0930-Fri-062521-PR-Building Resilience at a Growing Intl News Nonprofit-FINAL-V2
2:42PM Jun 22, 2021
Morning everybody, I'm Leslie Compton. I'm here with Heather Ali, the CEO of the new humanitarian. The new humanitarian is a nonprofit news organization covering crises disasters in the international aid industry. They were started in 1995, by the UN and in 2015, broke off as an independent publication. I work at pro publica, our organizations in some ways could not be more different. But we've got at least one thing in common, which is that we both only covered depressing subjects. Hopefully, this conversation will not be depressing, but will instead be inspiring and interesting. So let's go ahead and get started. Have a Why don't you give us a start by telling us a little bit more about the origin story of the new humanitarian. I think a lot of folks who are joining us today are probably not super familiar with what you do.
Yeah, it's great to be a donee and to kind of widen the circle of, of newsrooms that are often featured in these things, given that we're outside of the US. So the new humanitarian was founded as your news by the UN, as you mentioned, in 95, it was just after the Rwandan genocide, which, as everyone knows, you know, led to the slaughter of
hundreds of 1000s of people and
the feeling at the time was had there been a better flow of information between the various aid responders, they could have saved more lives. And so we were created really essentially as a as a way as an information coordination tool. And it was only over time that we emerged into much more of a newsroom with a journalistic culture. So we started really with a focus on East Africa and then grew over the years, to be a global newsroom with editors based in today, Bangkok, and Jerusalem and Johannesburg. And of course, here in Geneva, our headquarters, and our mission really is to put high quality journalism at the service of the world's most vulnerable people. So we're reporting on conflict reporting on refugee flows on disasters and the effects of climate change on epidemics with the goal of informing the way the world responds to humanitarian crises, and hopefully contributing to more effective responses and more accountable responses, which is the other way in which our two organizations are
somewhat similar. So talk to us a little bit about your transition, I think one of the things that we're here to talk about today is building resilient organizations. And as you guys have in recent years rolled out as an independent organization, you've had to do some interesting things about sort of how to become independent building on this legacy of who, who you were and where you came from, and resetting that. So talk to us a little bit about what that transition was like and why it happened. And then I have some more questions for you, but set the scene. Sure.
I mean, we were part of the UN for almost 20 years. And there were a lot of advantages to that in tapping into the networks and the access that the UN has the infrastructure. But it also came with some drawbacks, in part being part of a huge bureaucracy, partly the perception that some had that we were an advocacy organization or a kind of NGO, bunch of folks that were kind of promoting certain points of view, which wasn't, which wasn't true, but you could understand why people would think that way. I think the largest obstacle was that we were trying to do real independent journalism, but housed in this this thing that had all kinds of diplomatic sensitivities and operational constraints. And it just got to a point, particularly over coverage of Syria in which it wasn't tenable anymore, and I think both sides felt that we would it would be a win win. If we split off and became independent that way we'd be completely free to write about and write how we felt The best and the UN and its staff and its operations wouldn't pay any price for what we published. So that's why we kind of decided to split off. And it was essentially like setting up a whole new organization, we had to create a new governance structure, we had to hire new staff had to fundraise from scratch, right to build up operations, finance, everything that you that you can imagine goes into setting up an organization. So we were for many intents and purposes, a startup really. But with this legacy, and reputation and history that gave us I think, some credibility, and with, you know, an existing audience, and to some extent, some funders that knew what we did and had funded us via the UN, and we're looking to see what this next chapter would look like, and whether that that might be something that continue to support. So we had a few, a few starting points, but it was really a whole new ballgame in many ways, in terms of really entering the media landscape in a in a more visible way. And, and acting like a bonafide a newsroom and not a un project.
So as you made that transition, what was your relationship like with the UN in those early years, did they provide any sort of bridge funding or were they supportive in any other ways, and to where within the UN was that relationship?
So we were housed within the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is basically the body that responds to the world's crises and coordinates all the different players, NGOs, and UN agencies and so on. When we decided to go our own way that you went did allow the staff I was a un staff member, for example, at that time, so they allowed us to kind of divert our work towards setting up this new entity, they supported and convening funders, they were very, they wanted the thing to succeed independently. But that was up until kind of the end of our time within the UN. And once we became independent, we really didn't have any formalized relationship, and continue to until today not to have any formalized relationship. I think, today, we the UN is for us, like many others, a source in our stories, you know, an actor in the space that we cover, often the subject of our exposes. But otherwise, there hasn't been any funding, or even actually, any partnership, and I would suspect that some within you and are probably thinking, Oh, we shouldn't have let them go because now they're an even bigger pain in the ass than they were when they were part of us. So that's where things stand today.
So when you made that transition, what was it like internally? I mean, how did the team communicate about it? What were people's fears? I think that a lot of organizations right now we're going through ship or governance structure changes. And there's a lot of organizations that are considering moving to nonprofit status. There's there's a lot of churn and change in the industry right now. And like, what was that like internally? And how did you communicate about it?
I mean, we spent a lot of time trying to think through what do we want to become? Should it be a B Corp? Should it be a nonprofit? Do we venture into the private space. And ultimately, we decided to go the nonprofit route because we felt a our beat was not one that was inherently profitable. To it had a very clear public service element. And three, we already had some relationships via the line with with funders that would be capable and interested in supporting a nonprofit. So there was, you know, a lot of discussion around that what what kind of shape should it take, there was discussion around the scale of ambition, around how different it would be from what we were before. But I think the large message that we were trying to communicate was, you know, the core is the same, which is the mission to contribute to information that can improve the lives of people affected by crisis around the world. And that mission was so kind of strong and compelling that I think that carried us through we, we tried a lot to communicate what it meant for us to become independent. And particularly a couple years ago, when we rebranded to become the new humanitarian, that was an opportunity for us to say, look, we believe in the mission, but we think that there are ways in which this organization needs to evolve and speak to a much wider audience. And it's so the communication was kind of following following that. But then there's also the peace around trying to, we're part of the when we were, we were very much speaking to kind of an insider audience. And as we branched out, and part of the motivation for branching out, was the recognition that today, crises are affecting everyone around the world in a way that they even 10 years ago, were not as visible and as present. If you think about the European refugee crisis, if you think about it, Climate change, if you think about COVID, obviously. So these issues are much more present for people that may not have felt they had a stake in them before. And part of our communication has been to say, we need to be speaking to that wider audience of people out there who want to make the world a better place. But who needs to be informed as a starting point to be able to do that, and, and that we were now interested in reaching out more broadly than just to the insider, kind of humanitarian professional audience?
Was that a change that happened as part of your decision to become independent? Or is that something that the organization has come to over time, I'm interested in hearing a little bit more about how you reconceived that notion of your audience. And as an organization, how you thought about that, and who's involved in those conversations and sort of how you have formulated this new vision of who you're serving?
Yeah, it's, it's been an ongoing and very difficult debate, as I'm sure is the case for many newsrooms. But for us, we had always seen ourselves as serving the international policymaking community. So all the folks who've got access to money and programs to help people and who were turning to us to better understand what the realities on the ground were, but also to kind of understand best practice in this sector. And that audience, remains our core audience. And I don't think we would be where we are today, if we if we didn't respect that core audience and seek to serve them first and foremost. And it's really hard to be trying to serve multiple audiences. At the same time, there is the wider audience of kind of millennials, engaged citizens, increasingly philanthropists who want to understand these issues, the private sector is getting more and more involved in responding to crises, etc. There's also the audiences within the countries that we cover, and especially today, in the wake of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. So we've been thinking a lot about what does it mean to decolonize our journalism, and to ensure that the people that we report on are also stakeholders in our work, and that we're not just serving this kind of foreign audience. So that makes kind of three different audiences and, and that for a really small team with limited resources, that's really hard, because it's a different kind of product. So we're just we're thinking now in terms of strategies, how can we get smarter about taking the same story and then repackaging it for different audiences. So translating it into local language for the local audiences, putting it into short explainer videos for the wider audience, and then giving that kind of traditional New humanitarian story of in depth on the ground reporting for the core audience, and partnering with other media where we think a story really has the potential to meet the needs and kind of interest of a wider audience? Who can we partner with, similar to the propublica model to get the story to those people that can then act on it and have an impact on it? So we're getting smarter about connecting specific stories with specific audiences, but I think you do have to be honest with yourself and clear about yourself about which of those audiences is the priority? Otherwise, you're just kind of all over the place?
Yeah, I mean, I think that for folks who are here and trying to understand sort of what is the relationship between audience development and, and serving communities and like really living within your values as a public interest organization, and, and wanting to serve this broad range of folks, and then connecting that back to your business model and your opportunities and the things that keep you sustainable and financially resilient? How do you balance those needs? Or how do you see them as the same thing? Is it is there a tension between them? How is your team addressing that? And how are you talking about it internally?
Yeah, I'd say there's there's two things, as we think about our strategy moving forward, we're kind of thinking about those three audiences as they relate to business models. So at the moment, we're largely grant funded, we get about 95% of our funding from both governments. And we can talk about that, because it's a little bit unusual, I suppose. And from foundations, we recently launched a membership drive. So we're starting to introduce other revenue streams, but for the moment, they remain pretty small. But moving forward, you can you can kind of map out how each audience comes with a certain kind of product, and then a certain kind of business model on the back of that. So a lot of the foundations that fund us are interested in wider audiences becoming more aware of forgotten crises and more engaged on these issues. And so they're interested in the nice multimedia kind of pieces that are going to engage beyond the the humanitarian aid sector. And there you can, you can imagine some of the potential business models that come off the back of that, in addition to grant funding, like training other media on how to cover humanitarian crises. There's the insider stuff. We do a lot of analysis, but also investigations into what happens within the humanitarian aid sector. So for instance, exposing fraud or sexual abuse by the UN or NGOs. And that actually does have a much wider audience, but a lot of the discussions around how do you what's the best way to help people in this day and age, what's the best way of setting up a refugee camp, that kind of stuff tends to be tailored for a more insider audience, and then you the, in addition to funding largely from governments who are interested in better understanding the realities on the ground to inform their own aid, and, and their own programming. We can also see potential for the kind of premium newsletter and the monetized content for a specialized audience. And then when you look at that third audience of the communities are actually affected by what we cover there. And we're still thinking this through and I think it's a really new space for the industry as a whole. But how do we kind of stop being the gatekeepers and allow the communities that we cover to play a bigger role in shaping the narratives that we tell? And what would that mean for content? And how would it change. And there you can see a kind of more peer to peer model that could have other business model opportunities off the back of that, whether it's, you know, notice boards or exchange of information, services, matching people up with each other networking, that kind of thing. So we're kind of segmenting all of what we do now, in our thinking for the future around? What's the product? Who's it tailor for? What are the business models off the back of that? And how does all that then contribute to your mission and your overall strategy? Yeah.
I mean, that's a huge range of ideas and a lot of options on the table. And you said one thing, which is currently 95%, I think you said of your funding comes from governments. So let's go back and talk about that. Because I mean, there's a lot of opportunity that's outside of that, but that's not currently where you're at. So in the US, that's highly unusual. And I think not something that most of us have a lot of comfort with pro publica, we don't take any money from the government for our work. So how does that work? How have you managed it? What is the opportunity there? Talk to us more about sort of what that relationship is like, and why it is working for you or not.
It has been working for us and I, I used to work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I've worked for a number of big media houses, and I understand completely where the discomfort comes from. But what I would say, I mean, the funding that we get from governments is from the humanitarian aid departments of their development ministries, typically. So it is people whose job it is to give away money to help people in need. And they give us funding as part of that in order to help them make better decisions. But also because they see it as a public service in holding them and others accountable. So in supporting us, they're ensuring that someone is putting a check on their power. And a lot of the reporting that we do, has been about the failings of the humanitarian aid system. And for a lot of governments that have signed up to a number of commitments around better aid. This is part of fulfilling that pledge to say, you know, we're actually going to support an independent newsroom. That's that mission is to hold us to account. So it's there are a lot of I think, motivations that are quite different than what you might imagine of like a Russia or a Syrian Government supporting a media outfit. They're also among our readers, right? So it's kind of a different model in the sense that these are, or they're part of our target audience. And that changes the dynamics, I think. donors have no say over editorial content. We have a different team that liaises with our donors, including government donors, so they don't meet directly with our editorial team, except in very rare cases. Our board greenlights any new funding so that they can look out for any undue influence. It's part of our statutes, that, that that kind of influence just isn't part of the way we work. It's also we've just developed a set of principles that we ask donors to sign up to when they give us funding, that kind of outlines how we see our relationship with them. In other words, that we maintain completed toil, independence, etc, etc. So we put in a number of steps to make it really clear to anyone who's going to support us government or not, that this is like this is the deal, you take it or leave it and if you are going to support us, these are the conditions. And then I always say I don't think there's any source of revenue with the exception of subscriptions. That doesn't come with some kind of risk advertising philanthropy, I mean, government support for public broadcasting. And so it's just a matter of recognizing that risk and managing and mitigating it. So I don't see it in practice is very different than, than newspapers who for years had to, you know, manage the expectations of advertisers. And at times were, you know, facing the same challenges around firewalls between the advertising and the and the journalism. So that's,
I would just get to know one thing, which is, yeah, you know, you said, it's, it's not like taking money from countries like Russia, you were you might imagine some of the the influence there are there are ways in which you do have firm lines around which countries you will and won't take funding from? Are there other situations that are unfolding on the ground in terms of humanitarian situations, crises, conflicts? Where you don't take money from governments that are embroiled in particular kinds of situations? Or and how do you draw those lines, it changes constantly, I assume terms of actually happening on the ground around the world.
I mean, frankly, we had a lot, a lot, a lot of discussion about this, I don't think you can put in place any kind of rules, and not end up in some way being a hypocrite. So you know, a bunch of I'm not talking about pro publica. But there are a number of NGOs in particular that don't take government funding, but then they take funding from foundations that are funded by governments, others who say they don't take money from the fossil fuel industry. And then indirectly, you see that, or from the arms trade, but then they take money from governments that are often the biggest arms dealer. So I think it's really hard to draw a line in the sand. And what we have felt is that it's better to be super transparent with our readers about where money comes from, and let them decide for themselves whether they think it's influencing our coverage, rather than to put kind of arbitrary red lines, what we do is we say, for any funding opportunity, would this put into jeopardy the credibility of our journalism? So if you imagine that we're reporting every day on the war in Yemen, and we take a whole bunch of money from Saudi Arabia, which is one of the main players in in bombing Yemen, would that make our Yemen coverage come across differently to our readers? And if the answer is yes, then we don't take it. So it's a case by case kind of analysis like that in which we think through but if you're really honest with yourself, every country on the Security Council of the P five are all involved in the war in Yemen directly or indirectly. So we can kind of start naming the good countries and the bad countries. But in the end, all of that ends up being a little bit artificial. And so we prefer this approach of being really clear what our values are asking donors to sign up to those values, if they want to support us being clear what our editorial independence means to us. And then being clear with our readers about where that money comes from.
Your trajectory to get to this point of current, what is your current budget? Two and a half million US approximately? Okay. So I mean, getting getting to this point, right, it sounds like you guys have had some fits and starts, you're at the end view, when you left, I think that you want to tell us a little bit about sort of like the next steps in that process. Because I I'd like to know more about how throughout these kind of fits and starts with things that seemed like they were going to work and then maybe didn't and then continuing experimentation, like, what does that been like? Not just what happened? But internally, how have you communicated at both like within the leadership team, and then also among your editorial staff, and folks who are who are doing the work and doing a report and maybe worried about their jobs? What, how does that work?
You know, every single person we hire, I tell them before they're even hired, this is a risky industry, you join us if you're ready for an adventure, it may not work, what we're trying to do is wild. And nobody ever thought we could take something out of the UN and make it survive. And we have no idea how long this will last, we're doing well knock on wood. And things have been going well so far. But there are no guarantees, and you join us if you're ready for that kind of risk. So I'm very upfront with staff and prospective stuff. And I think, frankly, that we're no less stable. And in fact, I think we're more stable than a lot of commercial media. So it's just like, this is media in the 21st century. It's a rocky boat, and you have to be ready for a bit of instability. It's been a crazy journey. I mean, we we left the UN we had eight months from the day that the UN had decided that it was going to close down this project to make it fly. We were basically building the tracks of this new organization while the train was still running because we were still putting out content every day. We had by December of 2014. When we were in our last kind of month at the UN I think we had $200,000 committed from one donor. We landed this crazy like Holly quick story of a Malaysian billionaire who had decided that we were going to be his project had pledged $25 million to help get this thing off the ground. And we had, I remember the days, we were just dreaming of all the things we could do with all this money. And then he ended up at the heart of one of the biggest financial scandals of 21st century, that partnership ended quickly. And it's, you know, those are the kinds of things where you're starting all over again, yet again, and you think you're on your last breath so many times. And we went through that many times over the years, where we just didn't know if this thing was gonna last I found I would stumble across notes from years ago in which we're like, Okay, this is it, or, and here we are, six years later, doing, frankly, really well. And I look around us and I see all these news organizations that have tried to do international reporting consistently and responsibly. And they're just dropping, I mean, when the when the correspondent folded, I just thought, Oh, my God, you know, news deeply all of these outfits that had made such a splash, and that so many of us, were really excited to see seeing them die. And then seeing us still standing here and wondering sometimes, like, how did we get your
question, right? How did you get there? Like, what, what has enabled you not just sort of on a functional and, you know, financial basis to survive through this, but you know, how have you managed the organization to sort of keep people engaged during these kinds of trials and to not be looking to the exits? And how have you sort of built a culture internally that's just used during this kind of, like, slow path to growth?
Yeah, so part of it has been to not go for crazy exponential growth and to be slow and steady. And, and I think, you know, sometimes we look around and see these other newsrooms that were exploding. And often you're kind of jealous, you're like, oh, how did they do that. And then, as I say, it doesn't always last very long. And so to just have the confidence, to just say, okay, we're not like huge, but we're growing slowly. And to be Okay, with that, I think was one of the parts of it. We were pretty careful at first, you know, we didn't spend like crazy, we were really tight with our money, our salaries are modest, our spending is not over the top, we don't parachute people in on these crazy expensive trips. So we've really tried to do things in a humble and cost efficient way. But I think really what, what allowed it to survive as a team that was so committed to what we were trying to do. And so what held it together was people believed the mission mattered. And in terms of the culture, it was just, I mean, the, like, the top value I can think of when I think of our team is commitment, people are just really keen to see it work and willing to give a lot to make that happen. And so that combined with, I think we've been we've been, you know, we do report on stuff that really matters, we, our beat is becoming more and more relevant every day. And we have a set of stakeholders in that beat that have access to millions of dollars in aid funding. So that combination of of kind of a committed team, a business model that makes some sense. And a trajectory that was slow and steady, I think has allowed us to weather a number of storms, we've had storms, we've had donors that fail at the at the last minute, we've had to let people go at times. But on the whole, I think we didn't bite off more than we could chew even though we are really ambitious, I think and that has allowed us to, to absorb shocks more easily.
Um, I I can really pretty strongly to you're saying that, you know, really focusing back on that mission is part of like, what really helps keep things moving forward. That's my experience of working at propublica is our focus on impact. And journalism that drives real world change is such a North Star for me every day, and I talk about it with my teams all the time. And it's it's worked out, we're actively engaged in thinking about as we're doing all the other stuff of running an organization in a newsroom. I know that it's something that I have conversations with my teams and the people I work with directly. But how have you sort of communicated that your team is much more distributed? I think you have sort of a little bit less of a Kind of day to day newsroom feel. So how have you made sure that that sort of clear commitment and focus and sort of that shared value set is is part of how you operate? I think it's something that's very relevant to everyone right now, as we're rethinking what organizations look like in this distributed
moment. We have a channel on slack called impact where we post anyone who comes across our story getting picked up somewhere or an impacted head in the real world. And we've really tried to celebrate that. We had we did a recent investigation into sexual abuse by aid workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo during their response to the Ebola outbreak. And it ended up prompting the World Health Organization to launch an independent inquiry, a number of governments have been now pushing the who to say, How is this possible? How is it still happening. So that kind of stuff, I think really spurs people when they can see that the stories are making a difference. And we had lawyers kind of come out of the woodwork and volunteer to help the survivors of the abuse, etc, etc. So we really put an impact on celebrating sort of an emphasis on celebrating impact. We also are trying and this part has been, you know, I think when you're small and you and you have like five people around a table, as we were at the beginning, working in my living room, it's easy to feel that shared mission and sense of purpose. And then as you grow, and the more distributed you are, the more intentional that effort has to be. So now we try to create four that are specifically dedicated to being able to get together and celebrate our successes, talk about our failures, shout out to team members who exhibit certain values, and to really kind of reinforce the culture that we're trying to build. And that's often awkward at the beginning, I think online, but you just have to kind of like keep doing it until it becomes a habit. And I think we're just about at the stage now where, where we figured out like where, how that makes sense for us in a distributed online team, which as you say, everyone's going to be moving towards, I think, in the months and years to come. Yeah, we
only have a couple more minutes here. So I wanted to shift to some more advice, which is that, you know, you guys cover crises and conflict. And many newsrooms have been sort of much more immersed in covering a global crisis in the past year than I think they may be ever expected to. What kind of advice would you give people? I mean, what do you wish other newsrooms had known coming into the pandemic about how to cover crises and? And, like, what's important? And what are what are things that you know from your organization's experience that people might apply to this and future crises going forward, particularly as things are starting to wane in the US?
I think it sounds obvious, but so often, we don't do it. The way things look to the person who's affected are so different than the way it looks from the outside. And to really be sure that your stories are centered around the people who are actually affected by those crises, has been what has differentiated us in the past. And I think, what allows for crisis journalism, to really feel authentic. And what we strive for is that the story feels true to the person on the ground is experiencing it. But it's also making sense and relevant to the international policymaker who's reading about it. And so to really kind of take that time and make that effort to talk to the people who are actually affected by it, and center, your stories around law, I think is central for this kind of coverage moving forward. I think the other thing we're learning? Well, I don't need to say fact based, obviously, that that's kind of to relate for everyone. I think there's a renewed appreciation for real fact, based journalism and the need for us as news organizations that really care about getting it right to reinforce that message and to be fighting back against the misinformation by continuing to insist on fact, basic coverage is more essential than ever, but I think we can assume everyone is in line with that, I'd say one of the things we've struggled with, we used to take this approach that like, crises are important, you need to care about crises, and it was kind of like eat your vegetables. And I'm not sure that that's the right way to go. I did a TEDx a few years ago. And I remember saying, like, you should care about crises because one, you know, they're always going to circle back to your front door, at some point and to your tax dollars are going towards helping people affected by crises, you might want to know what's going on. And then three, you know, one day, it's going to be you experiencing the crisis. And more and more, that's actually true, but I'm not sure that that kind of transactional approach to trying to get people to care works, I think what we're learning is lean into the people who are in a position to do something about that crisis. And try to inform them trying to empower them with the information that they need to be able to do the work that they do, rather than kind of like banging on the drum to get people who don't care to care. I think our news environment is so decentralized now that that can often feel like a losing battle. But if you can connect your journalism with the people that can then make a trouble in their networks and who can use it in The way that you think can lead to impact and I think, you know that that has to be the starting point for us who are in this really difficult space, as you said, covering depressing stuff.
Yeah. I have many more questions for you. But I'm sure folks who are attending this session right now, I also do so how about we call it there and tell people to join us in the breakout room afterwards where we can all keep talking about this stuff. So thank you so much. Thank you very much. Look forward to chatting with you guys later. Thanks.