“Even the best-designed communication strategy will fail if there is no public platform from which to amplify campaigns.” (Oak Foundation, 2017 annual review)
Late last year, Alliance magazine devoted a whole issue to the growing involvement of philanthropy and the media. Almost all contributors agreed that more funding of media—from investigative journalism to new technologies to combating disinformation—was a welcome development given the pressures on business models caused by technological change, digital disruption, and declining advertising revenues.
Most observers were confident that this funding would not undermine editorial independence and some—particularly those tasked with bringing in the philanthropic dollars—protested (perhaps a bit too much?) that all this could be achieved without diluting existing safeguards.
But surprisingly, one question was barely addressed in the issue: How should the media cover philanthropy itself? Philanthropy is not just a source of funding but a significant, if mercurial, social phenomenon through which people convert their deep-seated and often inarticulate desires into some idea or other about the public good. As a global philanthropy publication, our mission is to do justice to developments, issues, and trends—essentially to provide coverage of philanthropy in its institutional form.
As I wrote in the December edition:
Arguably, philanthropists in particular need a dose of critique and cross-examination because they lack the feedback loops of ballot boxes and bottom lines that—at least in theory—hold those in government and business to account.
So, who can be philanthropy’s critical friend? Being a “critical friend” to the global philanthropy sector is not without its challenges. That’s because we strive to hold the sector to account as well as celebrate its impact and success. The integrity of our journalism and our twenty-year track record has mitigated these challenges and helped to build trust with our funders and readers. But it takes an enlightened foundation to feed the hand which may bite you.
This isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, a niche concern. For anyone worried about the operation of elite power, the health of civil society and ultimately the well-being of democracy, paying close attention to philanthropy should be essential. The decisions of major philanthropists and foundations have the potential to shape society for good or ill with billions of dollars earmarked for public purposes but held in private hands. It follows that paying attention to the functioning and funding of the philanthropy media infrastructure—specifically the specialist media which covers the philanthropy field—is important too. And it deserves more attention.
But the increasing awareness that philanthropy can be a vehicle for plutocracy as well as a consequence of inequality is yet to convert into support for philanthropy media.
Ultimately, though, it’s not only Alliance and fellow travellers in the philanthropy media landscape who stand to gain the most from greater investment in the philanthropy media infrastructure. Such investment would help raise the profile of the issues which foundations work on as well as improve the effectiveness and accountability of the whole philanthropy field.
As foundations spend increasing resources on employing their own communications officers and retaining for-profit PR firms to promote their programmes, it’s in their self-interest to invest a relatively small percentage—say 10 percent of their communications budget—into funding the development of sector media. Unless and until philanthropy-focused media has greater editorial capacity, it won’t be able to do justice to the increasingly rich material which foundations are producing to communicate their work. I’ve lost count of the philanthropy stories I’d like to tell but couldn’t because I don’t have an editorial staff or news room to follow through on the press releases and pleas for coverage.
Investing in the sector media is a sure-fire way to lift the editorial tide for all foundations, especially when trusted partners already exist. But it requires an investment in the greater good on top of a commitment to promoting the work of one’s own foundation and its partners. Apart from a few enlightened funders such as the Mott Foundation who “get” the need to build philanthropy infrastructure anyway, such funding remains thin on the ground.
By focusing on the supply side of communications officers and PR firms, but failing to invest in endowments or other forms of support for a robust philanthropy media, foundations are doing their field a disservice. Fortunately, it’s one which could be easily remedied. I hope that my successors in the philanthropy media will look back in a few years to see that our blind spot in philanthropy’s own communication’s infrastructure has been corrected. Our field should enjoy the mirror that a sustainable and thriving philanthropy media holds up to it—at least most of the time.
In the meantime, we at Alliance, will strive to be a “critical friend” celebrating the impact and success of the global philanthropy sector while doing our best with the resources we have to hold it to account.
By Charles Keidan, Editor, Alliance magazine
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.