More journalism funders will take more risks

“Given that philanthropy is uniquely unaccountable for its performance, funders have great freedom to take risks and to experiment. Now is the time.”

Rather than predict what journalism funders will do in 2023 (because who can ever predict that — or, more important, what they’ll keep doing for more than a cycle?), I’ve chosen instead to manifest: to offer five aspirational thoughts for journalism philanthropy in 2023, for the purpose of making them actually happen.

  • Funders who have never funded journalism before will start now. They will realize that high-quality, trustworthy information is a critical part of healthy communities, democracy, and just about any other mission or priority they may have. Related, these (and all) journalism funders will clearly understand the difference between funding journalism and buying coverage.
  • More journalism funders will put more dollars directly into newsrooms and news gathering. My friend and colleague Richard Tofel kicked up a little dust recently with a column questioning whether philanthropic support for nonprofit journalism intermediaries is happening at the expense of the very newsrooms these intermediaries are in business to help. Whether one agrees with him or not, there is ample evidence that many newsrooms — nonprofit and for-profit — are exceedingly fragile and need more direct support, preferably with dollars that are unrestricted. In the alternative, funders that support specific projects will provide the true cost of the project’s overhead (“indirect costs”).
  • More funders will make multi-year grants. Having to run for re-election to Congress every two years seems like an enormous time and money suck; as soon as someone gets the job, they start worrying about losing it. Same problem with most one-year grants.
  • More funders will look “under the hood” at organizational capacity, stability, and governance and, where it is lacking, will structure their support to strengthen it. We funders tend to like — and thus to fund — the sexy stuff: the high-impact investigations, the high-profile beats, and the big-time collaborations. All are worthy of support, of course. But too frequently, the news organizations engaging in this great work are, as aforementioned, precariously fragile on the operational side. This can mean anything from a murky mission to weak financial management to a poor track record on diversity, equity, and inclusion; it may mean a board that needs training and strengthening, or a fundraising staff that needs more people, or outdated IT, legal compliance and digital security. Funders that invite organizations to be honest about these needs, and that fund solutions to strengthen organizations, can make some of the best grants.
  • More journalism funders will take more risks. It’s easy and safe to fund the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton of journalism organizations. And choosing grantees with excellent track records makes total sense. But so does allocating some risk capital, for newsrooms that have always done more with less, but hold the promise and potential to do so much more if they had more. Given that philanthropy is uniquely unaccountable for its performance, funders have great freedom to take risks and to experiment. Now is the time.

Barbara Raab is senior program advisor at the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation.

Rather than predict what journalism funders will do in 2023 (because who can ever predict that — or, more important, what they’ll keep doing for more than a cycle?), I’ve chosen instead to manifest: to offer five aspirational thoughts for journalism philanthropy in 2023, for the purpose of making them actually happen.

  • Funders who have never funded journalism before will start now. They will realize that high-quality, trustworthy information is a critical part of healthy communities, democracy, and just about any other mission or priority they may have. Related, these (and all) journalism funders will clearly understand the difference between funding journalism and buying coverage.
  • More journalism funders will put more dollars directly into newsrooms and news gathering. My friend and colleague Richard Tofel kicked up a little dust recently with a column questioning whether philanthropic support for nonprofit journalism intermediaries is happening at the expense of the very newsrooms these intermediaries are in business to help. Whether one agrees with him or not, there is ample evidence that many newsrooms — nonprofit and for-profit — are exceedingly fragile and need more direct support, preferably with dollars that are unrestricted. In the alternative, funders that support specific projects will provide the true cost of the project’s overhead (“indirect costs”).
  • More funders will make multi-year grants. Having to run for re-election to Congress every two years seems like an enormous time and money suck; as soon as someone gets the job, they start worrying about losing it. Same problem with most one-year grants.
  • More funders will look “under the hood” at organizational capacity, stability, and governance and, where it is lacking, will structure their support to strengthen it. We funders tend to like — and thus to fund — the sexy stuff: the high-impact investigations, the high-profile beats, and the big-time collaborations. All are worthy of support, of course. But too frequently, the news organizations engaging in this great work are, as aforementioned, precariously fragile on the operational side. This can mean anything from a murky mission to weak financial management to a poor track record on diversity, equity, and inclusion; it may mean a board that needs training and strengthening, or a fundraising staff that needs more people, or outdated IT, legal compliance and digital security. Funders that invite organizations to be honest about these needs, and that fund solutions to strengthen organizations, can make some of the best grants.
  • More journalism funders will take more risks. It’s easy and safe to fund the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton of journalism organizations. And choosing grantees with excellent track records makes total sense. But so does allocating some risk capital, for newsrooms that have always done more with less, but hold the promise and potential to do so much more if they had more. Given that philanthropy is uniquely unaccountable for its performance, funders have great freedom to take risks and to experiment. Now is the time.

Barbara Raab is senior program advisor at the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation.

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