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Over the past year, we've started doing a number of community engagement and crowdsourcing projects, beginning with WMATA. Right now, we are doing two: An effort to gather and compare rider on-time performance through Metro's MyTripTime tool, and an effort to get rider feedback to improve Metro unlimited passes.

Some readers and people on Twitter have been asking questions about these, especially the MyTripTime project, so we wanted to give you more information. As GGWash budgets and plans for 2018, we want to share the other revenue-generating activities we're testing out to ensure that GGWash remains sustainable into the future.

Current funding picture

Greater Greater Washington has grown a lot in the past two years. We went from having one part-time editor to a staff of four, including a full-time editor and people who have launched our advocacy efforts and transformed the organization into a functioning nonprofit.

With this additional capacity we've influenced the conversation about housing and transportation policy in the Washington region. We've engaged 5,590 supporters through digital advocacy efforts, and we published more than 800 posts so far this year, most of which were written by volunteer contributors. In 2017, it will end up costing about $380,000 to keep all this going.

Right now, foundation grants make up the majority of our funding, but we can't count on that into the future. Individual donations from readers and contributors like you are an important source of support, but not enough to cover our costs. So, we're experimenting with other revenue-generation activities to create sustainable income sources to support the organization.

Here's what we're experimenting with in the last months of 2017 into 2018.

Crowdsourcing and public engagement projects

In consultation with the Board of Directors, we've decided to experiment with projects that engage our community in providing information and feedback to organizations, such as ones that are planning or building infrastructure projects.

GGWash readers and contributors are well-educated, active citizens who want to see smarter government and private efforts that make the Washington region work better. Many of these organizations recognize that the GGWash community is a valuable source for information that could improve their projects and processes. GGWash can help funnel useful information from our readers to them, resulting in better urbanism for Washington.

Our first partner in this effort was WMATA. They recognize that they can improve their communication and engagement with riders and advocates. They have systems for working with riders, but also recognize that partner organizations can try innovative other ways to reach out to riders. Therefore, they reached out to us.

Last year, we launched MetroGreater, a crowdsourced contest to pick small projects Metro could implement quickly which would help riders. WMATA sponsored this project. This year, we agreed to crowdsource ideas for better Metro passes and engage riders with the MyTripTime tool.

Feedback on the MyTripTime project

We've gotten some questions and criticisms about this latest project, particularly around the MyTripTime piece, which I want to address. Our intention in testing out these community engagement contracts was to crowdsource reader wisdom on a topic which contracting entities will use in making a decision about a process or project. As commenters and tweeters pointed out, the posts about MyTripTime seemed promotional and we understand how readers could perceive them as sponsored content. That was not our intention.

The intent was to encourage riders to engage with the MyTripTime tool and collect their thoughts about what could be improved. Metro would benefit because we'd help spread the word about MyTripTime, which is a useful tool. We would build a database of some riders' MyTripTime data which would allow us to do our own independent analyses of customer on-time performance. However, the project evolved a bit from its initial conception, and our messaging didn't convey this intention as we meant it.

Ultimately, GGWash's core mission is to be part of the solution to problems. We see partnering with entities like WMATA as one way to both further our mission and generate sustainable revenue sources. So, we're going to move forward with this project, and seek other community engagement contracts in the future. But moving forward, we'll keep these projects about crowdsourcing useful information, not about promoting products or services.

We recognize that WMATA faces some serious challenges. Contributors and Editorial Board members will continue to write about those, cheerleading and criticizing their performance and decision-making as appropriate.

We'd like to work with other organizations on crowdsourcing and public engagement in 2018. We are committed to working with entities that reflect GGWash's mission. These projects may integrate blog and non-blog components. Partners will not be able to write or make editorial decisions about what we post, and our volunteer Editorial Board will approve any posts before they run.

We want the blog to remain a space where contributors and commenters can lift up model urbanism projects and policies and criticize and report on efforts that undermine our urbanism vision for the region. Partners we contract with aren't exempt from this commitment.

Other revenue sources we're testing out: advertising and events

The vast majority of media sites nowadays incorporate advertisements as a revenue stream. After much research and consultation with peer sites who have integrated ads effectively, and hearing reader thoughts via the reader survey, we are going to begin experimenting with advertisements.

A few core principles will guide our pilot advertising program:

  1. Make ads fit with the design of the site, keeping them as unobtrusive as possible.
  2. Prioritize advertisement partners that fit with the ethos and values of GGWash. We aren't trying algorithmically selected ads in this pilot.
  3. Ensure a firewall between business decisions (Managing Director and the Board of Directors) and editorial decisions (Editorial Board and Lead Editor).

We'll do a pilot launch (likely in late 2017), analyze performance, and determine a long-term advertising program strategy.

We're also exploring hosting events that are more programmatic and educational in nature that delve deeper into some of the issues we feature on the blog. These would be partly educational, partly social, and generate income through sponsorships and ticket revenue.

Our commitment

For nearly a decade, the GGWash community has coalesced around the blog because it serves as a reputable space for important information and analysis about issues affecting the growth and development of our region. It is a powerful platform for sharing ideas, spreading information, and offering an opportunity for people to become part of a community that builds consensus around preserving and improving the community amenities that make our area a desirable place to live, work, and play.

Staff, the board of directors, the editorial board, and our other volunteers are committed to ensuring that the blog continues to be a space for thoughtful, productive dialogue about quality of life investments for all our region’s residents. Partnering with the entities who plan and implement the infrastructure we discuss on the blog doesn't undermine that commitment.

As we've done in the past, we'll publish a post early next year sharing our budget for 2018 as well as an (unaudited) financial overview for 2017.

Sarah Guidi was Greater Greater Washington's Managing Director from 2015 to 2018. She now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her family.