At the start of the membership program in 2012, Voice set a goal of reaching 5,000 members by the end of the year, which would mean signing up about 4,000 San Diegans. This proved far more difficult than expected. They succeeded in increasing revenue from memberships by more than 80 percent, to a total of more than $200,000, but the pool of individual donors increased by only 300, leaving a total of 1,311 members. This speaks to a mixed blessing of Voice’s membership model: Although aimed at cultivating a broad array of small donors across San Diego, the people chipping in and gaining the “member” label are typically a wealthy niche. As Walter-Brown explains, “Somebody who comes in at $35 this year and is passionate and engaged might jump to $500 next year. One guy who gave us $500 in 2010 gave us $10,000 this year. When I talk about the importance of cultivating membership it is not just for those $35 donors, it is what they could become.” All the in-person interaction through member events is proving effective at getting current members to invest more in Voice’s efforts, both emotionally and financially.

Michael Maness, the VP of journalism and media innovation at the Knight Foundation, points out that the kind of people most inclined to become members of organizations like Voice are not necessarily the site’s core readers, but instead civic-minded types who feel that they should give to an organization that is there for the good of the greater community, the same way they might give to a museum or the opera.

Analogies to these large cultural institutions inspire Lewis, and also represent how far he has to go. “We haven’t achieved true scale,” he told me. “We could be a lot bigger than we actually are. If you think about it, we are a cultural institution. As far as interest and impact, it’s comparable in some ways to a museum or a theater or an opera as far as its value and influence in the culture.” Many of those organizations in San Diego run at the $10 million to $15 million level, a number that would vastly increase Voice’s presence and investigative capability. At the moment, though, it’s stuck below $1.5 million. Lewis is confident that, as Voice matures, it will get closer to those numbers. “Just staying at our current size would be kind of a yearly slog that I don’t know that I’m interested in,” he says.

If a nonprofit in a community like San Diego faces these challenges of scale, they will likely be even more severe nationally. Paul Bass, who runs the nonprofit New Haven Independent, told me that it wouldn’t make sense for him to focus heavily on a membership program in his market, which is relatively small and poor. The Texas Tribune doesn’t focus heavily on membership for the opposite reason: It has the benefit of serving the state with the most millionaires in the country, and also resides in Austin, where plenty of money is sloshing around trying to be a part of the state’s public policy debate. As Kevin Davis, the executive director of the Investigative News Network told me: “The problem is when you are covering people or committees that simply are unable or cannot afford to support the news and information they need. So if you talk about undocumented immigrants, you’re talking about people of color, membership becomes much harder because, again, not everybody you’re trying to inform can give you the money to help sustain you. And to me, that’s where philanthropy will be needed on an ongoing basis.”

Steven Waldman, who wrote the Information Needs of Communities report for the FCC, points out another limitation of memberships. “If you look at public radio, the biggest, most successful ones are in New York, Boston, Chicago. The cities that are able to sustain a mix of affluent individual donors, smaller donors, and foundations. And I don’t think it’s worked as well in poorer communities. Also, if you’re in a poor community, the scarce philanthropic resources have a lot of needs they’re trying to cover. They’re trying to do basic human services, and hunger, and healthcare. So in some of those cities it may be a tougher sell to say, ‘you should put some of your precious philanthropic resources into journalism.’ “

Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.