Letter from Chairman W. Gerald Austen M.D.

Article

New Crises, Enduring Commitments

In this space last year, you read about a new strategic plan here at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The plan suggests that the foundation’s approach to grant making ought to be as holistic as our emergency response was in Miami after 1992’s Hurricane Andrew and in Grand Forks after the ’97 Red River flood.

Back then, my fellow trustees and I heard and saw how such acts of nature galvanized people and made them feel more connected to their communities. Following both catastrophes, Knight’s trustees and staff responded to the communities’ needs and committed significant funding and other resources. Behind such leaders as Miami’s Alvah H. Chapman Jr. and Grand Forks’ Mike Maidenberg, we found ourselves connecting to the energy and passion of communities working together to rebuild, to transform themselves into something better than they were before the crisis. We concentrated on projects that would sharpen the focus and heighten the impact of our grants. We joined with other funders to help the communities identify what matters most. We demonstrated long-term commitment.

We have incorporated these values as we’ve developed a new Community Partners Program and a new National Venture Fund, and in shaping our Journalism Initiatives program.

We remain busily involved in a careful rollout of the Community Partners Program, in which local advisory committees help select community priorities and the measurable outcomes that address them. In journalism, Knight’s funding continues to focus on journalism of excellence, press freedom and diversity. Though anecdotal, reports from the field have confirmed our belief that we are on the right path with these approaches.

Since the horrific events of Sept. 11, we’ve shared a heightened national sense that everything — late-night talk show hosts and major-league baseball included — seems more serious, sober and purposeful. America’s wartime circumstances and economic recession have made it absolutely clear that the stakes have been raised. Collectively, we are determined to make our labors, our time and our commitments more meaningful than ever before.

At Knight Foundation, a history of responding to crises combines with a strategic recommitment to our 26 communities, giving clear direction to grant making. We believe our best chance to succeed is by helping communities work toward their own definitions of community success over the long haul.

Knight’s $10 million Sept. 11 commitment is helping nonprofit service providers in our communities to rebound and serve their citizens caught in a world of dire need. The fund demonstrates that at such times of stress and struggle, the foundations of this country, blessed by resources however finite, can and must step up and give more.

This crisis may pass, but others loom. Like those that came before, they become opportunities for discovery. Regardless, ours is a sustained commitment to Knight communities and to journalism of excellence. We intend to take advantage of our enduring associations with these places and the field of journalism. As the Community Partners Program has developed, we’ve seen the new advisory committees, steeped in the nuance of local conditions, engaged in vigorous discussions of complex issues. We’ve learned along with them that setting priorities is difficult. Their members understand they cannot possibly have an impact on every community need and opportunity, certainly not with the limited resources of one foundation. They have figured out they can have their greatest impact by concentrating on just a few highly specific needs and by taking multiple approaches to addressing them. As Maidenberg points out in his article “Not Enough Heads for All the Hats,” Knight’s promise of partnership, research and resources has changed the way people in the Grand Forks area think about their region.

We shared many wonderful experiences in 2001. In June, Knight Foundation’s trustees concluded an 18-month observation of our 50th anniversary by gathering in Miami with a great many friends and funding partners. We chose that night to demonstrate our new holistic approach to funding. Hodding Carter and I described our newly focused funding priorities and how the foundation intended to work more directly with the recipients of our grants. While we made a total of 55 grants in all of our primary funding areas, more than half of the nearly $24 million in awards we announced that evening target large-scale community development. Much of it is directed to Overtown, Miami’s historically black downtown. Hodding put it this way: “Effective community development is comprehensive, continuous and collaborative.”

The year also saw the final report of the reconstituted Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, following the original panel’s three seminal reports in the 1990s calling for reform of a system spiraling out of control. The Knight Commission found that despite considerable progress, the chasm between higher education’s ideals and big-time college sports has widened. The commission’s report inspired headlines and editorial praise for raising the issues again, including a strong recommendation encouraging big-time football and basketball programs to graduate more than 50 percent of their student athletes by 2007. We will watch the education and sports community with interest as they move together toward multilateral reform. We also thank co-chairs William Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina, and the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, and all of the commissioners for their sustained leadership. 2001 was a harsh year economically for just about everyone, given the reality of an advancing recession made worse by the impact of Sept. 11. Like many other institutional investors, our asset base suffered, though at a comparatively moderate rate. Thanks to investment strategies overseen by Trustee Gordon E. Heffern and his Finance Committee, and excellent work by the investment staff, we closed out the year at $1.9 billion, down from our all-time high of $2.2 billion. It allowed us to approve $86.4 million in 319 new grants in 2001.

We wish two fellow trustees well as they depart.

Alvah Chapman brought 31 years of exceptional service to the foundation to a close as he left the board in March 2002. Throughout those years he has played a key role in developing the foundation’s visions and goals and the strategies to achieve them successfully. He has been a member of the Grants Review Committee — our version of an appropriations committee — since 1986, and has served as its chairman since 1994. Four times a year, Alvah has presented to our board a description of and recommendation on every major grant allocation we’ve made. He also guided the development of a stable grant-making plan that enabled Knight Foundation to increase our giving gradually over time without the violent swings suffered by some other foundations in an up-and-down stock market. He has been a wise leader, a sensible voice and a moral compass for us.

In late February 2002, Trustee John D. Ong presented his credentials to King Harald in Oslo as he became the U.S. ambassador to Norway. Since joining us in June 1995, John Ong has provided leadership and direction during a period of intense staff growth, serving as chairman of our Administrative and Human Resources and Pension Plan Administrative committees. The chairman emeritus of BFGoodrich played an important role in helping us develop a slate of grants for Akron as we launched our anniversary year in that community in June 2000.

Despite the weight of the past year’s events, we’re optimistic about Knight Foundation’s new direction and encouraged by the energy directed to our programs. We see it in play in the rollout of the Community Partners Program as advisory committee members are challenging conventional wisdom, drilling down to fundamentals. Our journalism program officers are gathering together groups with common interests in the field, and the conversations are leading to new collaborations and new networks. Experts in our funding interests are visiting the 26 Knight communities during grant development and are introducing new models for what works, expanding local horizons. We believe that better grants begin with a determination to see the whole picture at the front end.

The September attacks caution us to never take anything for granted. These events remind us that a new crisis, no matter how unimaginable, is never far from tomorrow’s headlines. Our next tragic episode may be an act of God or man, a fleeting instance or a prolonged affair, of international concern or neighborhood impact. Regardless, Knight Foundation is committed to doing everything we can to help.

— W. Gerald Austen, M.D.