Why Have ELi’s Expenses Gone Up “So Much”?

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Harley J. Seeley Photography

Alice Dreger, ELi's founder and current Publisher.

A supporter wrote to ask me to explain why our Sustainability Campaign has a goal this year of $200,000 when last year it was $125,000. Great question!

The simple answer is that ELi has professionalized. By that, I mean this: When I started ELi in its first form in 2012 as a “citizen news brigade,” we relied entirely on volunteer labor. When, in 2014, I reconstituted ELi to be a 501(c)3 nonprofit news service – one that could accept and acknowledge tax-deductible contributions – it still relied almost entirely on volunteer labor, although we paid a Managing Editor – originally Smitty Smith of Pump House renown – to keep things moving from day to day.

Over the years, we have slowly moved from having mostly volunteers to mostly paying people for their labors – not a lot, but enough to keep them working with us and enough to show them a little respect.

As ELi has grown to cover more topics, involve more investigative journalism, and provide service in more ways to reach more people, costs have also risen.

But a major reason ELi’s expenses have gone up more recently is that, a little over a year ago, I was going to quit or die if I didn’t find a way to raise enough money to get me a lot of more help with ELi.

I never intended ELi to become a massive unpaid job for me. But that’s what happened. People kept wanting more out of ELi and out of me, and I kept delivering as it grew and grew. I paid other people to help. I did not pay myself.

That was partly because ELi didn’t have much money. But it was also because I was raised in the Roman Catholic public-service tradition, and although I no longer share the faith of my dear parents, it means a lot to me to give volunteer service to my community. My mom ran services for Vietnamese refugees and pregnant teens. Besides being a professional historian and writer, I used to voluntarily co-run the Intersex Society of North America, and from 2014 through the start of 2020, I voluntarily ran a news service for East Lansing, my city.

I love running an organization where I raise money to pay great people to do fine work! But I was on the verge of collapse about a year ago – talking of shutting down the organization or just plain quitting – and the only way to fix that was with more money. I was by that point working 40-60 hours voluntarily for ELi each week – with almost no weeks off, for five years straight.

Since about 2018, ELi has eaten alive my main career (and so also my previously strong income) as an historian, mainstream writer, and speaker. If there’s any chance of my still having that career and income – and I want to – I need help at ELi, or I need to quit ELi, or I need to close ELi. It is my sense people here prefer the first: I get help, and ELi stays alive. That costs more. That’s why I’ve been raising more and hiring more help.

We also started paying me this year a little, partly to make up for a little of my lost income, but also because we need to show the community the real cost of providing this high-quality news. If ELi is going to be sustained beyond me, it needs to be realistic now about the cost of this service.

We have knocked it out of the park this year in spite of huge hardship with the public health emergency. This team has been here for this community, through and through. What has it cost?

We are on track in 2020 to spend a total of about $163,000 to run ELi. We raised additional funds to get us through the year, including via the Paycheck Protection Program, and dipped into savings to get from the $127,000 we raised during last year’s Sustainability Campaign to our actual expenditures of about $163,000.

Here’s how our first eleven months look in terms of expenses:

You can see we spent an average of about $13,000/month in the first eleven months. December is always more expensive because fundraising increases personnel and mailing costs, so that’s why I estimate we will spend a total of $163,000 in 2020.

What you’ll notice from the following pie chart is how, at ELi, about 90% of your donations go to paying people here to do good work:

While I’m not generally thrilled about publicizing what my people get paid, because I try to respect their privacy, I’m going to do that so that you can see we are not ripping you off with salaries. This is the whole of ELi’s salaried staff:

  • Executive Director/Publisher Alice Dreger (me), full time, paid for the first time as of May 2020, $12,000/year plus pay for reporting on the same scale as our freelance reporters (so, through Nov. 30, I’ve earned $15,060 in total at ELi)
  • Managing Editor Emily Joan Elliott, full time, as of Sept. 2020, paid $25,000/year
  • City Desk Editor Andrew Graham, full time, as of Sept. 2020, paid $20,000/year

In addition, we pay other people part-time for working for ELi, including General Manager Jodi Spicer (for bookkeeping and critically-important organizational management), Ann Nichols for monitoring and managing our Facebook page, English/Journalism educator Cody Harrell to teach our Summer Youth Journalism Program, and Morgan Lees for website and domain-email (repair, upkeep, and management). Lisa Lees has also been volunteering her tech help since 2012.

The remainder of our payroll goes to paying the many reporters we rely on – from our high school “cub” reporters to our seasoned freelancers like Sarah Spohn and Ann Kammerer – as well as photojournalist Gary Caldwell. In general, we pay $125 for a report on a specific meeting, $75-125 for a feature article, and $25-75 for shorter articles including some “Ask ELi” reports. Major investigative reporting pays a little more; for example, we pay me $150-$200 for some of my big Center City reports that involved significant research and analysis.

Other members of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) tell me we are the only American local news organization delivering this much quality journalism – including sharp, sophisticated watchdog reporting – on this small a sum. In fact, I run our entire news organization on less than what the head of INN is paid.

So why do we need $200,000 for 2021 when we needed $163,000 in 2020?

I need to know we have a cushion that can accept blows to our system; I hope to give our people modest raises; I hope to hire on another government reporter to cover what we’ve lost with our wonderful volunteer Chris Root stepping back from ELi, as she has, to take on other community service work; I hope to pay a person to handle the donor relations work that is still taking up a big chunk of my daily life.

We’ve been growing a great team, but these people need to get paid – they can’t be expected to do what I’ve done and Chris has done for years (volunteer). And many frankly can’t volunteer, because they haven’t had the economic privilege Chris and I have enjoyed.

I also need to see if we can get our revenues high enough to where we can pay an Executive Director/Publisher enough (maybe $20,000 per year) so that I can see a light at the end of the tunnel – a time when someone takes over that big and important part of the job I’ve been doing. I want to make sure we have a sustainable system that doesn’t require me working beyond reason. I don’t want to stop working for ELi, but I want to be here doing what I came for – reporting for you. And I want to have time, alongside that, to have my intended career back online.

Asking $200,000 of this community is not unreasonable.

There are two hundred people in this community who can and should donate $1,000 per year.

There are hundreds more who can and should sign up to donate $20 a month.

Many of you have! Thank you!

Please, help us now if you want to see us keep East Lansing the rare city of this size in America – a city that has a real, dedicated, public service news team, one that finds the truth and brings it, gets your questions answered, holds public officials accountable, trains young people to seek out and explain facts, and supports the people who live, work, run businesses, and go to school here.

I believe I have built a model that is sustainable with a modest amount of your help. We’re almost at that point of knowing we can keep this going and going and going.

Help, please. Thank you.

We’ve raised about $83K towards our goal, and we have matching funds if you donate now.

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