Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

For community foundation media projects: Rules of the road for partnership

Feb. 15, 2012, 8:56 a.m., Posted by Michele McLellan

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As community foundations become active leaders in local news and information, many are learning they don’t need to go it alone. A variety of different partnership models are emerging and they are detailed in a new report by FSG for Knight Foundation

The report is aimed primarily at foundations entering the news and information field, but other players, such as traditional news organizations, nonprofit community media organizations, and universities are prominent members of an emerging constellation of potential partners.

Foundations, the report says, are learning that, “Partnerships are vital to their success, whether they are developing online platforms for community dialogue, financing new online professional news outlets or otherwise providing venues for community engagement about important issues affecting residents’ lives. “

For example, community media organizations may have more experience than the foundations in creating news content, while established news organizations can add reach as distribution partners. University partners might help with technology or students may help create content. Community nonprofits may bring valuable experience with community outreach.

The report notes that 79 local projects supported by the Knight Community Information Challenge count a total of 450 partners. Local media and nonprofit organizations each account for one-fourth of the partnerships.  Others are foundations, schools, corporations, government and libraries.

Based on interviews with foundation leaders, the FSG report also highlights three key principles for effective partnerships:

1.    Build on existing efforts, rather than creating information tools and resources from scratch. Duplicating efforts that are already under way is a poor use of resources – and partnering to build up those efforts may be an effective path.

 As Mary Lou Fulton of The California Endowment notes: “I would encourage foundations to be proactive in connecting their grantees to other groups working on similar regional campaigns, so that efforts can be collaborative and not duplicative.”

2.   Develop a clear understanding of expectations and responsibilities at the outset. Partnerships that are formed without a clear and explicit understanding of the roles and goals of each partner are likely to suffer unnecessary bumps in the road.

Candace Winkler of the Alaska Community Foundation advises: “Spend more time up front developing your partnership by clearly articulating each organizations’  roles and responsibilities, as well as an understanding of what the other partners want to get out of the project.”

3. Formalize the partnership as appropriate to get the necessary level of commitment. Not every partnership requires a contract but formal documents may be a good idea when the partner’s effort is vital to the core project or money and other resources is being shared.

The report also details how partners help local foundations fill gaps in their expertise in these key areas:

1. Creating and curating content

Foundations are turning to a number of partners, including professional journalism organizations, universities and local nonprofits to create news and information content.

Examples: The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving helped launch the Connecticut Mirror, a news site that covers state policy issues.  For the Black Hills Area Community Foundation, local libraries are the content partner for the Black Hills Knowledge Network, aggregating content from a variety of sources including government and local news media. Youngstown University students are the content creators for The News Outlet, a project of the Raymond John Wean Foundation.

2. Distributing content

Rather than building a news site and working to gain a wide audience – which takes time – foundations may turn to existing organizations with reach on the Web to distribute content.

Example:  The Community Foundation Serving Boulder County, for example, supports I-News, an investigative news start up that distributes its content through more than 20 media partners, including both print and broadcast.

3. Conducting outreach

Community outreach is often integral to the work of local foundations – but some find help in these efforts from partners such as local nonprofit organizations, public media organizations and government.

Examples: The Rhode Island Foundation partnered with a National Public Radio affiliate as a broadcast partner when it held six community forums about pressing issues. Act for Alexandria and the Community Foundation of North Florida have benefitted from partnerships with community nonprofits in their efforts to increase engagement in their efforts to address community problems.

4. Developing and maintaining technology

A number of foundations have found they lacked technology expertise to implement their news and information project. For help, they have turned to partners in universities, private companies,

Examples: For Dubuque 2.0, a community engagement project that focuses on sustainability, The Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque is partnering with IBM, which is piloting water and energy metering technology.  The Greater Lowell Community Foundation partnered with the University of Massachusetts Lowell to develop a easy-to-use data visualization tool for nonprofits and government agencies.

Partnerships and this report will be part of a livestreamed discussed Tuesday Feb. 21 at Knight Foundation's Media Learning Seminar. Watch the video live at 10:15 a.m. Tuesday at knightfoundation.org/live.

The fifth round of the Knight Community Information Challenge is open for applications through Feb. 27.

By Michele McLellan, Knight Community Information Challenge Circuit Rider