Breakout Session 11: The Decision-Making Process: Funding New and Existing Projects


Breakout Session 11: The Decision-Making Process: Funding New and Existing Projects

Facilitator: Lisa Williams, Circuit Rider, Knight Foundation

Scribe: Cynthia Ragland, V.P. Marketing & Communications, Orange County Community Foundation

Lisa Williams runs, a winner of the Knight News Challenge. We discussed the decision-making process behind scoping digital projects. Lisa is a Knight Community Information Challenge Circuit Rider who specializes in early and start-up projects. Circuit Riders work between the Knight Foundation (funder) and grantees; serve as connectors. Lisa has a strong background in technology.  Lisa can be contacted at [email protected]

I. Resources for Info Challenge project applicants:

II. Don’t Fund That: Rules for Greenlighting a Project

What the selection committee is looking for:

1. Passion for the project!

  • Like to see projects that will happen whether Knight funds it or not.

  • Post-It Note on Lisa’s office wall: “Don’t do anything for free that you wouldn’t do for free indefinitely.” If you don’t have a passion for it, don’t do it!

2. Grantees that have a prototype to work from.

What connections does the grantee have to resources?

  • Leo Burd from MIT Center for Civic Media: What’s Up – promotes neighborhood events in Lawrence, Mass. Information accessible via website and a voice recognition phone system. This Knight project ran from 2005-07. Launched on a Voice Over IP (VoIP) platform called Drupal which makes it easy to integrate websites, SMS and phones. A lot of Knight projects use Drupal as a back-end content management platform (as do organizations like the White House and MTV). Solutions like Drupal that have a big user and developer base are advantageous for community information projects.

3. Everything about something.

  • The web rewards narrow comprehensiveness. When designing projects for digital strategy, ask “for what do we want to be the definitive voice?” A site with a few restaurants is nice, but a site with all the restaurants in a city is Yelp!  


  • Do not custom-build when you don’t need to. If an alternative exists, be sure to acknowledge it in the plan. (e.g. “yes we have competition, but they are not doing it right.”). Knight will fund projects that are duplicative efforts if they see the value in doing it (for example, a similar project in different communities). Knight will invest in more than one solution or approach.

  • Scale matters. Project needs to be appropriate for the users. Can’t be too small (it is not worth doing) or too large (possibly cannot be achieved).

III. Attending the Session…

As this was a small group, Lisa asked attendees to introduce themselves and whether they are current Knight grantees or applicants.

John Garofolo, Akron Community Foundation – Current project is a citizen journalist program that teaches citizens about storytelling, how to shoot videos, etc. Content is published on Goal is to engage citizens in community.  Digital media center is in local libraries.

Chris Buck, The Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation, NYC, represents a potential project funding partner with Knight. Focus of work: charter schools, preservation/prevention of urban sprawl, health initiatives. Has an office in Brazil. Founder is in CT.

Eric Shaw, Foundation of Louisiana – Changed program scope to include the whole state; now trying to disseminate information state-wide (and not print everything). There needs to be a way to get people (whether rich or poor) to understand what government does (for example: how to know when government has meetings). If they are building a school next to you, providing information that says here is the meeting date and what you can plan to talk about at the meeting. SMS reminders.

Lisa: Government really has a “last mile” problem. People don’t know when the meetings are; where to post meeting notices, etc.

Check out:

Frontier SMS

Nixel – for emergency alerts, etc. It is free.

Shiloh Turner, Greater Cincinnati Foundation – Potential project repurposes technology used in business sector for the nonprofit/public sector. May need some technical refinement to build out the solution for the civic sector.

Leo Burd, MIT Center for Civic Media – builds open source and free channels to engage every member of a community.

Liz Everson, Incourage Community Foundation (formerly Community Foundation of Greater South Wood County) – leads the foundation’s current Knight Community Info Challenge project. They thought they were going to build and run an online news platform, but were struck by the digital divide in the community. If they built it, would people have ability to access it? Or would it be contributing to the digital divide?  Learned from MIT that you really need to talk to people, so they got feet on the street and talked to people face to face. This has now started multiple projects (e.g. “Same Boat” project – uses Google calendar to aggregate events for marginalized populations in the area).

John Spain, Baton Rouge Area Foundation – Spending a lot of time on post-Hurricane Katrina recovery; distribution of $1 billion of BP’s recovery funds; involuntary displacement of residents due to the deteriorating Louisiana coastline. Was in TV news business for 25 years prior to working for the foundation; still looking to identify a project for the Community Info Challenge.

Rich Westall, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community Foundation – Also working on post- Hurricane Katrina and BP oil spill issues. Last year presented a proposal with local libraries that that would provide technology assistance training that did not get selected. Thinks they fell behind because they did not have journalism element figured out.

Charlotte Helgeson, public library director Western Minnesota – Here to participate because libraries can be part of the community information solution. A current Knight grantee that was surprised to learn that many of the teenagers and seniors coming to the library are new Americans.

Stuart Comstock, Vermont Community Foundation – Partnering with Knight on Vermont Digger (, which publishes investigative reporting on government. Looking to make VTDigger a sustainable organization with sponsorships etc. Considering using Front Porch for town hall meetings.

Cynthia Ragland, Orange County Community Foundation – serving as scribe for this session.

Check out:

BG Time (an online skills training project). Online public journal by seniors for seniors.

Jeff Warren’s project called Cartagen. He utilized unemployed fisherman to drag cameras behind their boats to take images of the environmental damage in the Gulf Coast; made software to tie the photos together and lay over a Google map. New York Times used the images because they were better than satellite images of damage.

Black Hills Knowledge Network – library-based community information project (led by a library).

•  Lincoln, NE project aimed at storytelling for new Americans from the refugee community.

IV. If You are Applying to Knight this Year…

Feel free to re-apply for the same project; Knight encourages that. There are some two-time award winners, but generally for a new project or an added component of the same project.

It is OK if some projects are short-term. Building a constituency for big projects can be a problem. Try a project with an experimental mindset. Conduct research and try to get data. No one can assure you that it will work.  Don’t be afraid to fail. Take a look at existing winners for insight.

Don’t forget about radio.

Lisa suggests not overlooking radio as an option for an application.

Check out:

West Anniston Today – an Info Challenge radio plus web project. GNLMinute (in New Orleans) – Includes community information in a one-minute report on the radio.

Sustainability is a challenge.

Not all projects are necessarily sustainable by themselves. 

Hero Reports (New York) – People can report on community heroes. Over 1,000 stories posted. Great project but how does it evolve?

Be patient; progress may come slowly.

How to get to full scale is something that some Knight grantees struggle with on a weekly basis. For the first six months, many projects experience “tumbleweeds blowing by.” Take advantage of a slow start. The benefit is that you get to make all of your early mistakes in obscurity. Community building takes patience and time.