Learning From Mackenzie Scott’s Philanthropy To Build Local News
Why a meeting tomorrow in California could be headed in the wrong direction
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
Earlier this month, two leaders of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) published an extraordinary piece about the philanthropy of Mackenzie Scott (the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos) and reactions to it from the institutional foundations for which CEP regularly conducts satisfaction surveys. The piece is here and I strongly recommend it, not least because leaders of many of these foundations are gathering privately starting tomorrow at an estate in California to consider a self-proclaimed “roadmap” that calls for them to consciously coordinate (if not actually pool) their support of local journalism and to centralize support systems for that work, as well as to launch a major public policy campaign.
Putting aside the public policy lobbying and advocacy, which I will leave to another day, I think we should be deeply skeptical of any such centralizing effort, and that the reactions to Scott cited by CEP are a powerful reminder of why.
Scott, if you don’t pay much attention to such things, has become by far the nation’s leading new philanthropist, having donated $14 billion to 1600 groups in just the last three years. That compares, for instance, with $9.7 billion in total grantmaking by the Ford Foundation (the second-largest institutional funder) over the last 17 years.1 Moreover, Scott’s grants are large—averaging more than $8 million—compared to Ford funding averaging about $1.25 million in total support per grantee over those 17 years. CEP reports that the median overall gift from a major institutional foundation is $100,000.
What did CEP say it had been hearing about Scott? Well, “many foundation staff” in private conversations “have (often quietly) dissed her approach as un-strategic or, worse,” actually harmful, “a disaster.” What were their objections?
An impulse to build movements, not organizations
Almost all of Scott’s grants are for general support, that is unrestricted, and she is therefore building organizations. This contrasts, in the foundation staffers’ view, with an approach that seeks to focus on issues or problems, building “movements.” The foundation staff worry, they told CEP, that this focus on grantee institutions could lessen their influence or even render foundations obsolete. (Scott has declined to hire a large staff, instead employing consultants for limited vetting, which may feel particularly threatening. She has named her effort “Yield,” in part as in yielding power. )
Just in case you think I may be exaggerating, here is a quote from CEP:
we have even heard some foundation leaders confess that they’re concerned their own influence on their grantees that received funding from Scott will be diminished because these nonprofits will be less dependent on them, and, therefore, less malleable. (Really.)
Not surprisingly, CEP reports, the recipients of Scott’s largess see it differently, calling her gifts transformative. CEP found they are not overwhelmed by the funding, and—shocker—feel they are better judges than their funders of where the funds are needed, and how they should be deployed. As CEP concludes, for funders who say “’we’re not interested in supporting organizations, just programs,’ Scott’s approach presents a healthy challenge. Programs can only exist within organizations, after all.”
Scott’s trust in particular nonprofit leaders—selected on the basis of what they have already accomplished—was particularly affirming. CEP found that leaders of color detected a contrast especially with the “distrust and disregard they frequently experience with other donors.”
What is to be learned?
What should the folks gathering in California tomorrow learn from this? First, at least in my view, modesty. The idea of consciously coordinating (or even worse, pooling) journalism giving — a recent draft of the “roadmap” paper called for “governance models for resource allocation”—is particularly dangerous, both because it almost begs for groupthink (make sure to read the definition), and because it makes true experimentation and innovation less likely.
A modest example of the problem can be seen from the fact that in seeking input from 51 people for the “roadmap,” by my count 24 (nearly half) of those consulted were funders or intermediaries, while fewer than a dozen work in primarily local (including statewide) news organizations.
Beyond that, if institutional foundation program officers are tired of making choices of which newsrooms to support, they could instead, for instance, deepen and lengthen the capacity of existing players to support the operations of existing newsrooms. We already have more than enough intermediaries, some of them often quite effective, to which they can send yet more money. (For those who are new here, I wrote about that temptation twice in November.) The last thing we need is the creation of yet another leaky bucket carrying philanthropic dollars for journalism.
Creating a new centralized support system for local news organizations, no matter how efficient it may sound in theory, runs the same risks of groupthink and lack of true innovation. In addition, such an approach posits that the skills and talents necessary to offer services as diverse as content management systems and legal advice have much in common. They do not. Such a central system would almost certainly, in the long run, hobble new local newsrooms in a manner similar to the old newspaper chains, which have—again under the banner of efficiency-- been a never-ending source of frustration for local publishers and editors in the digital age.
I know that the California conferees mostly mean well, and more philanthropic money for journalism, both national and local, is badly needed and would be great. If truly incremental commitments to that end are made this weekend, that will be to the good.
But along the way, I do hope the meeting participants are willing to learn from Mackenzie Scott. She’s newer to philanthropy than many of them, and she has a smaller staff than some. But she’s making an enormous difference, and doing so by identifying nonprofit leaders who already have the vision and even some of the plans—and who mostly require more cash to realize their dreams. The same is true of our most promising newsrooms.
In addition to Scott, the other philanthropic outlier is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which announced last week that it will make well more than $8 billion in grants this year.
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