Things We Don’t Talk About (But Should): An Open Letter to Media Funders
How you fund is as important as what you fund
Jessica Clark, Dot Connector Studio
Molly de Aguiar, News Integrity Initiative
Next week, several hundred people from national, community, and place-based foundations, as well as newsrooms and other nonprofits, will come together at the Knight Media Forum in Miami. The conference focuses on philanthropy’s role in strengthening local news and information, which is essential for healthy communities and a vibrant democracy. We believe there’s an important conversation missing from the conference schedule: a discussion of the power imbalance inherent in funder-grantee relationships, and what we can do about it.
Funders wield immense power over the field of nonprofit news, from what they choose to value and support, to how the boundaries of “journalism” are defined, to how they design their systems and processes. Any nonprofit that has ever tried to figure out how to get its foot in the door with a funder, or spent countless hours on its application, and months waiting for a decision, already knows it can be relentlessly discouraging to try to get funding. And once they get it, hanging onto it for more than a year or two can seem like a never-ending battle.
(Trust us: nonprofits reading this right now are nodding their heads.)
What would a more equitable relationship look like between funders and nonprofits? We explored this topic in a workshop recently at SRCCON:POWER, a conference that examined “how power operates in our newsrooms, in our relationships with communities, and in the algorithms and technologies that are reshaping our work.”
Given our backgrounds working as media funders or advisors, as well as grantees, we understand the challenges from both perspectives. Ahead of SRCCON:POWER, we asked people — whether they were attending the conference or not— to submit questions and comments, as well as stories about sticky situations they’d encountered. The bad news is that folks had A LOT to say about funder frustrations. The good news is that there are many relatively easy strategies that would go a long way toward building trusting partnerships.
Before delving into those, a little bit of background, particularly for those who aren’t seasoned “media” funders (or perhaps don’t think of themselves as media funders at all).
Funding Media Today
Foundations have supported public media for decades, especially in the U.S. But now there are many calls for them to support other forms of nonprofit news and information. This change is a response to the crisis in business models for news — especially on the local level — and also the recent rise in concern about how social platforms amplify misinformation and propaganda. Journalists and publishers need to learn to work with funders in new ways.
- Journalism is not explicitly defined as a “charitable purpose” in the tax code, which means that many foundations are still working to figure out how and why to support it.
- Only a few funders — most notably the Knight Foundation — are explicitly organized to support journalism.
- Many other foundations fund media more generally in order to achieve their program goals — but not all of that is for news outlets or projects.
And as is the case throughout the social sector, there aren’t nearly enough philanthropic dollars to meet the needs. In the case of local news, the catastrophic loss of journalism jobs and whole newsrooms is significantly outpacing funders’ ability to support solutions.
What Does This Mean for Nonprofits?
Given that the media funding space is fairly new for many foundations, as well as to the nonprofit news organizations sprouting in the aftermath of the industry’s crash, writing grant proposals for journalism projects and outlets can be an exploratory process. In other words, both funders and grantees are learning the ropes.
- Program officers and foundations might not be familiar with journalistic culture or ethical guidelines about newsroom independence.
- And because foundations have limited dollars, they may only provide short-term funding, or emphasize sustainability without fully understanding what that looks like (and what resources are required) for local news and information.
All of these factors and more can create friction and power imbalances between funders and grantees.
Potholes in the Road to Trusting, Equitable Partnerships
So what are some of the common frustrations we heard from people who attended our workshop or submitted stories to us?
Nonprofits are mystified by funders’ processes.
If organizations are relatively new to fundraising, they don’t know how to begin a relationship, they don’t know what to expect during an application process, and they have no sense of how or why decisions are made. Even seasoned veterans feel left in the dark about decision-making processes.
Patient, long-term support is rare.
Too often, funders require proof of impact on an unreasonable timeline, and without providing resources for learning and evaluation. More importantly, much of the funding is restricted to program support, rather than giving organizations maximum flexibility to do their work with general operating support. And journalists, trained to value independence above all, bridle at the notion of being measured.
Decisions take forever.
Funders do not have processes in place for responding quickly with grants and other resources to shifting political or social developments. This is especially challenging for media as the landscape continues to transform rapidly, not to mention the intensified political attacks on press freedoms. We also heard a related and growing frustration with funders who have approved a grant but take months to make a payment.
Who you know matters more than what you know.
The same organizations — the ones with the most resources and know how to “play the game” — get the funding over and over again. This risk-averse approach to funding all but ensures that marginalized communities will continue to be cut off from any meaningful access to capital.
Say something, risk losing it all.
And perhaps the biggest issue of all that prevents more equitable relationships: there are few safe spaces for giving honest feedback, no meaningful way to challenge funders’ processes, decisions, or power without risking losing funding permanently.
To be clear, nonprofits should have to answer for their mistakes and weaknesses too, including failing to research foundation priorities, and proposing ideas that lack clear and compelling strategies.
But this is an open letter to funders about what a more equitable relationship can look like with the nonprofits you support. So let’s get to those recommendations.
Small, Medium and Bold Strategies Toward Sharing Power
We said in the beginning of this essay that there are a number of simple strategies funders could deploy to build more trust:
- Increase transparency on your website and through all your communications channels (including in-person meetings between program staff and applicants) about your foundation’s processes and priorities.
- Design an easier application process: fewer questions and requirements, especially for small grants; allow organizations to submit proposals that they’ve submitted to other funders.
- Require less in-depth reporting. Do not force grantees into time-consuming data collection. It is easier — and usually more enlightening — to check-in occasionally with grantees in person or over the phone to hear how they are doing during their grant term, rather than learning about their work through their written reports.
- Commit to paying grants within a certain quick timeframe after the decision has been made; share this commitment through all of your communications channels.
- Host occasional in-person or virtual office hours to field questions, reinforce priorities, explain processes, and increase your exposure to new people and ideas.
- Be aware that asking grantees to participate in convenings or funder-driven collaborations takes time, money and valuable attention, and compensate them accordingly. Fund process, not just projects.
Now Tackle Some Harder Issues to Signal Your Commitment to Equity
- Rather than designating only a small percentage of your grant for overhead, commit to grants that are general operating support only. If your interests in a nonprofit’s work are specific, you can give them operating support to maximize their flexibility and chance for success, while developing a relationship that focuses on and communicates about specific aspects of the work.
- Commit to multi-year grants (three or more years), and pay the full amount upfront if possible. Like your elected officials, whom you would rather see do their jobs instead of always fundraising, multi-year grants empower your grantees to concentrate on their work without being dragged down by worrying about where the funding will come from. Multi-year grants positively impact the way organizations plan, and give them enough runway and stability to innovate. Paying the full amount upfront requires some careful budgeting but can have outsized impact on the organization, particularly for larger grants.
- Design or tap into mechanisms for honest, anonymous feedback that collects input (at least once a year) from grantees, organizations whose applications were rejected, and any other group over which you as the funder hold significant power. Publish the results, and publicly and frequently document the steps you are taking to address the areas that need improvement.
- Commit to substantially increasing the proportion of grants in your portfolio to organizations with leaders and constituents that represent the true diversity of the communities you serve. Collect data and publicly share the results. This requires you to re-examine the barriers you may have in place that keep marginalized communities from initiating a relationship with you. It also requires you to explore the impacts on groups that have been largely shut out of foundation funding, and the solutions for rectifying those harms.
OK, Really Go for It!
- Share control of grantmaking funds and decisions with the communities you serve. Trust them to know what support they most need and how to lead. Document what you are learning together, so that other funders can emulate you.
- Invite grantees to regularly weigh in on a range of decisions: investment tools, potential strategic shifts, foundation processes, and more. Publicly document the feedback and the ways in which you are incorporating it into the foundation’s decisions.
- Give community members and grantees seats on the board. In this way, foundation boards cannot become divorced from and indifferent to the day-to-day challenges that nonprofits face.
- Fully align your foundation’s investment policies with your mission, so that none of the investments are directly or indirectly undermining the work of your grantees (e.g. funders focused on climate change whose endowment is invested in fossil fuels).
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, of course, for what steps funders could take to share power more meaningfully with the communities they intend to serve. Rather, it is meant to provoke discussion, and acknowledge that funders hold disproportionate power in ways they are often unaware of, or unwilling to admit. The role that media funders are playing is just part of a much larger critical discussion about the undemocratic nature of foundation giving.
You might have noticed some themes around philanthropy being more transparent, soliciting regular, but anonymous (or otherwise safe) feedback and documenting it, warts and all, for the public — as well as the ways in which funders are willing to take that feedback seriously.
These measures alone would go a long way toward building trust while undertaking the harder, longer work of examining and re-inventing processes and shifting mindsets toward equity.
Just as many funders exhort journalists to be more transparent and responsive in order to increase trust and fortify democracy, they must be willing to examine their own practices and beliefs, so that they are not complicit in perpetuating the very same structural imbalances that fuel inequality.
Jessica Clark is the founder and director of Dot Connector Studio, a Philadelphia-based strategy and production firm that works with funders and grantees to navigate the turbulent waters of media and technology en route to high-impact media projects.
Molly de Aguiar is the Managing Director of the News Integrity Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, a philanthropic initiative with a vision for journalism that serves as a force for building trust, empathy and solutions in communities.