There goes that revenue stream.

Problem-solving a way to sustainability

The Real News Network, which is headquartered both in Washington, D.C. and Toronto, has the ambitious goal of setting up an alternative digital television news network. RNN received significant initial start-up funding from individuals, foundations and other organizations. According to the current RNN business plan the organization “does not accept advertising, government or corporate funding . . . and will be sustainable on a long-term basis by viewer donations and earned revenue.” It remains to be seen if the RNN can be sustainable.

Like the RNN the major revenue options open to the CCIR are large individual donors and charitable foundations.   

We also have a graduated donor program, where we appeal to the Canadian public for their tax-deductible donations. For $60-99 donors become CCIR subscribers and receive regular updates CCIR work, and for $5000 donors are invited to view a behind-the-scenes look at the story process behind a CCIR investigation.

There are other independent media in Canada who are trying to problem-solve their way to sustainability. Both This Magazine and B.C.-based The Tyee have set up investigative funds in recent years. This is an encouraging development and one that should be followed closely by media watchers. Like The Walrus, This has a foundation that oversees the work of the magazine, while The Tyee seeks  “investors, advertisers, and funders for our long list of investigative projects just waiting for resources.” Both magazines accept advertising, and both raise funds through subscriptions, events and capital campaigns. Whether funds such as these can yield anything more then modest returns for investigative projects will likely require an ongoing dialogue on what we all value as a society.

Even though there are considerably fewer foundation dollars to go around than in the U.S., and even fewer foundations that fund media projects in Canada, the CCIR is confident that we will speak to the philanthropic community and goodwill of Canadians who won’t see our funding restraints as limitations, but as opportunities to do something truly innovative.

What we need are funders who share our vision, are willing to partner with us long-term, and can see the value in funding independent investigative reporting as a part of their legacy of giving back to Canadians.

No pressure.

Bilbo Poynter is executive director and founder of the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting. His reports have been seen and heard on CBC Radio,, and the Canadian Press. As a researcher, then associate producer with the CBC Investigative Unit he contributed to two award winning series. He was also the first Canadian to work for the Center for Investigative Reporting in California.