The Case for Media Funding
“Now more than ever.” It’s the phrase we’re hearing in every meeting and conversation, and it seems to be etched into the moment we’re in.
Right now, there’s an intense debate happening about the fundamental value of facts and the ability to discern agreed-upon truths. So as civil society continues to grapple with the need to address climate change, racial and gender inequities, nuclear disarmament and many other pressing social issues, the case for media and journalism, across the board in philanthropy, is stronger now than ever before.
In response, more and more foundations, regardless of strategic objective or whether they expressly consider themselves media funders, are recognizing the power of media to combat these problems.
More than any other resource, media brings home the reality behind social issues in a visceral way. It is far more likely that audiences will remember a compelling television documentary or radio segment than a bar chart or a lengthy print report riddled with statistics. Great storytelling through media gives foundations unique opportunities to capture the attention of general audiences, legislators and other media outlets.
The Breadth of Media Funding
Support for media activities takes a variety of forms, including documentary film, journalism, public media and other nonprofit activities
Foundations have long supported the work of documentary filmmakers. The breadth and depth of foundation support for film has expanded to a point where some filmmakers regard the current era as a golden age for documentary films. The media funding field came together with an early focus on the power of documentary film, before shifting to support public media and other forms of nonprofit journalism. For examples of high-impact documentary films, see our Media Impact Festival case study archive.
While funders have traditionally supported journalism through public media, there are now a growing number of nonprofit news sites that are focusing on a variety of reporting styles, including issue-specific, investigative, accountability, advocacy and more to fill the gaps created by newspaper cutbacks and an ever-more polluted commercial news media. For many years, foundations have supported independent nonprofit journalism organizations such as the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Fund for National Progress (Mother Jones). In recent years, many more nonprofit news organizations have sprung up, in large part responding to the collapse of the newspaper industry. Learn more about journalism funding.
Public media, which for 50 years has served the information needs of citizens, remains an extremely important and influential news provider as well as a place for citizens to hear classical and indie music, watch—or create their own—community public access programming, and interact with other forms of non-commercial media. Longtime funders of public media, such as the Wyncote Foundation, are committed to preserving the role of public media in civic life to enhance civic participation and maintain a “public commons.” For example, WNYC’s Science Friday, supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation, among others, is increasingly aware of the importance of increasing citizens’ access to science and understanding of complex scientific topics. Learn more about public media.
Other nonprofit media activities
Increasingly, nonprofit organizations, including libraries, museums and educational institutions as well as publications, are taking on media activities—which range from investigative reporting to VR storytelling—to further their missions. With the help of the Ford Foundation, the ACLU of Michigan hired its first investigative reporter to look into the emergency manager law in Michigan. What the organization uncovered was a poisoned water supply in the city of Flint and a massive government scheme to cover it up. Other foundations use non-journalistic means to spread their message. AndACTION, a pop-culture hub supported by a number of influential foundations, gives social-change organizations a heads-up on film and TV shows in production related to their causes. This gives organizations more time to develop effective campaigns designed to drive action and spur change.
Current State of the Field
The media funding field is constantly growing.Explore the Map
Our Media Grants Data Map provides a tool for an up-to-the minute understanding the current state of the field. (To ensure that information on the map is as accurate as possible, funders are encouraged to report their data directly to Foundation Center through its eReporting Program.)
Functions of the map
- Understand who is funding what, where and how much, and how your organization fits into the big picture
- Be more strategic in decision making, planning and evaluation
- Reduce duplication of effort and foster successful collaborations among other funders with shared goals
- Facilitate effective partnerships with grantees and other foundations
- Help staff get up to speed on the field, relationships, and the work of peer, regional and local institutions
Current data show a field that includes billions of dollars in media investments worldwide. Major media foundations include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Freedom Forum, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Examples of some of the larger media grants include:
- Freedom Forum’s $260+ million investment in the Newseum over several years.
- The George Lucas Family Foundation’s $30 million investment in 2010 to University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts for a cinematic arts building.
- The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s $25 million free-expression investment in 2015 to sustain the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
- The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s $10 million in general operating support to Creative Commons, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting a free and open Internet.
- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $10.5 million in 2016 to Khan Academy for digital instruction content and tools for teachers.
However, a foundation does not need large dollar investments to get started, nor do they need a formal media grants portfolio. Even a small grant may help citizens in a given community or demographic gain access to credible information. See examples of both large and small grants over at the Media Grants Data Map.