NOTE: This post originally published August 6, 2020. There are updates up top that relate to our current situation and updates throughout, especially just to refresh numbers. Still, the essentials of everything we said in August 2020 are still true. Fundraising is a part of our business model!
February 9, 2021 UPDATE:
Just like last year, we’d always planned to hold fundraisers in 2021. Our business model hasn’t changed, but, as we feared / predicted, the ad revenue flow has slowed to a trickle due to the pandemic and accompanying recession. In 2020, we weren’t selling big ad packages or much sponsored content (although shout out to the partners we did work with — we love you!), which means that unlike in 2020, when we still had checks coming in for 2019 ad sales, this year there are no such checks on the horizon.
So, while our $220,000 goal seems shocking, it’s not surprising. This is what our finances look like when we don’t have ad revenue coming in. $220,000 represents what we need to close the gap in our budget through July 2021, after accounting for anticipated A+ and other revenue. If it weren’t for A+ members, this goal would be higher.
We want to always keep Autostraddle free for everyone; , we know that not everyone can afford to support and we need our content to be accessible to the next person who needs us… but 99% of our readers still aren’t A+ members, the most sustainable way to make sure we stay free for others. Our A+ members are really special and truly important — even though they’re in the minority, you can see how many people they’re benefiting. If you aren’t a member, yet, will you join A+? No matter your reason for being here, or how much or how little you use Autostraddle, your support keeps us here as a community resource. A+ memberships start at just $4 a month!
Everything in this post is just as true as it was when it was published last August. Any updates are clearly noted, and most are there to update numbers to February 2021 realities. Thank you for anything and everything you’ve done to support us, and thank you, in advance, for anything you can do. Together, we’ve got this.
We’ve had this fundraiser penciled in since November In fact, holding 1-2 fundraisers a year has been our plan since the major budget changes we made after our 2019 campaign. It’s actually a plan many of you have endorsed over the years, usually withspecific suggestions like “you should do what NPR does!” And we are following what we like to call “Public Radio Rules” with this. We’re going until we hit our goal, because we have to.
Like so many ideas we had in 2019, 2020 challenged our ability to follow through on those goals and our comfort with the ethics of doing so. 2021 has already been a chaotic year for so many of us. We know that a lot of our readers aren’t in a position to support us this month, and that is completely okay.
But we’re also hoping that some of you can, and will do so knowing you’re subsidizing the site for others. So we’re plowing forward, because my friends, the publishing landscape is dire. 2020 was the worst year on record for newsroom layoffs. Hundreds of print and digital news publications folded, downsized and slashed thousands of jobs, including many independent media outlets we all relied upon for smart, honest writing.
Despite this, Autostraddle remains — so far — on the very short list of publications who’ve survived without layoffs or budget cuts. We’ve continued publishing relevant, vital work for you. We’ve continued to create the necessary uncompromising and feminist space for queerness where lesbian, bisexual and queer women and trans people of all genders, including nonbinary people and trans men, are centered. Here, it’s all about our community, and we’re not just relegated to a vertical or treated as a side topic on a site that centers straight people.
But why does our “business model” require that we interrupt our normally scheduled programming to ask for money every six months or so? Maybe you’re already an A+ member, or you buy our merch — so why are we still also having fundraising drives on top of having a membership program and a bustling store!? Didn’t we just have a fundraiser? (August seems a lifetime away, but still.) That’s what we’re here to talk about! First, some commonly asked questions we can help answer:
- Can’t you try making more money from advertising?
- Have you looked into becoming a nonprofit?
- How are you broke again already?
- Why don’t you just get investors?
Beyond that, what does it actually look like to build our business model around a reader-funded vision? We can explain!
- Our business model reflects our values
- Here’s how our sustainable sources of income break down
- Our whole community is sustained by people who give with the next person in mind
- What you can expect during this fundraiser
Can’t you try making more money from advertising?
Riese really spoke to this in This Business of Art — it’s a common misconception that any publication, let alone our special weirdo niche magazine for lesbians and bisexuals and queers, can survive on advertising dollars alone. Publishing has always relied on revenue from advertising as well as events and subscription/membership income. (Here’s a useful look at Buzzfeed’s revenue streams.)
Prior to 2019, ad revenue was generally abysmal due to the market we serve and our distance from the mainstream media world, which meant we’ve adapted over the years to never fully rely on advertising to pay our bills. Instead, we’ve had the privilege to focus on building our relationships with YOU first and foremost.
Because of that, other publications have had to make tough choices we’ve not been made to. For example: The Atlantic gained 90,000 new subscribers between March and May, but because of their primary reliance on events and ad revenue, they still had to cut 17% of their employees in May 2020.
While most publications plan for year-to-year growth in ad revenue, we are stalwart pessimists with a passion for caution. So we’d already presumed ad sales would be down 50% from 2019. It turned out that our ad sales for 2020 would fall 86% compared to 2019. On top of that, we’ve doubled our budget since 2018 due to pay increases, new hires, and necessities we finally stopped putting off, like tech support. Like it did for many other magazines and media companies, a PPP loan helped compensate for some of that loss. (Our loan was for around $90k, which makes it too small to show up in public databases.) We’ve also applied for a second wave of PPP funding, which we do qualify for, but the program is honestly a shitshow so there’s no guarantee we’ll get it. It also helped compensate for some of our budget increases, but not enough to erase the need for this fundraiser.
However, the publishing and news field as a whole is starting to catch onto the reader-supported business model that Autostraddle has prioritized since day one. In fact, in September of 2020, the Membership Puzzle Project (which seeks to help news outlets build reader-supported membership programs) found a permanent home with the Media Development Investment Fund. Basically, a month after this post was originally written, we saw an official and determined shift toward recognizing that membership programs are the future of independent media. Yes, Autostraddle knew this and we knew it early, and so do places like Mother Jones, who wrote about it in 2016. And, yes, they’re still here and reporting in 2021 because they understood the same things — advertising, while it can supplement our revenue, won’t save us or any other independent media. We have to support the media that’s important to us and our communities, that’s critical of existing power structures and norms, that centers the experiences of the most marginalized members of our queer community — or we’ll lose it.
That said —yes! We’d rather not do two fundraisers a year and would still like to be getting some money from corporations. Once this fundraiser is wrapped up and we have a little space to breathe, we are hoping that ad sales will gear back up as film/TV production gets back on track, and we will be trying to figure out if there is anything we can add to our toolbox to improve our fortunes in this area. We’ve been focused on improving rates and opportunities for our writers, but are definitely hoping to start investing in other sides of the business as well. Right now, ad sales is just one area of focus on a very long list of business priorities under Riese and Sarah’s job descriptions.
Have you looked into becoming a nonprofit?
We have, yes! Extensively! A nonprofit designation is essentially a tax status; there are a lot of 501(c) designations, but the (3) is the one that allows contributions to your organization to be tax-deductible to donors. Nonprofits (including churches) also get tax breaks. For many organizations, I’d say it’s absolutely appropriate, especially if you have a lot of overhead. Why not for us?
- We’re a virtual office with remote workers. We don’t own or rent physical property. This means on our end, the tax benefits are minimal — we might get some sales-tax free pens, a deal on software or cheaper postage. But 90% of our expenses (which is the percentage of our budget that goes towards paying queer human beings to work here) would remain unaltered.
- The primary tax benefit, then, is for our donors. However, 40% of our readers don’t live in the U.S. and, for U.S. residents, the standard deduction is $12,400 a calendar year, which means you’d have to donate over that amount to get a larger deduction, and according to results from our Money Survey, 83.6% of our readers donate less than $500 a year to non-profits. (If you are a U.S-based person who donates more than that to non-profits, we’re sorry that your gifts to Autostraddle aren’t tax-deductible and we thank you for your support!) So, it doesn’t make a difference to our taxes and it won’t matter much to most of yours.
- We’d be required to assemble a board of directors, and to hold (ideally in-person) meetings of that board. Volunteering on a nonprofit board of directors is a part-time job in and of itself (as is creating and having a board of directors); we’re always going to choose creating paid opportunities over volunteer.
- But what about grants? Honestly, grants are no easier to rely upon than ad sales. There’s no guarantee a group like ours would receive foundation or government funding. Private foundations are towers of wealth only required by law to disburse 5% of their assets each year, and their funding priorities can change at any time, just ask Bette Porter (and one reason why re-watching her plot line in the first season gives me nauseating flashbacks to my museum days). A foundation can give someone $50,000 one year and decide they don’t get that the next, or pull funding if they don’t agree with a nonprofit’s stance on an issue or approach. In fact, private foundations in the U.S. were pioneered by wealthy right-wing extremists (in many ways starting in my very own current city of residence, Pittsburgh, PA – check out Dark Money by Jane Mayer) because they provide both a tax shelter and a means to exert political influence. Finally, on top of that, wealthy funders can also re-brand as philanthropists, especially by funding arts causes. I mean, just take a look at who’s both infamous AND a funder of the arts from The Sacklers (of Purdue, makers of OxyContin) to the Waltons, of whom Alice Walton decided to just up and make her own art museum while Walmart has also been hit with a Federal Department of Justice lawsuit regarding their alleged complicity in the opioid crisis. It’s much more sustainable and ethical to focus on you, our community, and to rely on your support, especially because we know that we believe in so many of the same things.
There is one area where being a non-profit would help us: we often have “profits” at the end of the year that we keep in the bank for the next year, but the for-profit structure means our owners have to pay income tax on that profit, regardless of how much of their share they actually took. (Most years, this means we do pay out enough to cover those tax burdens.) At this point we don’t think that benefit outweighs the drawbacks, and we’re doing our best to mitigate the impact of taxes on profits by timing our fundraisers so that they are far enough away from the end of the year that we don’t wind up with surprise profits in December. (That’s why we’re fundraising early in the year in February!)This is all why, after nearly 12 long years, we’ve never switched to a nonprofit model, and why you can expect us to continue to not make that move. We’ve weighed our options and the pros and cons, our mission and our values, and are being strategic with our choice of United States tax status.
How are you broke again already??
No, we’re not broke! We’re planning ahead — and also, 2021 is already a year of extenuating circumstances. We know how much we need to cover funding gaps through July, and for a number of reasons including our editors wanting to know exactly what they have to work with when pursuing our vision and goals, AND the fact that we’ll start to see our costs out-matching our A+ revenue after the end of February, now is the best time for us to raise it.
Again, 99% of our readers are not members, and we would love to have you!
Why don’t you just get investors?
Perhaps our most common question from straight people is, “can’t you just ask some celesbians for a million dollars?” So, let’s talk about investors and venture capital.
In the mid-’10s, venture capitalists were stuffing publications like Mic, Fusion, Buzzfeed and Vice with funding, enabling them to offer unsustainable rates and prop up unsustainable business models and staffing structures. They were able to invest in ultimately doomed initiatives, like pivoting to video. None of that VC money ever came our way, because who gets venture capital has more to do with who you know than what you do. In 2019, VC investment in female founders hit an “all time high” — of 2.8%. Less than 10% of all venture capital goes to women, poc and LGBTQ founders. But our lack of access to VC capital actually isn’t a bad thing. VC often demands liquidation, first driving up value in order to sell the company for a profit, either through an IPO or on the secondary market. VCs expect most of their ventures to fail. A key component to venture capital is also close management of the company by the investors. When they’re looking to grow in order to sell, it’s a very different relationship than Autostraddle’s values-rooted approach.
Even outside of the VC space, a lot of the capital opportunities you hear about or have recommended to us are essentially long-term loans at low interest rates. If you’re a business owner who needs to stock a kitchen for a restaurant or manufacture jeans for a clothing store, loans make sense. The money you borrow becomes a product you can sell, thus enabling you to repay the loan. In fact, on two occasions, we’ve taken small Paypal loans to print merchandise for the holiday season, both of which we were able to repay within a month of receiving it.
But we haven’t and never will take on debt we’re not immediately able to repay. The realities of our industry and the low overhead of our business specifically, coupled with our own precarious personal financial situations, make loans just not worth it.
We are open to outside investment, we just haven’t had the right deal come our way. A business like ours requires a specific type of investor or buyer — one who believes in the cause even more than they anticipate profiting wildly from it and who knows how to sell our market to advertisers. Otherwise, putting more money into writers and staff doesn’t automatically create more web traffic or more revenue. Our traffic was actually at its highest in 2014, when full-timers were still very underpaid “independent contractors,” our rates for team writers were one-third of what they are now, and we couldn’t pay outside freelancers at all.
So what does it really look like to design our business model with fundraising in mind? How does it work, why is it sustainable, and what can you expect as far as what it means for you to support us? We’ll explain!
Our business model reflects our values!
Speaking of 2014 — in terms of savvy, to me, the Autostraddle team coming up with the A+ program in 2014 is proof positive that this site is around because of downright pre-cognitive levels of “business” acumen. The only thing they could’ve used at the time was more resources to put behind their idea.
That’s because YOU give us the freedom and flexibility that can only be achieved by an independent publication. The future is more uncertain than ever, but doing these fundraising campaigns and refusing to acquire debt enables us to never be forced out of desperation to accept a buyout, partnership or investment offer that doesn’t align with our values and policies — which are usually at odds with capitalism. Like these:
- As a company, we’re not making efforts to maximize efficiency at the cost of our people. We provide flexible hours and unlimited leave for employees and freelancers who need it. We can do this because we are not focused on profits, we’re focused on sustainability and growth.
- We have never, in 12 years, lowered anybody’s salary or lowered rates for freelancers. Even when the amount of money our people expected to make here was very small, we knew our freelancers and staff depended on it for something, and we didn’t want to take that away.
- We’re doing our best to be a resource for our writers, to offer coaching and career growth and a chance for people to explore and develop their talents. If we raise more money than we need, it just means more support for writers and thinkers and initiatives that we value.
- Our goal is to earn enough revenue to be sustainable, not wildly wealthy, and for our community to have the resources it needs, not just a few individuals. When we have more money, we’ve historically raised our costs because we’ve used our additional resources to invest more in our people or infrastructure.
- Because of your support, we can publish pieces that we KNOW have a lot of inherent value, whether or not they’re “marketable” or drive traffic from outside sources.
- We’re doubling down on our commitment to fight inequity, to dismantle white supremacy within and without the workplace, and to do everything we can as a publication to build a better world.
- We don’t have a set price for access. While we provide a few pieces of bonus content a month to our A+ members, we’re not erecting a paywall. Fundraisers as a part of our business model go hand in hand with refusing to operate from a place of exclusion. Autostraddle wasn’t started purely as a money-making venture (and it was touch and go for some time!), it was founded to have a community around LGBTQ writers and writing — and that remains true.
Our team has some vital, transformative visions for Autostraddle. And one thing we can always say with confidence is that Autostraddle values and supports our writers and artists, and works to be a community and resource for YOU.
This fact informs our business model — a lot. We care about the reader experience. We work with advertising partners we like, avoid invasive ads and don’t clutter our footers with degrading clickbait. Life-changing stories and information are what Autostraddle’s known for. We’re aware of our responsibility in our LGBTQ community, and it’s a role we take seriously. When we mess up, we look to be accountable and to take steps toward progress. As a supporter, you might never know when your dollars made it possible for someone to access Autostraddle at one of the most vulnerable points in their life — but they have.
Our size and independence has many drawbacks, but it also enables us to act nimbly without needing approval from a board. In June, we had no ad sales that required specific traffic goals, so we were able to make the group decision to pause all content unrelated to the uprising for Black lives, despite the traffic hit we knew we’d take. We were able to take the time to participate in activism and mutual aid outside of the office and to create resources that earned unprecedented reach, like “How to Never Call the Cops Again: A Guide with a Few Alternatives to Calling Police.” These as well as bail fund lists, abolitionist and other syllabi, and personal essays were actionable and powerful resources.
You can see some of the “greatest hits” of everything we’ve done since July 2019 in terms of our editorial and internal goals on our The Receipts page.
Because of reader support even during a global pandemic (thank you!!!), our team of talented writers and creators were able to do our darndest to get you necessary coverage and content as the pandemic spread. This continues every day.
The Immediate Need
How did we make it through those first nine years without needing annual fundraisers? Well, one reason is that we were all working for salaries and rates FAR below industry standard, sometimes for no salaries or rates at all, and relying on our full-time staff to work excessive, exhausting schedules.
This is a pretty normal phase for a young organization to go through — especially one that began as a group of friends wanting to make a thing — but it was never sustainable.
In July 2019, we asked you: do you believe we can do more? Do you believe we can raise our pay and increase our editorial budget, hire more people and bring you better work? And you said yes by funding Autostraddle! And as a result:
- Our budget has about doubled since July of 2019, both because of wage and rate increases and new hires. The far-above-normal ad revenue from 2019 enabled us to eventually hire two new full-time employees and four new part-time contractors. Every human we pay is LGBTQ — even our accountant, lawyers and web developers.
- Our full-time employees still work far below industry standard, though we can now pay our bills; we still work remotely and we keep our costs down where we can. Even with these provisions, being ethical has a cost that you allowed us to take on. We grew our budget so that our team could be treated better, so tasks could be shared among more employees, and so we could hire a more diverse team of writers — and we hope that it shows in our work.
Our budget for humans greatly increased from before July 2019. Hiring more people has impacted the size of our budget, but we’re hopeful your investment will pay out huge dividends in terms of what we can do for you!
Our budget has expanded, and it’s growing with the scope of voices we are focused on centering on our site, increased rates and wages, and the ability to give our senior team benefits like healthcare. We’ve been operating with a bigger budget since the July 2019 fundraiser, and we think the work this past year speaks for itself.
Here’s how our sustainable sources of income break down
Autostraddle is sustained by YOU.
We’ve already talked about advertising, but let’s break down how all our revenue streams add up to sustainability:
My job title is A+ & Fundraising Director, and a goal for my role is to take A+ from about 50% of my time to about 90% of my time. I really want to move us to being mostly sustained by our membership program, and to fundraise only for special projects. This might be a multi-year plan, this might never be fully achieved, but it remains, nevertheless, a goal. The facts:
- About 30% of our revenue in 2019 came from A+ membership, and that’s not fucking bad. 2019 was unique in many other ways — 2019 also included our biggest fundraiser ever, our highest ad sales ever, and our biggest camp ever. So, I’m also gonna look at 2018, where A+ members made up about 38% of annual revenue. That’s a lot! (Keep in mind that revenue is different than profits — camp revenue was a huge chunk of our revenue, but it was also an enormous chunk of our expenses.)
But there’s hope! 60% of our most recent survey takers indicated they’d not yet financially supported us through a fundraiser or membership. Some somewhat confusing/unreliable info from Google Analytics suggests only 1% of our monthly readership has given or joined, so I believe in my heart of hearts that you’re out there! We also know from our site analytics that 99% of our readers are not yet A+ members! 99%!
We know that a portion of that 60% of folks who took the survey and who haven’t been able to financially support simply can’t afford it. (Which is fine! We’re still free for you, and will stay that way. On purpose!) Our current business model doesn’t anticipate ever surviving solely on A+ membership, but we’re aiming to get as close to that possibility as we can — and I believe we’re closer than ever.
So, it’s not that A+ Membership isn’t working. It is! Just not…as quickly as 2020 and 2021 were able to do their damage and not for a company that refuses to react to that damage with layoffs and rate cuts. In fact, A+ members are one of the main reasons we survived 2020. Between members and everyone who supported our fundraisers, we made it through the year. AND we celebrated the arrival of about 800 new members during April of 2020 and 500 in August, AND we grew overall by about 1,800 members in 2020! This is amazing! We grew to over 4,000 members for the first time in Autostraddle’s history in 2020, and then rocketed past 5,000 to the point where 6,000 is honestly on the horizon for us. So, with our current budget, what’s the magic number?
Or, a more achievable ask might be: How many new members and at what levels do we need in order to fully achieve our February 2021 fundraising goal with new A+ Memberships, alone?
The answer: roughly 3,500 more members, spread across all levels. We have about 5,600. We’re looking to grow, then, to 9,200 A+ Members, with growth spread out across the different tiers of membership. Every new membership counts toward our fundraising goal. We also introduced Platinum Level, for those who want a hella cute box of gay goodies with your membership. Now, realistically, we’re going to see a combination of new members and one-time gifts that (we hope!) get us to our goal. This number is an example so that you can see how this maps out in terms of individual people.
Here’s a chart that breaks it all down. Plus, the not-so-secret bonus of this all is that if you sign up to be a member and stay a member, that means we’ill have to to fundraise less in the future. If you’re a monthly member, your future monthly contributions will make a difference for us beyond July and help us throughout 2021, and if you sign up as an annual member, that only makes next year all the better!
Affiliate income is great and we do rely on it! The rates on our sex toys are especially good, and we have so many affiliates besides just Amazon (we’re excited to have been working more and more with Bookshop over the past year!). But, to give you an idea of where it fits in, our estimated A+ income for next year is 20 times more than what we estimate getting through affiliate income, so… we’d need to get a LOT more action through affiliate links to have them be a primary source of revenue. Sites like Vox and New York Magazine have entire teams dedicated to pumping out daily shopping-related content and accumulate millions of dollars of affiliate income every year, which we don’t have the manpower to replicate. (Plus you’d probably hate the clutter and product-placement feeling.) They also have the leverage, based on size, to negotiate better deals with affiliate partners than we can.
We used to make a lot through Amazon affiliate links —usually not even from the book or boyshorts you linked to from Autostraddle, but the mattress or the chainsaw or the stroller or paper towels you bought later that browsing session. Amazon has slashed its affiliate rates over the years, but our biggest dip in affiliate revenue from Amazon happened in 2020 because, in response to your feedback, we stopped linking to Amazon as often, which means less and less of your purchases were happening on AS-initiated browsing sessions. Revenue from the stores we linked to instead did not even approach compensating for this gap.
Similarly, merch sales are awesome! However, they make up a smaller percentage of our revenue. That being said, have you seen the new designs?
Our whole community is sustained by people who give with the next person in mind.
Our supporters are the people making sure this site is here for everyone, and underwriting our costs for those who cannot afford to support right now. Thank you for looking out for the next person.
We’ve always been a little bit different at Autostraddle, and I don’t think that continuing to be free is naive — I think it’s an act of radical trust that is necessary if we really believe in equitable access.
We’re supported by everyone pitching in! The majority of gifts to Autostraddle aren’t huge. We rely on everyone who can contribute, in a range of amounts, to help us!
In fact, in 2020, the average total amount a person contributed to Autostraddle (outside of A+) for the year was about $68. This isn’t the average gift, just to clarify. This is the average total contribution per person. So, if you gave to both fundraisers, as many people did, this number includes both gifts and counts them as your total contribution for the year. So, on average, if you were someone who supported Autostraddle fundraisers in 2020, you gave $68 for the year. Which is significant (thank you!!!) and also relatively accessible. That’s how we made it. Just thousands of people giving what they could — some more, some less —and each and every one of them making a difference.
That’s the power of our community, of passing the hat, of chipping in. I hope that if you believe in us and share our values and want to see queerness and independent queer media in our future, and if you want to fully embrace our vision for Autostraddle, that you will throw in a few bucks or sign up for A+ if you can. And, again, if you can, maybe throw a few bucks in to support the next person, too.
What can you expect during this fundraiser?
- Perks!!! If you give, you’ll have the option to get something like the coolest stickers we’ve ever made or our new favorite tote! See the perks here.
- During the fundraiser, we’ll send emails and have some pop-ups and posts about it. We know pop-ups are annoying, and we’re very conservative about when we use them. But they do work. Thank you for your patience with them!
- We’re going to have some special content and events for A+ members. (More soon!) Join A+ to join in!
- The beloved tracker is now a part of our campaign page.
- You can expect endless gratitude from us!!! And after that? More of the work you’ve told us you want to see!
At the end of the day, we’ve made this site reader-supported because it’s the most reliable, most sustainable, most ethical way for us to survive and thrive and do this work. We’ve always been honored and surprised and delighted to be able to count on you and this community. So, it’s with a great deal of hope and plans for the future and in service to you, our readers, that we’re launching our fundraiser today. Thank you for making it even possible for us to be here, now, taking this 12-year experiment into its next phase.
With love and hope,
Editors: Kamala Puligandla, Rachel Kincaid, Riese Bernard