Breakout #8: Board capacity: Engaging board members in the information arena


Facilitator: Alberto Ibargüen, President and CEO, Knight Foundation Scribe: Elizabeth R. Miller, Communications Associate, Knight Foundation

Alberto began the session by explaining Knight’s history with respect to the Knight Community Information Challenge, citing community foundations as the strongest and most logical partners to help people in communities share information. He also shared how the foundation’s interest in and desire to use the latest technology to inform and engage people is ingrained from its founders, John S. and James L. Knight, and continues to this day.

We are living in a time of unprecedented technological change, he said. Now when we fund journalism, we’re funding experiments at the MIT Media Lab, not necessarily the journalism schools you might think of. News consumers are shifting their habits, for example there’s a heavy emphasis on the market of consumers, how they behave and consumer information. There’s also a visual aspect and you won’t be effective at reaching people if you don’t take this into account.

A conversation followed about the following topics:

The IRS: There was the acknowledgement that it is extremely difficult for the IRS to evaluate news and information projects – even the ones that are one-shot information deals can look and feel like a business (especially as they weather the path to sustainability). Given the business background of many community foundation boards, it may be an area where people have expertise about how to proceed.

Impact: There’s an internal drive to understand impact and how community foundations can determine whether or not they’re being successful. Because there’s often an initial focus on making the grant, foundations spend a lot of time on the process of making the grant happen. So, how can they tell stories better about what actually happened with it. What would it take to build more effective evaluation and assessment departments for example? Also, is publishing final reports a way to help tell the impact of what happened?

Scope: With so much attention being called to determining impact, many community foundations struggle with whether to narrow their priorities and focus on say, a big community information project, or doing traditionally what they’ve always done. There was a strong desire to make one’s presence known in communities, so that may lead some to do one big project, but at the same time many don’t want to be criticized for being too singularly focused when their communities face a wide range of issues.

Giving Days: Alberto shared the success of several community foundation Giving Days, including Miami and St. Paul. He cited them as examples of ways to raise money and set up for the standard of giving in the community, engage new younger donors. Community foundations that have participated in giving days shared that when available, the matching aspect was helpful to attract donors.

Communications: Community foundations need to make sure their websites are up-to-date and look good – it’s a way to raise their visibility, to make more “noise” and get more credit for what they do. Websites are often many people’s first point of contact – both potential donors and the programs they fund – so it’s important that it has the most relevant information available and reflects the their cultures.

Data: Data can often be a good starting point for a foundation to figure out where and what to fund – one foundation shared how they did a deep dive with data to better understand the non-profits in its area and the needs of the community. Although data isn’t the entire story, it can be a catalyst to help foundations play the role of a convener, or as a local think tank.

Board Composition: There was a conversation about how boards can be comprised of the best advocates. Are there some board where there is a tension between doing good and doing “business”? How can staff best be trained to be most effective?

Donor Advised Funds: Many community foundations struggle with the amount of unrestricted funds they have, many indicated they have less than 10 percent to spend. The conversation centered on issues related to transparency for donor advised funds and issue of control of funds. Many are looking for best practices.

Financial Concerns: Community foundations struggle with how to best cover operating costs. Board members need to take a leadership role in procuring funds, whether it’s through making new introductions to people to want to join what they’re doing, building a better network of advisors, etc. For example, does there need to be a shift from gathering assets to gathering community? Can community foundations continue their efforts to raise money but also corral more collaborative efforts and be more of a community convener?

Through all of the above, the issue of leadership came up repeatedly. Alberto emphasized how news and information projects give community foundations a chance to stand out.

Alberto concluded the session by talking about the next iteration of the Knight Community Information Challenge. In addition to continuing the challenge for new ideas, he emphasized the focus on helping foundations that are able to iterate faster. There will also be expanded technical assistance to help foundations regardless of what phase of the project they’re in.