This post is part of a series contributed by MJ Bear Fellows, journalists under 30 who are driving innovation in digital news.
My passion project is DiverseSources.org, a database of underrepresented experts in science, health and the environment that addresses the lack of diverse perspectives cited in news articles. The database is searchable by expertise, language, location, time zone and other fields to help journalists more easily find potential sources.
I co-founded Diverse Sources so I could work with news organizations to increase the diversity in their sourcing. I provide training and consulting to reporters so they can find more relevant stories and better report those stories.
But all of this didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken years of preparation and hard work to get this far. That’s because passion projects are a lot of work. If you’ve got a passion project in mind but just don’t know how to get going, here are my tips.
Have a business plan—even if you don’t expect to make money.
Unless you’re one of the lucky few who are independently wealthy, odds are you have to work to make a living. While your passion project may never become something that helps pay the rent, it’s still important to write up a business plan. That’s because you’re going to be spending a lot of time on your passion project, and you know how the saying goes—time is money. So even if you’re not forking over the big bucks to make your dream happen, you’re still spending money. Having a business plan helps you set goals, hone your project’s purpose and scope and keeps track of all those expenses.
Focus on the learning process.
I’m throwing the word “passion” around a lot, but, let’s face it, you’re going to have some of those days. You know, days when you’re overwhelmed and wonder why you started this thing in the first place. Big projects, especially those that aren’t putting food on the table, can end up being way more stressful than expected. That’s why it’s important to focus less on achieving some big goal (though goals are great!) and more on what you’re taking away from the whole process. Even though it might seem like a Sisyphean task at the time, keep in mind that you’re learning new skills, having new experiences and connecting with people in a way you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise.
Ask for comments.
Reach out to your target audience and ask them how you can do better. Constant criticism isn’t usually anyone’s idea of fun, but it’ll help make your project stronger and allow you to grow as a professional. Even if you think some of the advice isn’t worth following, you can still learn from it. Make sure you look at your work from all angles—different perspectives from underrepresented groups are invaluable for helping with inclusivity.
Create an advisory board.
Different viewpoints are so important that I believe every big passion project should have an advisory board of some kind. This doesn’t mean you need to hire a group of highly-caffeinated, businesspeople in suits to tell you what to do. But you should thoughtfully recruit a few people from varying groups in your project area and ask them to weigh in on big decisions.
Here’s what I wrote when I put together a board for Diverse Sources:
“I’m putting together an advisory board for DiverseSources.org, and I’d love for you to join.
“I know that everyone here is super busy so you can participate as much or as little as you have the time. I’ll send you grant applications before I submit them and ask y’all for your input on specific design features, etc. So you can be on the board and pick and choose what you want to weigh in on—what’s most important to you.”
This way, I found people who were also passionate about diversity to help me best serve my audience, but I didn’t overwhelm them with work since they’re already full-time professionals.
Don’t give up
It might sound cliche, but, seriously, you started this project for a reason, and you’ve already gotten this far so don’t stop now. Maybe you’re up against a challenge that seems unsurmountable. Maybe things are just a little too stressful. This is the time to dig deep and remind yourself why this project matters. Why was this so important that the world needed to see it? Who is your work helping and how? How have you changed the world with your passion? Answer those questions and you can conquer anything.
If after answering those questions, it still doesn’t feel right to continue, read Kelly Moffitt’s interview with Whereby.us co-founder Rebekah Monson on knowing when to quit. This piece has great insights to guide you as you continue to reflect on next steps.
Don’t do something that’s already been done before.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. If your passion project is a carbon copy of another’s project, see if you can partner with them instead of going it on your own. You want to make sure that your angle and approach is unique and will set you apart from the competition. For example, while there are other databases of experts like SheSource and now SciLine, DiverseSources.org is much more inclusive. I spoke with the creator of SciLine to learn more about its purpose. It is a database of vetted scientists for journalists who aren’t well versed in the sciences but cover them anyway. SheSource focuses only on female experts, which misses out on a lot of diverse voices. SheSource is also not specific to science, health and environment journalism. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that they will respond to journalists on deadline—something everyone in the Diverse Sources database has committed to.
Don’t rely on volunteers or grant funding.
People are busy and foundations money can be tough to get. When I started Diverse Sources, I assumed dozens of people would leap forward to volunteer and help spread the word. I do have a few amazing volunteers, but not nearly as many as I’d hoped. What I’ve learned from this project is that you can’t rely on things going to plan—life has a funny way of surprising you. You should have a multitude of contingency plans in case things don’t work out the way you planned. That being said, if you want to contribute to Diverse Sources, please email me at DiverseSources@gmail.com
Don’t forget to promote yourself.
We get it, you’re modest, and you don’t like to brag. Sorry, folks, promoting yourself doesn’t count as bragging, and it’s just a part of getting by in the professional ecosystem. You want to be a big fish, and this is how you get there. Promoting yourself now makes it much easier to ask for help later—be it concerning donations or volunteering. People are helping you as much as they’re helping the project. They want to know who you are and what you stand for. So take to social media, hone your elevator pitch, print out business cards and network like there’s no tomorrow!
Don’t spend too much time making it look perfect.
I’ve talked a lot about planning, and, as a serial planner, I wholeheartedly recommend having your i’s dotted and t’s crossed. But there’s a difference between being prepared and being a perfectionist. Nike’s onto something when they say “Just Do It.” At a certain point you have to stop critiquing and go for it, hit the publish button, blast it out there, let your passion project into the world. If it’s functional, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Remember, you’re learning as you go so cut yourself some slack and celebrate those little victories.