PRESSING QUESTIONS: Running a non-profit on a “shoestring”

Options of Providence, R.I.

by David Webb
Publisher: Options is a non-profit organization
Staff size and breakdown: We have a part-time managing director, an even more part-time production guy, and a distribution guy who works even less than the production guy. All the other jobs — writing, editing, ad management, bookkeeping, webmaster — are performed by volunteers.
Physical dimensions of publication: 8.5” x 11”
Average page count: 32
Area of coverage: Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts
Median age of readers: We’re not verified, so it would be just a guess, but we strive to reach as many as possible.
Print run: 6,000, printed 10 times/year
Website address:
PPQ: When did you launch your publication, and what inspired you to do it?
Managing Director Kim Stowell: Options was launched in 1982, and not by me. It began as two sheets of legal paper run off on a copier and stapled together with hand-drawn illustrations at a time when the queer community did not have a voice. There were no legal protections in place, AIDS was entirely a gay issue, and people marched in the Pride March (it was a march, not a parade) with paper bags over their heads. The community was angry, and they needed a way to communicate. They needed a voice. Options provided that forum. 
PPQ: What is the story behind the name Options?
Stowell: An excellent question! I wish I knew the answer. It seems odd, in that our readership did not choose to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. There is no changing it now, but I’ll let you know if I ever find out the answer.
PPQ: What, if anything, distinguishes your publication from other LGBT newspapers, magazines and online publications, and how much competition is there in your area for LGBT-specific news and advertising?
Stowell: We are, as I mentioned earlier, non-profit, so we are not really in competition with anyone. But we do sell advertising, so we must stand out above the other local publications. More than anything, we are steadfast in our commitment to being all-LGBT and all local/regional. We don’t run gardening articles or restaurant reviews. Our rule is: If an article could run in a mainstream publication, then it is not an Options article. We are proud to have been in existence as long as we have — not too many others out there! — and I believe it is because of our editorial integrity. Our readers trust us, and that is worth its weight in gold.
PPQ: What were your greatest challenges in getting it up and running?
Stowell: The challenge has always been running on a shoestring — we try to offer rates that are affordable to the small businessperson — although currently our challenge is more about finding volunteers who are willing to make a commitment.
PPQ: Is it successful now and how do you gauge that?
Stowell: I suppose the inclination is to think of success as measured by the bottom line, although we have enjoyed steady success in terms of serving our readers well in every other way. And, after several very shaky years, we are growing financially, too. Our advertisers have changed somewhat — it used to be all gay business owners, but we are now attracting advertisers who are looking for ways to reach our desirable demographic. We are thrilled at our growth, but we will always be grateful to those advertisers who have been with us for, in some cases, 20 years or more.
PPQ: Have you experienced significant changes in publication size, and when did you see that occurring?
Stowell: We’ve certainly had our ups and downs. There was one month, several years ago, when all our advertisers agreed to be included in a list of sponsors instead of running their ads, so we could cut the pages down and print in black and white. It was meant to be a wake-up call to our community, and it worked. Another time, we needed help in the form of a few thousand dollars to keep our doors open. A friend ran a three-day online challenge, offering to deliver his special homemade cookies to anyone who contributed over a certain amount. Again, it worked. But we have never missed an issue, and things are looking rather bright on our financial horizon these days.
PPQ: Are you facing new challenges and what are they?
Stowell: It is sometimes tough for us to keep things operating while holding down “real” jobs, which we are all doing. Somehow it all gets done though, and that’s thanks to a handful of dedicated, talented folks who come through month after month. Looking ahead, we will have to make some decisions — increasing the number of pages, for example. Also, we have always mailed Options to our subscribers under cover of a plain envelope. This, almost everyone agrees, is not necessary anymore, but there are those for whom it is not safe to receive Options in the mail. I will probably lose some sleep over that.
PPQ: How does the publication differ now from its original inception, and what is the most popular feature?
Stowell: In some ways, Options is the same as it ever was. It’s still free, distributed at all the gay hangouts around the area, all local and all queer content, run by a small gang of crazies. But in other ways it has adapted with the times. The needs of our readers have changed — they don’t all live in the gay neighborhood, for example; they’re out in the suburbs raising families — but they still want to connect, to hear what is happening, and to catch up on the news, events and people of our community. Two features come to mind as most popular. The first is our calendar of events. It is as comprehensive as could be — our calendar editor prides herself on finding every last queer event in the area every month. The other is our Resources section, which has been a feature of the publication from the beginning. We list everything from welcoming houses of worship, youth organizations and support groups to gay bars and sports clubs. I doubt anyone looks at it every month, but it is always there if folks need it. I know it is a trusted resource for many service providers in the area too.
PPQ: What’s the most surprising feedback you’ve received from a reader?
Stowell: I have heard several times that Options has saved someone’s life. That’s pretty meaningful! I spoke to someone recently who still has the first copy he ever picked up, from 15 years ago. Options often plays a big part in people’s coming out process. I’m also pleased to say that we hear regularly from incarcerated readers, who share their copy with other gay inmates — we are a real lifeline to those guys.
PPQ: What advice do you have for others working in the LGBT media?
Stowell: Don’t sell out. Figure out what you want to be and who you want to reach and then stick with it. Have standards. And have good, well-written articles with lots of photos.

Volume 15
Issue 7

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October 30, 2013