Over the past decade, the challenges facing media funders have expanded at an alarming pace. It has now become hackneyed to note the vast changes wrought by the rapid global proliferation of the internet and communication technologies: from the crisis of disinformation and misinformation to decreased readership of traditional news providers to the Orwellian-seeming surveillance capabilities of state and private entities. And as the issues balloon and become increasingly complicated, the media freedom community turns to philanthropists for guidance and assistance (read, $$$). At the same time, these challenges are so great, so global, and so intertwined, that any potential remedies need to simultaneously understand local contexts as well as transnational commonalities. However, priorities and processes structuring the distribution of funds related to these issues are often set by board members, staff, advisory committees, and consulting experts primarily located in the United States and Europe.

Through our work at the Internet Policy Observatory, a project at the University of Pennsylvania, we sought to better understand how grantmaking around media and digital rights issues could be better informed by the needs and expertise of the diverse local communities engaged in research and advocacy around the world. As part of this “demand-driven” approach, we developed a study to grasp how civil society thinks about the challenges they face, the obstacles to collaboration between groups, and the ways in which donor organization practices impact local approaches to research and advocacy. The organizations we surveyed work on issues such as censorship, surveillance, violent extremism, net neutrality, access and cost issues, civic participation, online violence against women, and media development. Efforts were made to ensure this sample represented the diversity of the global civil society community, drawing on voices from Africa (21% of respondents), Europe (18%), Asia (27%), Latin America (15%), Middle East (9%), and North America (10%).

A number of findings from this study should be seen as relevant to the philanthropic community, with funding-related issues emerging as the primary cited obstacle to better research, advocacy, and collaboration.

Respondents were asked to indicate their perceptions of the issues that are currently being addressed by global research and advocacy efforts, and separately to specify the issues that they believe are underexplored and should receive increased attention. We measured the gap between what these organizations believe is being supplied and demanded and noted significant discrepancies. When asked to reflect on these differences, these organizations noted that the topics of interest tend to be those that are most relevant within Western contexts, but might be less appropriate or necessary in media ecosystems where internet penetration and media literacy remain relatively low. For example, respondents described how the swell of donor interest in surveillance following Edward Snowden’s leaks of information about global spying practices in 2013 has since shifted to projects focused on “fake news.” Many described a funding system in which project proposals that cater to Western political, corporate, and security interests are more successful in the ongoing competition for funding. At the same time, other areas of research and advocacy deemed necessary by these local communities go unaddressed. For example, many organizations noted a lack of attention and funding for research and advocacy focused on market-related factors such as concentration in telecommunications and infrastructure ownership within and across countries as well as the internal policies of social media companies.

One of the most mentioned obstacles to greater strategic collaboration around national and regional media-related issues was the competition over funds, what one respondent called the “scramble for funding opportunities,” in which potential partners position themselves as competitors for limited funding rather than collaborators. Organizations also cited funding instability and seemingly capricious donor priorities as incentives for organizations to focus on short-term projects rather than broad, long-term commitments and ongoing collaborative ventures.

These and other concerns that this research brought to light make clear the importance of considering the architectures of global media funding and the ways in which localized expertise can be better understood and incorporated into funding priorities and procedures. As part of the study’s recommendations, we encourage donors to rethink grantmaking processes and question the incentives generated by current funding strategies and the effects these incentives have on opportunities for longer-term projects and collaboration across organizations. Donor organizations should see our research as a model for the ongoing incorporation of “demand-driven” research into wider strategic planning around media and technology challenges.

By Laura Schwartz-Henderson, Research Project Manager, Internet Policy Observatory

This essay appears in Global Media Philanthropy: What Funders Need to Know About Data, Trends
and Pressing Issues Facing the Field. With so many pressing issues affecting the media funding space as well as specific regional considerations around grantmaking strategies and priorities, Media Impact Funders turned to experts from the field and asked them to share insights across a range of media issues. Listening to those working on the ground is essential for understanding challenges and opportunities in a global context, and these essays offer critical insights that funders need to understand in the global media ecosystem. Opinions offered by essay authors are their own.

About the Author

Laura Schwartz-Henderson

Research Project Manager, Internet Public Observatory