Over the past four years, Sahan Journal has grown from a staff of one (founder Mukhtar M. Ibrahim) to a 19-person organization. This latest staff photo was taken on May 10, 2023. Credit: Nicole Neri | Sahan Journal

A year ago, I participated in a panel at an online journalism symposium in Austin, Texas. The big question: With the decline of newspapers and local news coverage, how could a new generation of nonprofit news organizations attract sizable investments and plan for a successful future? 

Sahan Journal attends a lot of these conferences. They’re a chance to learn from other newsrooms and represent Minnesota in the national news conversation. 

That said, something that I heard at this conference lit a spark—but let me get to that in a second. 

During the panel, journalists and philanthropists on stage shared their organizations’ current funding goals. The president and CEO of the Houston Endowment said her foundation, along with other funders, was pooling $20 million to launch a nonprofit organization in Houston. The CEO of The Baltimore Banner said its founding backer planned to raise $50 million. The leader of the Chicago Sun-Times said the nonprofit newspaper had raised $61 million in philanthropic support, a historic sum for philanthropy dedicated to local news.

Evan Smith, the panel’s moderator and the former CEO of The Texas Tribune, summarized what he’d heard from my co-panelists. And then he turned to me.

“So, Mukhtar,” he said, “I’m looking at the people up on this panel. He’s got $50 million at least. She’s got a mere $20 million. The commitment I understood from your piece was $61 million?”—and he pointed here to the CEO of the Chicago Sun-Times.

“What do you have?” Evan asked me.

At that point, I was still trying to process what I’d just heard. Was it even possible to raise $60 million!?

I said Sahan Journal would probably need $10 million. It was an arbitrary number, something that just popped into my head. Was I dreaming big? Why did I say $10 million and not $100 million?

“You have set a relatively low bar, a curb you can step over—$10 million,” Evan said. “I’m sure there’s $10 million in this room.”

News flash: No one in the room wrote a check for Sahan Journal that morning.

But I left Austin feeling more emboldened and energized than ever. Early in my campaign to raise funds for Sahan Journal, I’d accepted that Sahan Journal, and the concept of a Black-led nonprofit news organization, may not be any foundation’s first priority.

On my way home, however, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why wouldn’t a nonprofit news organization dedicated to providing communities of color with high-quality, relevant journalism secure $10 million in grants? If you believe, as I do, that inclusive local news can lead us on a path to a more equitable Minnesota… isn’t that worth $10 million? 

And so we’ve come to the headline news in this note: I am thrilled to share that this month, Sahan Journal is taking the first step toward its growth campaign goal of raising $10 million. And it’s a significant huge step. 

GHR Foundation, one of Minnesota’s leading philanthropic organizations, has awarded Sahan Journal $1.5 million over three years to support our mission of advancing racial equity as an entrepreneurial nonprofit that covers communities of color. This is the largest grant Sahan has ever received. And it represents a step forward in our work to demonstrate the value that nonprofit journalism can play in Minnesota, and across the country.

A global funder rooted in Minneapolis, GHR has a long history of supporting access to quality education in the Twin Cities through Catholic schools. In the wake of the compounding crises of 2020, spurred especially by the police murder of George Floyd, the foundation deepened its local commitment with an explicit focus on racial equity.

Over the past four years, Sahan Journal has grown from a staff of one (me) to a 19-person organization. Our newsroom—with staffers who are Asian, Latino, Black, and Oglala Lakota–reflects the diverse communities that will help create a more equitable future for Minnesota. We produce news on our website, on social media, in text messages, in newsletters, and with major news partners like Minnesota Public Radio News and the Star Tribune. And, yes, we cover the news on TikTok. 

This transformative grant from GHR support will allow Sahan Journal to keep doing this work, enabling us to dream big, build a more sustainable business model, and continue creating a more inclusive and equitable journalism landscape.

GHR’s investment would not have been possible without Kevin Bennett, senior program officer and lead for GHR’s Twin Cities Racial Equity initiative. Kevin oversees a focused grantmaking approach at the foundation and provides strategic direction and engagement to community partnerships that address racial wealth and opportunity gaps.

Kevin Bennett, senior program officer and lead for GHR Foundation’s Twin Cities Racial Equity initiative, celebrates with graduates of St. Thomas University’s Community Entrepreneur Program. Credit: Photo courtesy of Liam James Doyle and GHR Foundation

“It’s been amazing to walk alongside Sahan Journal as it has grown in size and scale – this grant will strengthen Sahan’s platform and ensure that diverse representation in news media is a force-multiplier for change. Their news stories – centering on immigrant and communities of color – are real, they’re relevant, and also reflect the future of Minnesotans,” said Kevin. 

He added, “At GHR we believe in partnering boldly as we invest in BIPOC entrepreneurs and small business organizations and founder and CEO Mukhtar Ibrahim’s leadership has had tremendous impact on Sahan’s ability to generate and sustain revenue streams. We are honored to invest in Sahan Journal to unleash their limitless potential for good.”

From the moment I met Kevin in the fall of 2022, I sensed his passion for doing things differently. He shared GHR’s appetite for taking risks on organizations that he believed could make a bigger impact on societal issues. This philosophy aligned perfectly with my renewed sense that we need to think differently about philanthropy and racial equity.

Foundations are typically risk-averse when it comes to investing at a bigger level in nonprofits that serve communities of color or are dedicated to advancing racial equity. A new report by Minnesota’s Black Collective Foundation found that local foundations in the state gave just 3% of their funding in 2020 to racial equity initiatives. National funders were only slightly better, giving 6% of their funding to similar programs.

Emboldened by GHR’s values, Kevin sees his role in philanthropy very differently and has seized the opportunity for GHR to lead that change. Kevin told me at our second meeting that he didn’t need me to sell him my idea. As a reader and observer of Sahan Journal, he already believed in it. Instead, he asked what I needed to help Sahan Journal reach its full potential.

When Kevin invited Sahan to ask for support, he said that he wanted GHR’s investment to make a real, tangible difference in the lives of Minnesotans of color. For GHR, that has meant investing in a few organizations, one at a time, with the goal of building deep relationships toward real impact. This approach reflects how the foundation works with partners to address pressing challenges across its local, global, and biomedical grantmaking.

In the past year, Sahan Journal has grown rapidly. We’ve added reporters to cover essential topics like housing, labor, and small business. We’ll soon be adding reporters to cover policing, justice, and elections. We’ve added newsletters to serve the Afghan refugee community in languages like Dari and Pashto. And we’ve built up our advertising and membership program to uncover deeper support from our readers and Minnesota businesses. To maintain this growth and momentum, our organization needs significant investment, like GHR’s, to help us innovate, while supporting our operating expenses.

GHR’s flexible, unrestricted grant is helping Sahan Journal do just that.

It’s hard for me to explain in this note how grateful I am for GHR’s investment in the news that can change the narrative about race in Minnesota. With that said, I think GHR—and Kevin—won’t mind me adding a postscript here for anyone else who believes in Sahan Journal and its commitment to providing free and essential news coverage that matters most to our communities.

With this amazing $1.5 million grant from GHR, I think we’re ready to raise that next $8.5 million. Interested? Send me an email at editor@sahanjournal.com

Mukhtar Ibrahim is the founding publisher and CEO of Sahan Journal. He previously worked as a staff writer for the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio News. He has also written for the St. Paul...