How to get the budget you deserve for your alumni magazine

If there is one complaint I hear more than any other from the editors of alumni magazines I work with, it’s that they don’t have the budget to do what they really want to do — work with lots of great writers, hire great photographers, use great designers. No matter how big the school or how great the magazine, it seems like budgets are always flat or getting trimmed. It happens even to the best. Recently, I was talking to an editor at a Sibley-winning magazine whose publication hadn’t seen a budget increase in 10 YEARS. Yikes.

But some editors are cracking the code to getting budgets that can support great work. One of them is Jodi O’Donnell. She’s the director of editorial services at Iowa State University Foundation and editor of Forward, which is published three times a year. (Here’s one feature I wrote for the magazine. And here’s a cover story.)

Iowa State University Forward Magazine Cover alumni magazines erin peterson

Jodi’s superpower is persuasion. She somehow makes it easy for me to say yes to a full acre’s worth of revision requests. And as you’ll see in the interview, she’s also persuaded her bosses to regularly increase her magazine’s budget.

Jodi O'Donnell, Director of Editorial Services at Iowa State University Foundation alumni magazines erin peterson

EP: First, tell me about your publication’s freelance budget.

JO: We have a freelance writing budget of $6,000 per issue. Most of the magazine’s content is written by freelancers: main feature, two secondary features, an endpaper, and some of the briefs.

EP: Unlike some editors, you don’t have a single “standard rate.” Why?

JO: Our rate depends on the complexity of the story. A one-source story where there’s already a lot of good background to draw from is assigned at a lower rate than a more complex story with several sources and a lot of research to do. I always pay a minimum of $1/word, even for writers I haven’t worked with before or are less experienced.

EP: Talk about what you expect from writers who receive the highest rates, and what you expect for those on the lower end of the scale. For example, is the difference the kind of topics? Number of sources? Level of research? Ease of editing? Something else?

JO: It’s a bit of all of the above. I do expect a writer I’m paying at the top of our range ($1.50/word) to be able to turn in a story that not only hits all of these points but also has a certain voice or style. On the lower end of the scale – I am happy with a story that is cleanly and straightforwardly written. From there I can zhush up the lede as needed.

EP: You’ve talked about the idea of “going to bat” for your publication to make it the best it can be. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

JO: I think one of the best things you can do for your magazine is understand the pressures on your boss, and empower her to go to bat for your publication. For example, if her immediate supervisor is metrics- or ROI-driven, then arm your boss with relevant data, both specific to your magazine and within higher ed. I also try to be as optimistic, cheerful and helpful as I can be – you want your boss to feel good about going to bat for your pub.

EP: You’ve been successful at getting a larger budget for your magazine. How have you successfully done so? What have you found to be persuasive for your administrators when you’ve made the case for a larger budget?

JO: I’m firmly in the “don’t ask, don’t get” camp, and so I almost always make the case during the budgeting process for a larger freelance budget for both writing and photography, even if there’s a slim chance it’ll pan out. Providing metrics as a rationale for increasing the budget is one tactic. A measure we use here is: Did the level of giving for the magazine’s audience rise from one year to the next? If you can pull that data, then it can be almost as powerful as a readership survey.

EP: When you’ve talked with other editors who haven’t had success getting the budgets they need to do great work, are there any common mistakes you feel like they might be making or advice you’d give them?

JO: My best advice is to go at it a couple of different ways and try for incremental gains: piecing together a larger freelance writing or photography budget by redirecting a bit of money from one category to another that doesn’t increase the bottom line.

Another way is to keep an eye on unassigned funds in the budget that are held in reserve or for special projects – you might earmark them for a complex story you’ve wanted to hire a star writer for. You’ll know 1-2 months out whether where the balance stands so you can plan accordingly.

I also find beginning writers – fresh graduates, etc. – who are hungry, and assign them short, one-sources stories or briefs at a low word rate, so I can hoard my budget for the experienced freelancer I want for a more complex story.

EP: Anything you want to say here that you think people should know?

JO: I can’t think of anything, except never give up! And celebrate even the smallest gain.


So there you have it! Thanks to Jodi for sharing some incredibly valuable tips for increasing your chances of getting your budget increased.