Over $36,000 in 36 hours: Behind the CT Mirror’s hallmark fundraiser
Written by: Katie Hawkins-Gaar
Each year, as the Connecticut legislative session comes to a close, The Connecticut Mirror kicks off one of its biggest annual fundraisers: The Gavel Give.
The Gavel Give is a two-day, or roughly 36-hour-long, fundraising event that coincides with the end of the state’s legislative session. During even-numbered years, the state legislature is in session from February to May. On odd-numbered years, when the state budget is completed, the session lasts from January to June.
Although the timing of The Gavel Give changes slightly each year, the concept stays the same. The CT Mirror, with a 20-person staff dedicated to reporting on public policy, government and politics, uses the opportunity to remind readers about the value of their work and asks them to support future reporting.
The nonprofit newsroom first introduced the Gavel Give in 2021. Their goal was to raise $30,000; by the end of the campaign, they’d raised $32,339. This year, CT Mirror increased their goal to $36,000. By the end of their fundraiser, they’d amassed $39,186 in donations.
“I’m kind of amazed,” said Kyle Constable, CT Mirror’s Director of Membership and Digital Innovation, who’s responsible for running the annual campaign. “I’m really proud of what we’ve created.”
Abbey Gingras, who leads the consulting team at the News Revenue Hub and has worked directly with Constable and the CT Mirror staff, is also impressed with what they’ve accomplished.
“I love working with them,” Gingras said. “They are very passionate about the work that they do and they have a really keen sense of what makes them unique and different from their competitors in the Connecticut media space.”
Know your niche
Knowing what makes individual newsrooms stand out is key to securing audience support, explained Gingras.
“A lot of newsrooms are producing really high-quality journalism, but they don’t necessarily know what is their niche in the news market—what makes them different,” she said. Even when newsrooms do know what makes them stand out, “they may not always be good about expressing it to readers,” Gingras added.
This is where CT Mirror shines. The last few days of the Connecticut legislative session marks a time when the newsroom is publishing more stories than ever and has more visitors than usual. Constable said it only makes sense to “channel the natural energy” that comes from the annual event and turn it into a fundraising opportunity.
“I think that’s part of why The Gavel Give is such a big success,” said Gingras. “They understand inherently that readers come to them for their coverage of Connecticut’s legislative session, and so doing a campaign around that makes so much sense, because readers go to them for that coverage.”
You don’t have to overthink it. Just go where your readers are and build something around the natural momentum.Kyle Constable, CT Mirror’s Director of Membership and Digital Innovation
Constable said that most newsrooms can find campaign opportunities based on their unique coverage.
“You know what your big moments are in the year,” he offered. “You don’t have to overthink it. Just go where your readers are and build something around the natural momentum.”
“The more you can create the feeling that this is an event, the more successful it’s going to be.”
Make it an event
Constable and the CT Mirror staff treat The Gavel Give like a notable happening, one that’s met with excitement and urgency. This year, a few days before the campaign, they mailed a countdown postcard—a tangible reminder—to their readers. Forty-eight hours prior to the fundraiser kickoff, they sent a reminder email, followed by another email 24 hours ahead of the campaign.
Then, throughout the two days of The Gavel Give, the CT Mirror staff sent eight fundraising emails, including appeals from reporters and editors, and updates on campaign progress. They also let readers know that all Gavel Give donations would be triple matched by an anonymous donor, something that added to the urgency of the event.
“It’s not that you can’t send too many emails; you can but you can send a lot more emails than you think you could before you’ve sent too many emails,” Constable said, chuckling. “That’s what we’ve learned just by virtue of working with the Hub.”
Constable shared that, at the end of their 2022 Gavel Give campaign, a little under 100 readers unsubscribed from their mailing list. “Do we hate to see them go? Of course,” he explained. “But if a hundred people off the email list means $40,000 in new revenue, I’m going to take that trade off every day of the week.”
Don't be afraid to take a risk with the campaign or try something new, and don't be afraid to be a little bit more aggressive when it comes to fundraising.Abbey Gingras, News Revenue Hub's Director of Consulting Services
(Constable also shared that, this year, he created a specific opt-out option for readers who didn’t want to get Gavel Give emails but wanted to stay on the CT Mirror’s email list. Around 100 readers took advantage of that option.)
“The experimentation and aggressiveness of The Gavel Give is something I would really encourage newsrooms to just take a look at and try,” said Gingras. “Don’t be afraid to take a risk with the campaign or try something new, and don’t be afraid to be a little bit more aggressive when it comes to fundraising.”
The Gavel Give campaign runs for just two days, but planning takes much longer than that. Months in advance, Constable and Gingras worked together to test and update CT Mirror’s newsletter sign-up calls to action on their website. This ensured they maximized the number of newsletter subscribers they could obtain—and increased the number of people they could ask for donations by campaign time.
Constable does as much work ahead of time as possible, including designing, writing and scheduling countdown emails, and creating campaign images that can be easily replicated and updated.
“At the end of the day, The Gavel Give campaign is a ridiculous amount of emails in a very short amount of time, and to create each and every one of those emails takes time,” Constable said. “But if you can find ways to increase efficiency, then you’ve got a winner.”
Both years, CT Mirror sent out a series of fundraising progress emails marking the campaign’s progress—0% at the start of the campaign, 50% halfway to their goal, 75%, and 100% once they’d raised their goal amount. Each of those emails included a graphic showing the fundraising progress, something Constable created in the online graphic design tool Canva. Each of those emails—including the 100% email, which, this year, netted roughly another $1,000—brought in additional donations from readers.
The planning doesn’t stop there. Constable and the CT Mirror team always take time after a campaign like Gavel Give to reflect on how the fundraiser went, and what they could improve next time.
“A lot of times, newsrooms just get through a project and immediately turn to the next project,” shared Gingras. “But I think it’s really important after a big project like this to take a pause and look at what worked and what didn’t. How did this feel workload-wise? What numbers did we see from our email list? Did we hit our revenue goal or not? Where might we be able to do something different next year?”
Without the documentation from retrospective meetings, Gingras added, newsroom staffers are forced to rely on their memories, which, a year later, might not be accurate. She appreciates that Constable and the CT Mirror staff take time to reflect on their wins and areas for improvement.
After all, she said, “That’s only going to help them when they do Gavel Give again in 2023.”