Who Funds? Who Gets? How Do You Measure?

Friday morning, May 15

Hosted by: Michael Stoll, SF Public Press


Gail Ablow, Freelance broadcast and digital journalist

Molly de Aguiar, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

Chris Faraone, Dig Publishing, Boston

Michelle Garcia, Independent Journalist/Filmmaker

Barbara Raab, The Ford Foundation (requested to speak off the record, so comments excised from these notes)

Martin Reynolds, The VOICES Project, Bay Area News Group

Julie Schwietert Collazo

Stephen Silha, Frisky Divinity Productions, Journalism That Matters

Michael Stoll, SF Public Press

Sarah van Gelder, YES! Magazine

Chance Williams, Open Society Foundations (requested to speak off the record, so comments excised from these notes)

Scribe: Julie Schwietert Collazo


Michael: If being large is a criterion for success, is that viable? Described experience of seeing a much bigger project get funding while he did not; when he asked about rationale for his project not getting funded, the funders said, “We bet on the big horse.” Someone in room asks, “What happened to the big horse?” Michael replied, “It broke its leg and they took it behind the barn and shot it.” Elaborated by explaining that the funded project went bust after two years.

Michelle:  Offered Democracy Now as a model for engagement, mentioning that despite smaller audience relative to bigger outlets, its audience is intensely engaged and loyal.

General comment: Placing the big bet is what funders do. If it pays off, it furthers the big-picture strategy. What a fundee perceives as a failure [as in the example offered by Michael] is not necessarily perceived as a failure by a funder.

Molly: “There’s no consensus- no one way to fund journalism.” She explained that the mandate of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation is very geographically specific, focused on projects in New Jersey. “Funding journalists’ salaries is not sustainable over time. Funding infrastructure is what’s sustainable.”

Gail: Do journalists’ and funders’ missions match?

Michelle: Spoke about projects that are great on paper but fail to reflect actual needs and abilities. Asked whether all audiences are weighed equally.

Chris: [referencing what Molly explained re Dodge Foundation] “I like that you’re not necessarily setting up shiny new things,” that you’re capacitating existing infrastructure.

Molly: It’s so hard to put foundations in a single category. It’s tough for journalists because you can meet a foundation representative who really gets what you do, but then they move out of that foundation, or out of the field altogether. You have to seek the people you can develop a relationship with. It’s hard. I know it’s hard.

Chris: Expressed frustration about money being invested into colleges and universities by foundations, but seeing college/university j-school programs completely disconnected from their surrounding communities.

General comment: The bigger the funder, the harder it is to fund an entity that’s not an institution of comparable size. It’s a mismatch for a big foundation to fund a small organization.

Molly: There’s aversion to risk. There’s the political bent of board members. [referencing some of the reasons why foundations might deny funding]

Michelle: Spoke about frustration related to “serial fellows”– people who get a fellowship and then get more and more fellowships because of previous fellowships, and how this creates a kind of elitism and closed system.

Chris: Difficulty of finding local funding when local philanthropic organizations have hands in so many local matters (gave example of Boston Foundation).

General comment: Any organization primarily dependent upon foundation money is going to be unstable.

Gail: Raises the idea of “organic certification” or “fair trade certification” for independently produced journalism – so that people can understand that independent journalism is produced differently and is desirable and worth supporting because of that.

Chris: Talks about model for funding an investigative series at his publication.

Martin: “For the funders in the room, how to you measure impact? What are the internal dynamics that influence project success?”

Martin: How is your performance evaluated?

Molly: The board doesn’t get into the weeds. We tend to stick with grantees for a long time. The Board wants to better understand how we make our decisions and how we balance being patient with current grantees (because change is incremental) with making space for new grantees and new ideas. It’s a tricky balance.

Michelle: Raises membership models.

Sarah: So, for impact skeptics, why are you skeptical and how do you determine success?

Responses to question include: Facebook likes are not necessarily indicative of impact, though these types of data are collected. The long-tail value of an investment isn’t always visible in a quarterly or annual report; often, the pay-off of an investment is much, much longer. You don’t necessarily know the impact. Program officers tend to feel success is determined more intuitively, even if/when an organization/foundation is looking for quantitative outcomes.

Molly: Money runs out fast at foundations.

General comments from funders: Budgets change from year to year. Even multi-million dollar budgets go quickly– there’s never enough money to fund all of the projects program officers would like to fund. At the foundations represented, it’s likely that once you’re in touch with a program officer, you’ll be funded. The investment is toward funding approval although, of course, it’s never guaranteed.

Michael: Can foundations speak to microfunding and collaborative funding interests?

Molly: Pledge drives are preaching to the choir. The more you are working to actually get into the community, the more sustainable you’ll be over time. What’s hard about that is the culture shift and the fact that it takes a long time.

Stephen: Is it reasonable to expect that foundations would insist that grantees pay a living wage to their journalists?

Responses included: issue of coercive funding; would such a requirement only serve to reinforce journalistic elitism by favoring outlets that could afford to do this in the first place, especially once the grant funding runs out?

Chris: Raises issues about the reaction time/nimbleness of foundations to respond to acute needs in the fields of journalism/media– gave example of how he received frantic emails from Baltimore, asking for help with video editing; the idea of developing a sort of a journalistic emergency response network.

Michelle: Raises issue of foundation investing as reinforcing elitism/segregation/entrenchment.  Not all audiences are valued the same.

Chris: Raises issue of editorial independence. Also says that there are some journalism ventures that just shouldn’t exist; some shouldn’t last forever.