Jan. 22, 2009
Thank you Katie for inviting me to speak today.
I’m sorry that our President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen can’t be here with us today. But I am honored to be here on behalf of Knight Foundation, one of the proud co-founders of the Florida Philanthropic Network, and to be able to share with my colleagues in philanthropy.
I should say, my new colleagues in philanthropy. After three decades in the newspaper business, I joined Knight Foundation nearly three years ago as vice president for strategic initiatives. I feel lucky to have gotten my feet wet in this business in the great state of Florida, and to be here today to talk about the opportunities we have before us.
We live in interesting times.
I have, thankfully, been on this Earth long enough to have said and thought this phrase several times before. But it has never been truer than it is today. We live in interesting times.
Think about the images over the past week: thousands waiting on the railroad tracks for a glimpse of a new president; tens of thousands taking part in a nationwide Day of Service; Millions gathering to see America’s first black president take his oath.
It’s wonderful to feel and share that excitement - especially considering the challenges we all face, both personally and professionally.
This recession is palpable. The people we serve need more at a time when many of our endowments have shrunk. And, unfortunately, there are fewer of us – with the sizable Picower Foundation a victim of the Madoff financial scandal. No one knows what the full effect of Madoff’s misdeeds will be on Florida and philanthropy when the dust finally settles.
Meanwhile, with the federal deficit scheduled to go beyond a chin-dropping trillion dollars, Congress is are under tremendous pressure to increase revenues. And lawmakers are considering taking aim at nonprofits’ tax exemption status. Never mind that, according to a new study from the national Philanthropic Collaborative, ever dollar nonprofits spend generates $8 in the economy. That’s a tremendous return on investment.
Through it all, Floridians feel a deep desire to give. Nearly three of every four Floridians say they donated to a charitable organization in 2008, according to most recent Sunshine State Survey.
Yes, we live in interesting times – and, I’d argue, a time of great opportunity for all of us in philanthropy to create true systemic change here in Florida. Together.
As foundations, and as true leaders in our communities, we have the power to look beyond the symptoms of our problems - to address their root cause. We can do that by acting as the risk capital, funding the most innovative ideas. After all, we can afford to be innovative. We can tolerate failure in the interest of learning. But much more than that, what better purpose can a foundation have than supporting experiments to move a society forward?
Of course, we cannot do this alone. We are most effective when we form true partnerships with government and business leaders. Our brains naturally organize themselves into a series of silos, but our best work is done when we stitch together solutions from a variety of institutions and networks – the way the Florida Philanthropic Network espouses.
That’s what we strive to do at Knight Foundation too: build partnerships that can help transform journalism and the 26 communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers.
Let me give you an example.
At Knight, we believe technology can strengthen community information, and through that information, communities themselves.
Over time, we have invested $400 million to advance quality journalism and freedom of expression. But there’s a more telling figure. Over the past three years, we’ve committed more than $100 million to media innovation initiatives. One of those is the Knight Center of Digital Excellence.
We started with the premise that, today, if you’re not digital, you’re a second-class citizen. You’re second class in access to information - and second class economically and even socially. For a foundation dedicated to community and communications, that’s not acceptable. So we set a goal to help create universal digital access in each of our communities.
That’s where the new, national Knight Center of Digital Excellence comes in. The center is a pro bono consulting group. It is helping cities negotiate for universal access by bringing in whatever sort of expertise is necessary to level the playing field.
Think of the center’s offerings as a combination of brainwork and legwork. It will not only secure a better deal for the public, but ensure that parts of the community don’t fall on the other side of the digital divide.
I’m happy to tell you the center is at work right here in Florida, in both Miami-Dade and Broward counties, as well as in cities as different as Akron and Philadelphia, Detroit and Milledgeville, Georgia.
Our wider media innovation strategy is based on using innovation and experimentation to help fill the information needs of communities in a democracy. Information is the DNA of community learning. We depend on it in all facets of life.
Yet today, we are living an information paradox. Between the 24 hour news cycle and the plethora of blogs and digital reports, we are constantly bombarded by information. At the same time, we often know less about what is happening in our own towns, our own City Halls, or even around the bend.
The question we ask at Knight is not “How do we save newspapers?” The question is, “How do we save effective communication that communities need to manage their affairs in this democracy?” How can we help ensure that citizens have the information they need to make basic decisions and lead informed lives?
We make our contribution by experimenting with a wide range of ideas to meet the information needs of communities. The more experiments we seed, the more likely we are to find innovations that will serve communities, strengthen journalism … and that markets will adopt and sustain.
To do that, we have several initiatives, including the Knight Community Information Needs Challenge, of which we announced the first winners last week.
The Information Needs Challenge encourages community foundations to be leaders by funding information projects.
Community foundations were created to meet the core needs of communities. In a democracy, information is a core need. But like most people, community foundations have long assumed news and information will be there, as they always have been. They have not, until now, paid much attention to the diminishing availability of civic information. And, until now, have had little reason to believe that they can affect that slide.
We are trying to change that through the challenge, which is a matching grant program. We were pleasantly surprised by the not only the level of interest, but the thoughtfulness of the proposals – and the depth of partnerships that community foundations had sought in their communities.
All of those aspects were evidenced in our two Florida winners. In Coral Gables, a suburb of Miami, the local community foundation will bridge the digital “gray” divide that keeps seniors from engaging on the web. Along with the University of Miami School of Communications, the community foundation will help create and maintain a digital news site for seniors. University students will pair with seniors to train them to report, write and blog.
And in Bradenton, the community foundation will partner with a local TV station and Bradenton.com to provide a virtual town square for residents, nonprofits and government agencies. The site will be an online one-stop shop that integrates news and local information about Manatee County culture and services.
That building of partnerships is also what makes our Knight communities program so strong. In each of our 26 communities, our grantmaking is guided by the advice of local leaders who identify a region’s greatest opportunities for change.
In Northeast Ohio, once the “Rubber Capital of the World,” that means working to move the once-industrial area into the knowledge economy. So we were thrilled, and admittedly a little surprised, when two dozen of Akron’s powerbrokers knocked on the doors of our Miami headquarters in 2007. They had a big idea: to build on the area’s expertise and help the region become a global center of orthopedic and biomaterials research.
When leaders come to Knight Foundation with a big idea, we listen. We ask ourselves, is this idea truly transformational? We also look for five key qualities that, we believe, distinguish leaders who have what it takes to create transformational change. Those qualities are:
- A vision of what’s possible.
- The courage to think big.
- The tenacity to see things through.
- A commitment to the discovery of the facts.
And the know-how to get the job done.
We recognized all these traits in the leaders who came to Miami that day. And there was more: A spirit of partnership. Of looking past the competitiveness. Of “this is bigger than all of us.” In the months following that initial meeting, everyone was moving forward together indeed. Knight Foundation made a seed grant to help advance the idea. The five CEOs of the operating partner organizations met every Friday, at 7:30 in the morning.
After more than a year of intense planning, the BioInnovation Institute was launched last fall, a partnership with the state of Ohio, leading universities and hospitals, and businesses. Thanks to their investments, the institute has raised $80 million in start-up money. Its ambitious agenda includes developing cutting edge medical devices and products, with the potential to create 2,000 new knowledge economy jobs over five years. It’s a smart bet for the region, one that wouldn’t have happened if various sectors hadn’t thought across silos.
As Henry Ford once said, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”
Here in Florida, Knight is also working to create transformational change by investing in the South Florida arts. In Miami-Dade and Broward County, momentum is building in the arts scene. The area which a quarter century ago had just 100 arts organizations now boasts more than 1,200. The region now has signature performance spaces and acclaimed events including Art Basel Miami Beach and the Miami International Book Fair and International Film Festival. If you haven’t attended any of them, do try, they are wonderful public events. Knight wants to fan the flames, to both enrich the quality of arts and South Florida and foster cultural opportunities that bring diverse South Florida together.
So the foundation gave $20 million in endowment grants to three leading cultural institutions. We also hosted a community contest for the best ideas in the arts. As a result, South Florida will now have a two-year post graduate fellowship program for emerging artists, sponsored by the University of Miami and visionary developer and arts enthusiast Craig Robins, among many other projects.
Knight’s challenges – that’s what we call our innovation contests – tap into the creativity of the most innovative people. It’s an open sourcing of ideas and solutions that I would say is very democratic with a small “d.” And if you leave with any one thought today, I hope it’s this: the best solutions lie with the people of your community. Our challenge is to draw them out.
I try to live by that and remind myself of it daily, with a quotation from Margaret Mead posted beside my desk: “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that has.”
I just returned from Boston, where I met with some of the social entrepreneurs affiliated with New Profit, Inc., the kind of people that have a keen insight, the ability to reframe challenges, and realign resources to bear on it.
Social entrepreneurs are often the most engaged people in a community. They wield an awesome power for change when they act together in a collaborative network.
Think about those leaders in Akron, working together to move their economy forward.
Or much closer to home, consider a group of activists in Tallahassee, who recently started working together as part of a Knight initiative focused on cultivating the creative economy. In just one year, that Tallahassee group launched a film festival, an environmental group, and an effort to turn Tallahassee’s main thoroughfare into an entertainment and arts district. Thirty-two people – one year.
Just this morning, Knight Foundation announced it will create the Knight Creative Communities Institute in Tallahassee to keep that momentum going.
I often think about how Jack Knight defined his newspaper philosophy, because it says a lot about what Knight Foundation strives to do: “We seek to bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition, provide inspiration for their thoughts, and rouse them to pursue their true interests.”
As we enter this conference, the challenges philanthropies face are very real. But our commitment is deep. And our impact is deep, especially when we give people the tools they need for change. Especially when we work – in partnerships – to “bestir the people” to pursue their true interests.
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.