By Lauren Kotkin, Exponent Philanthropy, and Pam Harris, formerly of Media Impact Funders
Media has enormous power to inform and educate, shift policy, shape public opinion, and make social change happen. From documentary film to investigative journalism to social media campaigns, media projects are increasingly the keystone to successful philanthropic work on education reform, environmental protection, poverty, economic justice, and much more.
Grantmakers are supporting media to move their missions, understanding that their programmatic priorities depend on reaching key audiences and bringing critical attention to important social issues in ways that only media can.
In addition to this piece, the Knight Foundation’s Five Things You Need to Know; 5 Ways to Get Started is an excellent resource for funders exploring ways to use media effectively.
You Can Start Small
Successful media funding doesn’t require billions in assets or complex programmatic restructuring. Effective media projects vary in size and scope, as do the funding structures behind them.
Plant some seed (money). Early stage projects from documentary films and social media campaigns to community radio stations and online news hubs all need small but early investments to get to critical proof of concept stages.
Invest in journalism. Funders concerned with complex social issues such as homelessness, poverty, education, and healthcare often face diminished journalism coverage of issues and even less investigative journalism. Funders can play a key role in elevating public understanding and scrutiny of policies by supporting a journalism fellowship or public media programming focusing on their issues of interest.
Serve the information needs of your community. Cities and towns across are reeling from the collapse of the traditional media sector and witnessing newspapers close down, reduced budgets for city hall coverage, and major gaps in reporting on issues that matter. After the Rocky Mountain News shut its doors, the Community Foundation of Boulder County helped to support a fledgling news source, I-News, which partners with existing news outlets in Colorado and conducts the kind of long-form investigative news that is missing from so many communities.
Make a movie. Documentary films and transmedia projects are powerful vehicles for social change, reaching larger audiences than ever thanks to digital distribution, viral campaigns, celebrated film festivals, and recent documentary smash hits. Think Gasland, An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman, Food Inc., The Murder of Emmett Till, and Story of Stuff. From investments of $10,000 for production to small grants to support a film’s outreach and engagement campaign, there are multiple ways for funders to invest in compelling film projects.
Dabble in radio, TV, and policy. Funders have a critical role to play in supporting public, non-commercial media of all kinds, and the policies that allow public media to exist. From local PBS stations and low-power FM youth radio programming, to policy work that addresses our shrinking independent media sector, philanthropy is at the heart of the fight to diversify our airwaves and digital channels.
A Few Examples
The Einhorn Family Charitable Trust uses a savvy media strategy, including supporting films like the critically acclaimed Bully, to highlight the need for empathy, kindness, and civility . Working with national organizations like Facing History and Ourselves, the Trust, “seeks to inspire a movement of empathetic citizens and ultimately build a more civil society. ”Bully and the corresponding outreach campaign have created a long-overdue acknowledgement of the bullying epidemic in America, and are making significant inroads in how we identify, and ultimately stop bullying.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation works to support the information needs of communities across the country. Known for its News Challenge and other innovative grants advancing news in the public interest, journalism, technology, and digital space, Knight partnered with the Monitor Institute to help three cities examine their local media ecosystems and discover what’s lacking, and what’s evolving. The grants not only helped each city get a better sense of the challenges relating to traditional media, but also the opportunities surrounding budding online news sources. It also created the Community Information Toolkit to help other cities explore the same issues.
The William Penn Foundation of Philadelphia has supported local journalism efforts including PlanPhilly to stimulate significant dialogue and civic discourse around regional planning and growth issues that are generally unreported. Focusing on journalism that informs the community on often under-reported issues like city planning helps improve decision making and increase civic engagement.
In 1998 four major funders joined together to support the policy and advocacy work of the Prometheus Radio Project and Media Access Project, to create locally owned low-power FM radio stations as an alternative to the conglomerated commercial radio market. Despite broadcasters’ intense lobbying against the idea, the U.S. Congress passed the Local Community Radio Act and the licensing application process is underway. Hundreds of local stations serving local communities will be on air thanks to this collaborative policy support by the funders.
For more on using media to move your mission, see www.mediaimpactfunders.org and Exponent Philanthropy’s Funder’s Guide to Engaging With Members of the Media.
Senior Program Director Lauren Kotkin plans a range of educational programs for the Exponent Philanthropy community, including conferences, webinars, and conference calls. She also dedicates a portion of her time to managing our resources on investments. Previously, she worked at the Council on Foundations in the Family Foundation Services department. Lauren holds an undergraduate degree from Duke University and an M.Ed. from Lesley University, with a focus on using arts in education.