Alberto Ibarguen begins new course with community foundations and media projects

Thank you, Ken.

And thanks to Steve Gunderson for giving me this extraordinary opportunity to talk about Knight Foundation’s approach to grant making, about our support of community foundations and about the information needs of the communities you and I are dedicated to serve.

First, though, I want to acknowledge that this is truly a privilege for me because there are so many of you in this room and in community foundations who have been friends and trusted guides to me over the years, but especially in the last two and a half since I came to the field of philanthropy.  At the risk of offending some, I want to mention in particular Lorie Slutsky from the New York Community Trust, Linda Kelly from the Hartford Community Foundation, Paul Grogan from the Boston Foundation, Mariam Noland from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and Ruth Shack from the Dade Community Foundation.  To those of you I’ve offended by not mentioning your name, please accept my apology!

Steve wanted me to talk especially about the way we conducted – and are conducting again – a search for new ideas on how to use digital platforms for the delivery of news and information to defined geographic areas – new ideas on how to use digital platforms for the delivery of news and information to defined geographic areas.

If that sounds suspiciously like what newspapers do in a community, it’s not by accident.  We are in the middle of a tsunami of change in media, all the while media is all around us.  As a foundation created to serve both community and journalism, we are interested both in the craft and in the essential information needs of our communities. 

And we are keenly aware of the fact that as the craft of journalism is transformed by technological and market forces, the need for reliable information in a democracy is not diminished.

Why should this matter so much?  To us, of course, there’s the matter of donor intent.  No small thing.  But I think it should matter to you, as well.

Let me suggest two propositions, neither of which is particularly original but help to frame the discussion:

  1. In a democracy, if the citizens are unaware, then the democracy is imperiled.

  2. The right of a citizen to freely walk into the public square to hear and listen is endangered by the rise of digital media because the effective public square of the not-distant future will be digital – and from the looks of things, that public square could have significant economic barriers to entry, leaving out substantial portions of our citizens.

Information is essential to a democracy.  You live in a democracy.  Your communities are structured as democracies.  As leaders and as institutions, it has to matter to you whether your community is sufficiently informed to manage its affairs.

What I’ll describe as the Knight News Challenge is a modest effort that illustrates something different that we tried.  It does a number of things differently:  it assumes that the wisdom is out there, not in our office, and seeks to find it.  It also requires a certain level of comfort with chaos, since you don’t know when or if those great ideas are going to come in or in what form.  And the contest is worldwide, so you truly don’t know where something might originate.

But I’m from Miami, where three-fourths of us are from someplace else and half of us were born in another country, so we’re used to the kind of wonderful mayhem nearly total diversity engenders.  It’s the kind of world best described by Dave Barry when he wrote that there are no bad drivers in Miami.  It’s just that we all drive according to the traffic laws of our native country.  And in the end, it works!

Cyber communities continue to form every day. They don’t need our help. But physical communities, the places where we live and work, do need our help. The news and information we most care about is not fiction or entertainment or even opinion. We care about news in the public interest, the news citizens need to run their democracies and their lives. And our democracies are organized by geography.

You do not vote to improve another country. You vote to improve your own.  You vote to elect people who will tax us, who will set environmental policy, who will sit on your local school board, or to be your town or city’s mayor. These all involve specific geographic areas.

Translating this from an organizing principle to day-to-day life on Main Street requires coming out of the theoretical world and into the practical one.

Much has been made about how cyberspace creatively destroys physical space, about how the web gives people with common interests all over the world a way to work and play together.  I agree that teenagers – all of us, really – have a greater capacity and ease to know that what happens in a far-off part of the world can affect our lives here.  And that’s good.

But I also think that we know less about what’s happening locally.

What does it mean for local communities that young people consider their online community as important as their offline community?

We don’t know.  Or at least we at Knight Foundation don’t know, and that’s why we decided early last year to embark on an open-ended process to answer both the question of whether and how digital media can be used to build community by the timely sharing of information in a defined geography.

Our trustees agreed to put aside $25 million to begin with, thinking we’d use about $5 million each year, and beginning last year, using an open contest format, we offered money for ideas that would use digital platforms to provide timely shared information to geographically defined communities.  Simple as that.  No other rules, anyone anywhere could apply and 1,650 did.  In the space of about three months.

To do that, our staff streamlined the application process.  All of it was done digitally.  The application page asks simply for an idea; if it’s accepted, we ask for a fuller proposal that is then also reviewed.  Those that survive to that point go to outside readers who advise us and staff recommends to the trustees.  The trustees have the final vote in all of the grants.  It works and if you’re interested and since you’re all qualified to apply, check it out at

We selected winners ranging from MIT to MTV, the Gotham Gazette, Village Soup and several individuals in between.  We gave money to MIT’s famed Media Lab to test in geographic space the gizmos they had been inventing for their own sake.  We made a grant to Adrian Holovaty of Chicago Crime and to develop open source community mashups, allowing citizens easy access to public information.   We made a grant to MTV to hire 51 Knight My Jo’s – mobile youth journalists – who,  over the course of the next year, will each cover the presidential campaign in his or her state, sending their reports by text and video clip to cell phones of other kids on their network.  Once a week, MTV will air the best of last week and ask viewers to sign up to this network of cell phone users.  We do not expect that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism will come out of this.  We do expect that we will learn a lot about what and how kids respond to critical issues and we expect that this kid to kid reporting on cell phones will allow us to touch millions of young people that the presidential campaign might otherwise have never touched.

There are many lessons here, not least is structuring the contest and making space for the wisdom of the crowd to form and inspire our grant making.  Our trustees were sufficiently excited with the first year’s set of ideas that in response to the first year’s applications, they committed $12 million instead of the originally planned $5.  Announcements for the second round have started in nine languages around the world and I call your attention again to our website at

Well, that’s one kind of effort to meet the information needs of our communities.  We’re also supporting the efforts of State University of New York at Stony Brook to teach media literacy to every incoming freshman.  Yesterday, we announced grants to Berkeley and University of California to continue training journalists on new media platforms, and a third grant to NPR to bring all of its news staff, every one, to Berkeley and USC for digital media training to make NPR a truly multimedia organization.  And we’re in discussions with the Aspen Institute about the possibility of organizing a major commission to review the information needs of communities in our American democracy, to study trends and possibly make policy recommendations that would help ensure that we have the information we need to govern ourselves.

     So in the area of information needs, what might community foundations do? 

You might first take a look at an op/ed piece in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle by Dan Gilmor. If you didn’t read it, you can find it at the newspaper’s website, Among his suggestions:

  • Provide seed funding for a network of local blogs

  • Pay the salary of an investigative journalist at a local newspaper.

  • Help get local and regional government data online in ways that anyone can access it

  • Fund local media-literacy education for this media-saturated age.

These are interesting suggestions and may speak to some of you.  Others may be put off even considering this because this is unfamiliar territory. 

So, here’s something else I think we should do:  if there’s sufficient interest, Knight Foundation will organize a conference possibly in Miami sometime this winter specifically for community foundations.  The subject will be you and media and community.  How might community foundations help ensure that their communities have the information they need.  There’s more to come on that subject, and if you have ideas about how we might do this and what areas to focus on, send them to me at [email protected].

I hope you know that Jack and Jim Knight cared passionately about the communities in which they published newspapers, and wanted their legacy to include giving back to the places where they made their fortune. The communities range in size from Milledgeville, Georgia to Miami, from San Jose to State College, Pennsylvania, Macon, Biloxi, Wichita, Charlotte, Detroit and many others.  And in every one, we have partnered with community foundations.

Last year, we finished a planned program to invest more than $60 million in donor-advised funds in community foundations.  This year, we began an experiment with the community foundations of Palm Beach, Florida and Long Beach, California, asking them to act as our program directors in those communities.

This is different than a donor-advised fund.  We haven’t told them what to fund but we have asked them to think of themselves less as a charity and more as social investors.  We asked them to look for projects where there is need but where there is also opportunity to transform a community or a neighborhood.

In transformational grant-making, we look for five elements.  These are our benchmarks and I grant you that you may have others that are also valid.  But we look for discovery (what’s the reality?), vision (what can it be?), courage (someone has to put his or her neck out and brave the doubters), know-how (either know how to do it or know where to go for the skills necessary) and the tenacity necessary for any social change. 

But donor-advised funds and even these two experiments are only one aspect of Knight’s relationship to community foundations.  Under the leadership of our vice president for community programs, Mike Maidenberg, consulting with Robin Reiter of Reiter & Associates of Miami and Mark Kramer of the Foundation Strategy Group in Boston, we’ve begun to explore how we might offer support to community foundations in the role of civic leader – community foundations as innovators, knowledge hubs, agenda-setters and spurs.

Our concept is to structure something that might resemble the News Challenge that I’ve described, open to community foundations that have a clear vision of leadership positions they wish to take on issues of importance to their communities, backed by a committed staff and board.

We’re in the early stages, though we’ve already held many meetings that have included a number of you in the audience.  So this is not an announcement, but I raise it here today to ask for your advice.  Mike Maidenberg and Robin Reiter are both here today and would love to hear your thoughts on how we might structure an initiative aimed at moving community issues through community foundation leadership.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a thought from one of our founders, Jack Knight, that inspires the way we think and work.

More than 40 years ago, Jack Knight described the role of newspapers in a community this way: 

“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.”

40 years later, those words are a useful guide for our work to strengthen our communities.