Lessons from 10 years of running a nonprofit environmental news organization

10 years ago this month, I founded with a mission to deliver news and inspiration from Nature’s frontline. The non-profit would build on the foundation established by, the website I created in 1999.

When I started, I had no prior experience running a non-profit, no fundraising know-how, and few connections to foundations or philanthropists. 

But I knew that if I wanted to scale Mongabay’s impact, I needed a different model to build a team and expand into new geographies and languages. 

Within a few months of incorporating the non-profit, I secured my first grant which seeded Mongabay-Indonesia, an Indonesian-language environmental news service that aimed to increase accountability and transparency around natural resources management in the world’s most biologically and culturally diverse archipelago.

Mongabay-Indonesia quickly became the most-read environmental service in Indonesia and laid the groundwork for Mongabay’s global expansion.

Mongabay has since added Spanish and Portuguese bureaus serving audiences in Latin America, English and Hindi bureaus serving South Asia, and a French bureau serving West and Central Africa. We’re now approaching 70 full-time staff in nearly 20 countries.

We have also built out a network of about 800 contributing journalists in more than 80 countries, which has enabled us to continue frontline reporting throughout the pandemic without much cross-border travel.

Today we’re producing more than 5,000 stories, hundreds of videos, and scores of podcast episodes across multiple languages every year. We’re attracting more than 8 million people a month to our web sites and reaching millions more through syndication with other outlets.

Mongabay has thus progressed much farther than I ever would have fathomed back in 2011 when the team consisted of me and writer Jeremy Hance.

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot. Here are a few lessons from my journey.

  • Running a non-profit organization is hard, but it can be extremely fulfilling. For all the paperwork and the never-ending need to fundraise, operating Mongabay as a nonprofit has strengthened my sense of purpose by enabling me to scale beyond what I ever could have done pursuing my passion by myself. For example, Mongabay stories have prompted official investigations into illegal deforestation, helped facilitate the spread of innovative ideas, and exposed corruption. 
  • Persistence pays off. That applies to both fundraising and doing the work. On the fundraising front, it may take years of followup to secure a grant or donation after an initial conversation. On the content side, Mongabay’s consistency in covering conservation news built the foundation that underpinned our eventual success.
  • Play to your strengths and prioritize what is working for you. Operating in an extremely resource-constrained environment forces prioritization. That means saying “no” when an opportunity isn’t aligned with your mission or what you do well. It means doubling down on what delivers the best results.
  • Know your goals and measure progress against them. Data is important both in Mongabay’s journalism and its decision-making. If the data shows us that something’s not working or meeting expectations, we make adjustments.
  • Communicating successes–and failures–is important. Communicating successes has historically been a weak point for Mongabay: We’re so focused on the work that we tend not to talk much about our accomplishments. That being said, we’ve learned that our supporters love hearing about our successes–much more than we thought. They also appreciate frank disclosures about what hasn’t worked and what we’ve learned. 
  • Hiring and retaining great people is critical to success. While it may seem plainly obvious, finding people who are motivated to do excellent work greatly accelerates impact. Knowledge and skills are important, but a passion for the work is essential. 

By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.