The Problem with "Donate" Buttons in Alternative Media

People who have abandoned mainstream corporate media have discovered a wide variety of excellent organizations and individuals who produce high quality work that is independent of undue private and corporate interests. Many of these voices uphold the values of transparency, democracy, and working humbly for the common good rather than for personal enrichment. It is on this point, however, that they have created a contradiction for themselves by asking readers to be “donors” toward their work, without asking for or offering a wider role in their work.

People working in new forms of independent media know there is something semantically wrong with asking for “donations,” but it is as if we don’t have the right word, or can’t create a new concept, for the type of participation that readers and viewers should have in new media.

One way to solve this problem is to involve contributors in the plan for how the media platform is going to operate. Even our corporate overlords have a sense of this responsibility, shown by the fact that they have shareholder meetings and, in some jurisdictions where there is good labor law, open their books and discuss their plans with labor unions. Thus it is striking to see how seldom this is done in new progressive media that claim to be rejecting all the greed and undue influence of mainstream media. It would behoove everyone who asks for donations, from individuals to large organizations, to make full declarations of budgets, goals, values and plans. These declarations should also contain some information about governance, or at least a pledge for how the people collecting the money will be accountable to some form of oversight on the operation to make sure it stays committed to its stated goals.

There are many individuals and organizations that seem to be trustworthy. By the content they publish, they seem to share values that I support, but I’m bothered by the lack of transparency. If I made a donation to a journalist early in 2017, and he used it to buy bitcoin, which he sold at a tremendous profit at the end of the year, what is he obliged to do with that profit? The answer, of course, is whatever he wants. In another case, an individual might have earned a large sum from social media advertising, and in this case too she has no commitments to a supporters as to how money will be spent.

There are obvious reasons why people may want to avoid transparency. They may want to remain as low-budget freelancers, so they don't imagine having a large budget that will require discussion. Also,they may feel that donors won't want to contribute to someone who is on a shoestring budget and unlikely to have an impact. In the opposite way, an operation that is too successful might create the impression that a small donation won't make much difference. So either way, new media organizations and independent freelancers may feel that the less said the better. These may seem like compelling reasons, but they are really excuses for avoiding the responsibility of being accountable to supporters.

Although the values expressed in alternative media are for true, participatory democracy, the funding model is still based on social change through rugged individualism, or committees deciding matters in secret. They are operating as private businesses or corporations. 

These deficiencies should be obvious because everyone is aware of the many disasters in the governance of charities and NGOs. The better ones make an effort to explain how they spend their funds, but still some fail to control the exploitative behavior of their staff toward the intended recipients of their help.

I’ve looked at my favorite media sites and rarely found anything that would amount to a transparent declaration of budgets, goals, values, plans, and spending oversight. The best example I found was from Basta! Magazine in France. I’ve translated some excerpts from their “Why Support Basta!” page. The full details are available there. Below I have translated some of the key sections that explain the organization’s purpose, its funding sources, and its use of funds.

Who is Basta!? (See the English page here, which does not reflect the full content of the French language resources)

Basta! is an independent information source delivering social and environmental news. Basta! is recognized as “an online political and general press service” by the Joint Commission of Media Publications and Agencies. Comprised of a team of journalists and activists, Basta! contributes to giving visibility to ecological and social issues, citizen initiatives, and movements for solidarity and alternatives. The site has been operated since December 2008 by the organization called Alter-médias.

How are your donations used ?

Three quarters of the journal’s expenses go to the salaries and payroll deductions for our seven journalists. Your contributions therefore go to paying their salaries until they retire, at about age 70. Thanks to your support, they will continue to produce the investigations and reports that you read daily in Basta!

Clockwise from left side (%):

8.3 Risk provisions (rainy day fund)
0.3 Purchases
3.4 Honorary awards, payments for services (legal, translations, accounting)
7.5 Operating costs (rent, travel, postal, telecom)
2.5 Reporting expenses
78 Salaries (journalists, developers, graphic artists)

Annual budget:

Expenses: 350,997 euros
Revenue: 370,963 euros
Surplus : 19,966 euros

How are we financed ? Percentages and Euro amounts

Individual donations                                  43% (149,649)
Awards                                                           8% (29,366)
Public funds                                                12% (43,333)
Groups supporting online press               9% (31,573)
Foundations                                                26% (92,000)*

* Translator's note: The figures add up to only 98%, so they may contain some rounding errors. With the figures declared, however, readers are free to make the organization account for the mistake.

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