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Feb. 25, 2019, 11:33 a.m.
Business Models

“Philanthropy desperately needs to be more agile”: Molly de Aguiar on grantmaking with local and national media

“The right approach is almost always giving up the illusion of control funders think they have and trusting that people closest to the work know what’s best.”

As the world of journalism has changed, so has the world of philanthropy. (Except, you know, one has a lot more money and the other is trying to get more of it.)

Foundations have been powering up their support for journalism in recent years: More than 6,500 foundations doled out $1.8 billion via 30,000 grants between 2010 and 2015. And in 2018, 57 percent of nonprofit news’ revenue came from foundations, a sizable chunk in a field with almost $350 million in total annual revenue among 200 organizations. Where else could this money have come from — Facebook referral traffic? The sky?

“Our findings suggest that many innovative projects and experiments have and continue to take place, but grantmaking remains far below what is needed,” wrote the researchers of the Shorenstein Center and Northeastern University report behind that first set of numbers. Grantmakers are bigger than the checks they write, though; by calling for ideas, evaluating organizations, and providing the runway to set plans in motion, a foundation wields much more potential than just a dollar sign.

Tensions, unsurprisingly, also exist between the two worlds: giving too much direction or not enough evaluation, building on relationships or heaping more rewards on the already-shining stars, seeding innovation or funding one-offs that flounder. But by all measures, philanthropy in journalism will continue to stick around, both nationally and locally.

Molly de Aguiar has had a front seat to philanthropy in both markets, spending over a decade at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation serving New Jersey and then the past year and a half at the News Integrity Initiative, the $14 million/four-year project out of the City University of New York focused on increasing trust and inclusivity in news globally. Now she’s taking up the helm at the Philadelphia-centered Independence Public Media Foundation, the revamped public broadcaster which relinquished its license and got a $131.5 million windfall from the FCC’s spectrum sale (yes, it’s real money, and yes, we know it’s kind of from the sky).

There’s a lot to observe from the perspective of a media funder, and de Aguiar has shared those observations frequently on Twitter and Medium. I wanted to get her thoughts, as someone whose career has intertwined with the increase of funding journalism philanthropically, on where these relationships go from here. (She also wrote an open letter to other media funders with Jessica Clark to encourage more transparency in the grantmaking process.) Our (email) conversation has been edited a tiny bit for clarity.

Christine Schmidt: You’ve followed many of the shifts in the philanthropy world closely with your career, moving through local grants and more sweeping initiatives. Did you expect to go into philanthropy and grant making? Can you share more of your own background and how you approached your career in the philanthropy sector?

Molly de Aguiar: I wrote a little bit about this on Twitter recently. I worked for nonprofits in Philadelphia for close to ten years, before moving to New Jersey, where I was lucky enough to land a job with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. I started out as a program associate for Dodge’s Environment program and eventually became the communications director as well as the director of the Informed Communities grants program, before moving on to the News Integrity Initiative.

What I would really want people to know — which I also mentioned in the Twitter thread — is that I spent five full years basically as an apprentice to Dodge’s program directors before I became a program director myself. I sat in on their meetings where they debated decisions, I went with them to visit nonprofits all over the state, and I was able to deeply absorb all the ways in which this work is incredibly complex before I designed and led the Informed Communities program. That was the best training I could have possibly asked for.

And no — I did not expect to go into philanthropy or even to work for nonprofits. I have a journalism degree, but I aspired to be a creative director for an ad agency. I quickly ditched that after college, though, to pursue work that felt more meaningful to me.

Schmidt: What do you think journalists misunderstand most about grantmakers, and what do you think grantmakers misunderstand most about journalists?

de Aguiar: I think there’s an ever present danger when funders, especially those who are new to media, regard journalism as a tool to advance their strategies in specific issue areas.

And on the flipside of your question, I hear journalists grumble about measuring impact. And while I truly get all the ways in which the conversation about impact is fraught, I also believe it is legitimate for funders to want journalists to have a clear sense of what they’re trying to accomplish — whatever it may be — and some honest methods for trying to measure their progress and to hold themselves accountable. (Side note: this is true for all nonprofits, not just journalism-related nonprofits.)

Schmidt: After the 2016 election, philanthropically-funding journalism seems to have taken on more vigor and urgency. How would you assess the steps funders have taken in their work with journalism organizations?

de Aguiar: I think what we’ve seen is the most visible foundations in the media space — Knight, Democracy Fund, MacArthur, Ford, et al. — really step up their efforts to support the field and draw attention to the urgency of funding news and information as vital to thriving communities and to democracy everywhere. NewsMatch is a great, high-profile example of funders collaborating and encouraging the public to support the long term financial viability of local journalism. And obviously Knight’s announcement that it’s doubling its journalism portfolio over the next five years is a big deal. [Disclosure: Knight has funded Nieman Lab in the past.]

At the same time, there are many funders that don’t fund media at all, or may dabble in some media but don’t think of themselves as “media funders,” and they clearly feel a sense of urgency in a way they didn’t before the election. But they are also overwhelmed about how and what to support, because the need and the problems run deep. So it’s incumbent upon the more experienced media funders, as well as groups like Media Impact Funders here in the U.S. and Journalism Funders Forum in Europe, to extend their hand to those seeking advice and help.

We have a long way to go before there are experienced and committed media funders throughout the U.S. Personally, I would like to see a reincarnation of the Knight Community Information Challenge (whether led by Knight or a consortium of national funders), to incentivize community and place-based foundations with grants and training to support local news and information in their communities. It would be the single most effective way to build a robust ecosystem of media funders across the country.

Schmidt: You’ve written about the implications that come with a limited time, limited amount funding experience like NII. What opportunity did NII as an idea present to you after your time at the Dodge Foundation, and what opportunity does it present for the journalism industry?

de Aguiar: Well, I’d worked for Dodge for 12 years and NII was simply an opportunity to try something new, something a little bit bigger, and it promised me a lot of latitude to experiment. Philanthropy as a field is exquisitely designed to avoid risk in many ways, including the substantial amount of structure it builds around the grantmaking process. So I wanted to experiment with the mechanics of grantmaking: to create a simple application process, make quick decisions and get money out the door quickly too, and also be open to saying yes to things that might not fly in a more risk-averse environment. Philanthropy desperately needs to be more agile. I also wanted to really examine and understand what depth of investment is needed to help nonprofits succeed in their work, so I experimented with trying to more fully fund a smaller number of organizations rather than spreading the budget too thin among many organizations.

I think other people might have struggled less than I did with the concept of a short-term philanthropic initiative. It just goes against the training at Dodge that I talked about earlier, which was rooted in long-term, patient support for nonprofits working toward systemic change.

Schmidt: Thinking of this:

What are the biggest roadblocks to changing the mindset of philanthropy from one-off contributions to more sustained support? Where does that obstruction happen?

de Aguiar: Those obstacles are surprisingly complex. Sometimes foundation staff have never worked for a nonprofit and don’t truly understand the day-to-day struggles that nonprofits experience or the needs they have. Sometimes foundations have unreasonable expectations about how quickly nonprofits ought to be able to demonstrate impact, which can derail the funding. I think there can be an unspoken, low-key suspicion that nonprofits don’t really need the money and that long-term funding creates a sense of entitlement or dependence on the funding. Also, I’ve noticed that a person’s relationship to money in their own lives can creep into the decision making — biases about what costs are worthy of funding, for example, and what are not. Or a tendency to get the most “bang for the buck,” like shopping on a tight budget.

So much of the funding that’s really needed is the most boring, unsexy stuff you can imagine, and as the article pointed out, the right approach is almost always giving up the illusion of control funders think they have and trusting that people closest to the work know what’s best.

Schmidt: The phenomenon of “pack philanthropy,” such as continued foundation support to well-known and successful nonprofit news organizations at the expense of smaller organizations trying to break through, has been cited as a source of frustration. Is this something that you think funders think about, and what do you think can be done to address this?

de Aguiar: Sure — I think all funders think about it, but it’s important to understand which funders are best positioned to do this, and I would argue it’s not the large, national funders, but the smaller community and place-based funders.

Knight’s recent announcement is a really good example: if you have a portfolio of $300 million for journalism grants over the next five years, it is administratively prohibitive to make hundreds of (relatively) smaller grants to small organizations. You don’t have enough staff to steward those relationships in a meaningful, effective way, and you don’t have the capacity to process all of that paperwork. So instead you give multi-million dollar grants to big organizations, and you also give grants to organizations and deputize them to re-grant that money. Hopefully that’s one effective way that you, as a national funder, can help get funding to smaller organizations you wouldn’t otherwise directly fund. I don’t say this to absolve funders from committing to investing in a much more diverse group of organizations, but to highlight there are administrative realities that people don’t really consider.

Meanwhile, smaller (i.e. not nationally-focused) funders can more easily find and support the organizations that struggle to attract foundation funding, but the problem, as I noted before, is that there aren’t nearly enough smaller funders who fund media! Again, the imperative to strengthen and grow media funding is very clear if we want to see support for organizations of all sizes in communities throughout the country.

Schmidt: I’d love to hear more about your next adventure. Can you say a bit about your interest with the Independence Public Media Foundation? What should potential grantees and other funders expect to see? There’s already a lot of philanthropic investment in the Philadelphia media market, and I’m not saying there’s such a thing as too much investment in local news — but how will the work IPMF does differ from other funders in the space, like the Lenfest Institute?

de Aguiar: My hope is to be bold — to continue experimenting with the mechanics of the philanthropy in a way that helps put power into the hands of communities themselves (e.g. community-led grantmaking), and to address many of the issues you raise, like how to get capital to those who have had the least access to it. For me, the most exciting aspect of IPMF is its expansive view of “media” — the foundation will not be focused only on the sustainability of local journalism, which is Lenfest’s mandate, but rather how to weave together the work of journalists with arts groups, libraries, open data initiatives, community organizers and others to build power and justice within communities across the Philadelphia region. That’s what place-based work should look like — creative and radically inclusive.

Schmidt: Where do you think are the biggest opportunities for funders and journalists to work together going forward? Anything else that you think I should have asked about or wanted to mention?

de Aguiar: The most urgent of all, without question, is that people who work for news organizations must be representative of the communities they serve. There is simply no other issue more critical to resilient, trustworthy journalism.

Illustration by Andrea Ucini used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 25, 2019, 11:33 a.m.
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