Anatomy of a Nonprofit Startup

Published on
December 10, 2010

Choire Sicha made clear to The New York Times in October that the road to pulling in a paycheck from the quirky website The Awl was bumpy, albeit simple:

"My friends keep talking to me about how they want to start a Web site, but they need to get some backing, and I look at them and ask them what they are waiting for," Mr. Sicha said. "All it takes is some WordPress and a lot of typing. Sure, I went broke trying to start it, it trashed my life and I work all the time, but other than that, it wasn't that hard to figure out."

For Andy Miller, getting his news site off the ground has been a less angst-ridden process. Miller used his own money to launch the nonprofit website Georgia Health News last month. He's now in the midst of seeking foundation grants and donations. This week at Career GPS, Miller offers straightforward answers to questions about what it took to develop his new media venture.

This week's health media opportunities are at the end of this post. Keep up with Career GPS by subscribing to the ReportingonHealth weekly newsletter or via RSS.

Miller, a longtime health care journalist who left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2009, emphasizes two things critical to launching his site: passion and planning. He answered questions by email.

What was the road to launching the site?

I had been thinking about creating GHN for a couple of years, but didn't get serious about it until late spring or early summer of this year. Then it was a matter of finding the right person to build the site, getting a board together, and submitting legal paperwork for the state and the IRS. We launched the site Nov. 7.

What kind of structure -- in terms of personnel and funding -- is in place now? How much does it cost to run this nonprofit news site?

Right now it doesn't cost much to run it because we have little money, which I've spent on a copyeditor/editor and the web person. We are getting some donations now and are getting ready to apply to foundations for grants.

Why did you choose the nonprofit route? What are some of the benefits and pitfalls of being a nonprofit organization?

Nonprofit seemed to be the way to go because that's the trend in journalism -- ProPublica, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, Texas Tribune, etc. There are some nonprofit health sites: Kaiser Health News, Health News Florida, Kansas Health Institute's News Service. The advantage is that people and foundations can give donations and grants. I've haven't experienced any pitfalls yet. We have a great board.

Are the editor and web person part-time or contractors? How are they paid? Are you getting a salary? Are donations covering that amount?

The editor and web person are contractors, paid an hourly fee. Right now I am getting no salary. I had some money saved for this effort and so that's what is covering expenses. Donations so far - we're three weeks old - are not enough to pay me a salary.

Why did you start the site BEFORE getting a grant?

I would have preferred to have a grant or two before I started this, but it didn't work out. I think foundations are waiting until we launched the site and we get our 501c3 designation from the IRS. The latter may take seven months or so. We have a fiscal sponsor that's a 501c3 nonprofit, so people can contribute to us through the fiscal sponsor and get a tax deduction. That arrangement will remain in place until we get our own 501c3.

What scale of publication are you planning to fundraise for? What are your ambitions for the site in terms of hiring and content? How long have you been unsalaried and how long do you expect to not make an income from GHN?

My ambitions are to have a large enough budget to hire freelancers or a staff person or two to help develop content. I've been unsalaried since November and it may be a couple more months until I can pay myself. That wasn't a surprise. But I hope it won't be too long before I can take a salary.

What advice would you give others who want to run a health news startup in their communities?

My advice would be to make sure the person has a passion for health care news in their communities, then do a lot of planning and find the right people to help with web design, legal work and editing.

Is there anything that's come up that you wish you had planned for?

Not really. I had good guidance beforehand from people who have done this before me, such as Carol Gentry at Health News Florida.

I have to say, this all sounds like it's been pretty easy. Did you have any difficulty getting this far and do you see any obstacles ahead?

The biggest challenge is sustainable funding. But that's also the case for most nonprofit journalism enterprises.  

Jobs and opportunities in health media

Child Welfare Reporter, Youth Today (via
Location: Washington, D.C.
Status: Full Time
Medium: Print, Online

Newsletter Writer/Editor, Fogarty International Center/National Institutes of Health (via
Location: Bethesda, Maryland
Status: Freelance
Medium: Online/Print Newsletter

Health Reporter, Orlando Sentinel (via
Location: Orlando, Florida
Status: Full Time
Medium: Newspaper

Media Relations Representative, USC's Health Sciences Public Relations and Marketing
Location: Los Angeles, California
Status: Full Time
Medium: Communications

Senior Editor, Diet and Fitness, Health magazine published by Time Inc.
Location: New York, New York
Status: Full Time
Medium: Magazine

REMINDER: Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, Association of Health Care Journalists
Eligibility: Work published in 2010 on a wide range of health topics including public health, consumer health, medical research, the business of health care and health ethics, entry fee $30-$75
Award: Cash prize of $500 for first place winners in five categories, a framed certificate and complimentary lodging for two nights and registration for the annual AHCJ conference
Deadline: Dec. 28, 2010 (discounted rates), Jan. 28, 2011
From the Website: "The contest was created by journalists for journalists and is not influenced or funded by commercial or special-interest groups."

REMINDER: Kaiser Media Internships Program
Eligibility: New journalists who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents with experience reporting on health issues of diverse and immigrant communities, typically graduating from college and/or journalism school
Included: 12-week summer program with stipend, travel, training, and some accommodations, and 10 weeks residency with a news organization
Deadline: Print deadline has passed, broadcast deadline on Jan. 6, 2011
From the Website: "The Media Internships Program provides an initial week-long briefing on health issues and health reporting in Washington, D.C. Interns are then based for ten weeks at their newspaper, online, or radio/TV station, typically under the direction of the Health or Metro Editor/News Director, where they report on health issues. The program ends with a 3-day meeting in Boston to hear critiques from senior journalists and to go on final site visits. The aim is to provide young journalists or journalism college graduates with an in-depth introduction to and practical experience on the specialist health beat, with a particular focus on diverse and immigrant communities."

REMINDER: 2011 Hillman Prizes
Eligibility: Work published in 2010 in the United States with impact on social justice or public policy
Award: $5,000 plus a certificate and travel to NYC for our reception
Deadline: Jan. 31, 2011
From the Website: "Since 1950, the Sidney Hillman Foundation has honored journalists, writers and public figures who pursue social justice and public policy for the common good."

REMINDER: Nieman Fellowships in Global Health Reporting
Eligibility: Full-time journalists with at least five years experience
Included: One academic year of of study at Harvard's School of Public Health, access to faculty and courses across the university, three to four months of fieldwork in a developing country
Deadline: January 31, 2011
From the Website: "Nieman Fellows represent the changing face of journalism. They come to Harvard from locations as different as Bangor, Maine, and Younde, Cameroon. They work for national and local print publications, broadcast news outlets, news Web sites, and documentary film ventures. Some are making their mark as freelance journalists. Some have practiced their craft under repressive governments or on far-flung fields of conflict. Together, each year they form a Nieman class that is rich in diversity, experience and aspirations for the years ahead."