Assessing Impact of Media

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Grants Are Quickly Expanding for Media Projects That Spur Social Change

In this season of generosity, someone somewhere must be very thankful for the gift of sight that Anabel Stenzel made possible when she asked to donate her corneas upon her death from cancer.

When Ms. Stenzel got sick, she made a point of passing on the spirit of generosity she benefited from when she received a double lung transplant to overcome the debilitating effects of cystic fibrosis.

The story of Anabel Stenzel and her twin sister, Isabel Stenzel Byrnes, who together fought lifelong battles with cystic fibrosis, has been captured beautifully in the documentary film The Power of Two.



The film shows, in touching detail, how the twins struggled and overcame their disease through perseverance and heroic medical procedures. It follows them as they become tireless advocates for organ donation both in the United States and in Japan, their mother’s homeland, where the idea of transplanting organs carries a stigma.

Like many documentaries, the film was made possible through the generosity of individuals, corporations, and foundations. And in May with the support of the Wyncote Foundation, The Power of Two had its national broadcast premiere, appearing in heavy rotation on Los Angeles public broadcaster KCET and its national satellite network, Link TV.

Although a potent story, The Power of Two is just one example of how quickly foundation support for media projects is growing.

A new report from the Foundation Center, in collaboration with GuideStar and Media Impact Funders (the organization I lead), shows that giving for media projects grew 21 percent from 2009 to 2011, far more than the nearly 6-percent rise in overall giving.

Those donations came from more than 1,000 foundations, which made more than 12,000 grants worth $1.86-billion. The grants supported journalism, public-policy development, public broadcasting, and new technology for sharing content.

Typically, when the Foundation Center releases a report about a type of grant making, advocates for the cause decry the relative scarcity of grants. But this report should engender a different response. It’s hard to complain when the report carries the title “Growth in Foundation Support for Media in the United States.”

To be sure, many of us know what even more money for media activities could achieve, especially when it comes to expanding investigative journalism and media policy and advocacy. At the same time, the report makes the important point that media grants, if treated as a single cause, would have ranked seventh in domestic grant making in 2011, just behind the environment and animals and ahead of the category that includes science, technology, religion, and the social sciences. (Which raises the question, what kind of category includes science, technology, religion, and the social sciences? But let’s leave that for another column.)

As important as it would be for foundations to devote more funds to media, it’s just as important for foundations and nonprofits to improve the practice of media grant making and communications. And increasingly, foundations are focusing on efforts to assess and demonstrate the impact of media.

In the new report, “Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers,” Paul VanDeCarr, managing director of Working Narratives, catalogs a wide range of exemplary media grants and communications efforts by the Compton, Overbrook, and Rockefeller foundations, among others.

One such example, “Stories of Change,” is a collaboration between the Skoll Foundation and the Sundance Institute, which supports films about social entrepreneurs and the challenges they face.

In a foreword to “Storytelling and Social Change,” the actress, author, and playwright Anna Deavere Smith says the report “demonstrates how we can use stories to invigorate our democracy and promote justice worldwide.”

One of the most dynamic areas of media philanthropy is focused on efforts to assess the impact of media activities.

Experts are going well beyond just measuring who is watching and reading and instead trying to understand how audiences are responding and what actions they may take after being inspired by a media work.

Path-breaking work is now under way by groups like Harvard’s Crimson Hexagon and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois, and the University of Southern California, where the Bill & Melinda Gates and John S. and James L. Knight foundations recently provided $3.25-million to create the Media Impact Project.

Housed at the Norman Lear Center in the USC Annenberg School of Communication, the project will develop a new data-analytics center, provide expert advice to researchers and media organizations, and oversee evaluations of selected media projects.

Across town, the Hollywood studio Participant Media, run by the philanthropist Jeff Skoll, has embarked on a new consumer survey model—the Participant Index—that will analyze film and entertainment projects to determine how effective media projects are in sparking transformative change.

Given so many new and sophisticated projects, it’s an exciting time in media.

But it’s not just the large and expensive research projects that are so powerful.

The online outreach projects that nonprofits developed to accompany the broadcast of the documentary film The Power of Two included clear pitches to show viewers how to sign up as organ donors. In response, some 1,700 people pledged to donate organs.

For the recipient of a life-saving organ from one of those donors, the rough calculation of what that is worth is clear: infinite.


By Vince Stehle. Published in (Chronicle of Philanthropy)