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Since 1999, the Austin American-Statesman’s Season for Caring program has been raising money the old-fashioned way: Compelling stories distributed as widely as possible. Its Season for Caring is a bright spot among darker stories, and it shows the other side of the communities Austin’s only newspaper covers. Combined with great images from staff photographers, the program has raised millions of dollars since it launched. Here’s how:
Step 1: Identify the nonprofits that can help you find a great family.
The whole project kicks off in July, when Season for Caring editor Nicole Villalpando extends invitations to previously vetted agencies to nominate clients for the program. Agency contacts are required to fill out forms, attend meetings and answer questions with short notice.
“We are looking for agencies that are fiscally responsible, have a good reputation in town, will be accountable to the featured family and also accountable to the Statesman,” Villalpando says.
Step 2: Find the stories.
Once nomination forms have been received, Villalpando reads them all herself, and then with an eight-person committee of Statesman employees. The readers are looking for a mix of stories that illustrate the varying needs of all Central Texans. Twelve applicants are chosen to be assigned to a reporter, photographer and videographer and have their story told in Statesman.
“I’m looking for stories that tug at the heart strings.” Villalpando says. “I also have to do social media background checks. We want people who are mature adults; who are endearing.”
Step 3: Write the stories.
Once the families are assigned, agencies are notified of their selection by the first of October. From then until the stories are published the Sunday after Thanksgiving, reporters meet with the families and work to tell their stories, which are usually different than the reporters’ typical work.
“From the point of view of somebody who has written indirectly about people in need for year, the first time I talked to someone who benefits from a nonprofit, it was eye-opening,” says reporter Michael Barnes.
Working on Season for Caring stories opened Barnes up to writing stories of people transitioning out of homelessness in his work as the Statesman’s society columnist, where such stories are not ordinarily told.
Step 4: Get the stories out there.
By the time the Season for Caring stories have launched, about 40 people in varying departments at the Statesman have had hands in the project. The families’ stories run in print and on the website, and are heavily promoted through social media and other marketing.
“I think that it’s not easy for the families to share these personal struggles,” reporter Nancy Flores says. “When I hear them, it’s basically trying to be as sensitive as possible to their experiences and understanding that even their own circle of family and friends may not know they’re in this situation.
5. Make the ask
Along with the stories, the project requests for donations through Austin Community Foundation, where the fund for the project is held. Last year, Season for Caring raised $713,000, bringing the total since the program began in 1999 to $9 million. The 2015 campaign has raised $118,859.91 as of Dec. 9.
“We constantly tell people, it’s not like winning the lottery,” Villalpando says. “It’s not take this cash amount and divide it by 12. We want this to be a program where its teach a man to fish, not just here’s your fish.”
Agencies are given money to first meet the needs of the families featured in the Statesman, but excess funds are put into a fund to help other families that the agency serves as well. Villalpando estimates that around 100 other families per agency are helped through Season for Caring. Funds have been used by Communities in Schools to pay for graduation gowns so students can walk the stage, Any Baby Can to cover funeral costs of a lost child, or clearing medical debt with doctors and hospitals, which Villalpando says is a need for many families.
“There’s no way we could keep it up year round; people would stop listening,” says Villalpando. “There’s something about the holiday season, no matter what religion you are, its been ingrained that this is when you give.”