The Chicago Community Trust.
How A Leading Foundation Broke New Ground
I. GETTING INVOLVED: CHICAGO’S INFORMATION AND MEDIA LANDSCAPE
Walk into Chicago Community Trust’s offices on a typical day, and the first thing you are struck by is the commanding view of Chicago from the foundation’s hushed conference room. This venerable philanthropic institution— founded nearly a century ago as one of nation’s first community foundations—is comfortably housed on the 20th floor of a modernist-style skyscraper in downtown Chicago’s desirable North Loop.
But if you’d happened to visit the Trust on August 21, 2009, you would have been struck by a less routine scene: on that day the Trust’s conference room was overflowing past capacity and brimming with excitement as an eclectic group of journalists, community organization leaders, local bloggers, aspiring new-media entrepreneurs and nonprofit communicators gathered to learn about Community News Matters, a new grant opportunity for Chicago-area media innovators. The mix of visitors included leaders from Gapers Block, a for-profit website that encourages browsers to “slow down and check out your city” (the site takes its name from a local term for “rubbernecking” at a traffic accident), Community Media Workshop (a local nonprofit that provides communications coaching for other nonprofit organizations and sources grassroots and community news for journalists), and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, among other organizations. As Trust staff explained the program, revealing that the application process would be open to all and highly transparent, the buzz in the room was palpable. The idea that any type of local information innovator could apply and be eligible to participate—for-profits, nonprofits, even individuals—was unprecedented.
A New Approach to Information and Media
The Trust’s approach was a game-changer for Chicago’s news and information scene. Historically, Chicago’s three biggest foundations – the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the McCormick Foundation and the Trust – had defined how grants were made in the city around news and media concerns. Their grants and in-kind support to a relatively small set of players helped address the news and information needs of the city. But the local information scene was changing quickly. As business woes weakened traditional media, a diverse mix of Internet-enabled news and information experiments had cropped up – experiments conducted by a mix of new players, from innovative grassroots organizations and promising for-profit news providers, to freelancers. Players like these were starting to help fill the community’s information needs at a hyper-local level, but few people in Chicago (even the innovators themselves) had any idea how large this under-the-radar resource had become.
Responding to the Changing Information and Media Landscape
The Trust set out to change that with the launch of “Community News Matters” with a KCIC grant in 2009. Under the leadership of Trust Vice President Ngoan Le and consultant Vivian Vahlberg, the community foundation redefined who was eligible to receive grants, opening itself up to a much more diverse pool of ideas. In the process, the Trust leveraged one of its most vital assets: its deep understanding of and connections to local grassroots leaders who might fall outside the radar of larger national funders, or are too small or inaccessible to be visible to individual donors. The Trust was uniquely positioned to raise their individual profiles and underwrite their ability to work collectively to better address the growing gap of community information needs. As the “Community News Matters” project developed, the Trust also succeeded in raising its own visibility and reputation as a new go-to player in creating and advancing solutions to community information challenges at the local level.
Ironically, the Trust’s approach to the process was not so innovative when first conceived. The Trust initially viewed the KCIC opportunity as a way to connect Chicago residents with useful information about their own neighborhoods and the surrounding region. The Trust’s first idea for the KCIC grant was to create a digital platform that would link the residents of several neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side to a range of civic services and activities. As the Trust prepared to start developing a digital platform for hyper-local news, it formed an advisory committee to help refine its approach, which included experts in new media technology at the McCormick and MacArthur Foundations and individuals from other networks.
This committee quickly disabused the Trust of the idea that another web portal was what Chicago needed. The participants first convinced the Trust that it did not have the required expertise in the online news space to launch and operate its own site. Second, the foundation’s leadership learned of the many hyper-local news sites that already existed, many of them doing excellent work. The Trust switched gears and considered how they could enter this arena in a more thoughtful way. “We needed to go back to the basics of being a community foundation…when we are entering a new area, we do research. We have to understand the needs,” explained Terry Mazany, CEO of the Trust. What the Trust did possess was the ability to conduct research and the power to convene key players. Using these strengths as a starting point for their thinking, the staff quickly realized that the role the Trust was best poised to play was not to introduce yet another information site into the already-crowded landscape, but instead to help the existing field of players find ways to thrive by working together more collaboratively and in new ways.
Mapping the Ecosystem
As a first step, the foundation commissioned research through a local partner, the Community Media Workshop, to map and document the full extent of Chicago’s new media ecosystem. The resulting report,The New News 2009, included a survey and ranking of more than 80 of Chicago’s almost 200 online news sites, and provided a way to navigate the universe of the existing sites. In the same way Zagat helps diners select among a variety of potential restaurant options, the foundation’s survey defined the field and helped citizens and funders distinguish between the dozens of local online news sites.
This was the first comprehensive mapping of the city’s news and information ecosystem, and it revealed a nascent hierarchy of influence and reach among the various sites. It also unleashed a chorus of complaints about who was or wasn’t included, and critiques of the foundation’s ranking methodology. Undeniably, the project raised the visibility of an ecosystem of local media sites that up until then was obscure and difficult to navigate for average local users. The foundation had in effect helped local residents see the forest for the trees in the tangled and crowded local site landscape. The process of commissioning the New News Reportgenerated another important outcome: it helped the Trust understand that it could best serve the community’s information and news deficit by supporting and enhancing—rather than competing with—existing local efforts. So Trust leaders scrapped their plans to launch a new web portal, and instead developed the Community News Matters (CNM) program.
Community News Matters: Supporting Local Media Innovators
Announced in August 2009, CNM is a competitive grantmaking program in which the Trust awards grants and contracts to Chicago-area innovators for activities and projects that improve the city’s information ecosystem.
The CNM program is designed to reward innovators whose ideas address two key community needs:
- Increase the flow of truthful, accurate and insightful local news and information in the region in new ways that engage residents, highlight important issues and enable people to work together to find solutions to local problems
- Help the region’s new media leaders to develop new business models and processes for providing community information that can be sustainable in the future.
Community News Matters was designed as an open RFP process—a key reason for all of the initial buzz and excitement when the Trust announced the program. All told, for the first CNM grant cycle, the Trust received 86 requests for a total of $5.7 million in support (more than ten times the funds they had to award); they ultimately presented a total of $500,000 to 12 recipients.
II. BEYOND GRANTMAKING: FOUNDATION LEADERSHIP
The Community News Matters program has allowed the foundation to play roles that go far beyond that of grantmaker. The Trust has enhanced its role as a regional leader by engaging in the area of information access and online news. It commissions research, builds grantee capacity, convenes partners and fosters relationships for further collaboration—all roles that extend the reach and visibility of the foundation and complement its other efforts to address a broad range of issues facing Chicago.
1. Developing New Insights
Defining the need for and commissioning research is a critical way that community foundations identify the range of local needs. Because it was new to the topic of new media and community information, the Trust realized that its best role initially would be to commission research that would generate insights that could benefit all of its partners, including grantees, other funders and fellow researchers.
Building on the success of the Trust-commissioned research completed by the Community Media Workshop (CMW) for the New News Report in 2009, the Trust had CMW produce a follow-up report in the fall of 2010. Still making sense of the critiques of the rankings presented in the report’s inaugural year, a hard ranking was not includedin New News 2010. In the next edition, the Trust wants to resume ranking sites, which it believes help people make sense of the community information ecosystem in the region. As for the inevitable controversy that ratings cause, the Trust is not worried; controversy builds interest in and visibility for the sector.
2. Facilitating New Partnerships
Through the Community News Matters program, the Trust has been the link through which local organizations and funders have connected and formed fruitful partnerships, thereby advancing the foundation’s programmatic goals. One of the goals of the program is to increase the flow of local news and information, especially in low-income or underserved communities. One grantee, Gapers Block Media, set out as part of its CNM grant to produce stories about and for people in less-wealthy communities who they had not been successfully reaching. Gapers Block is a Chicago-centric website that provides information on news, events and other happenings in the city that has been particularly successful in establishing connections to other sites in Chicago’s vast online news ecosystem. Gapers Block is very effective at reaching and covering the city’s white, middle- to upper-income neighborhoods on Chicago’s North Side, but has, at the same time, struggled to reach a diverse audience.
Inspiring Grantees to Collaborate
Through the Community News Matters program, Gapers Block connected with another grantee, the Chicago Association of Hispanic Journalists. This association used its CNM grant to develop a new Chicago-focused site to promote the work of Chicago-area journalists, assign reporters to address gaps in coverage about issues of interest to the city’s large Latino community, and train and mentor student and citizen journalists. Gapers Block hopes that the association’s network of members and student trainees will provide an excellent pipeline of ideas and writers for Gapers Block, which needs high quality content that is also relevant to underserved communities – specifically, Chicago’s Latino community. Because Gapers Block offers market-rate compensation for freelance stories (equivalent to what a freelance writer working for a traditional major news daily would make), the partnership is a “win” for the association, which hopes the collaboration will provide some income for current and future Hispanic journalists and expose their work through one of the city’s most well-connected websites.
Connecting Nonprofits to Funders
As the Trust has forged partnerships and stronger connections among grantees, it has also fostered partnerships that extend beyond Community News Matters participants. One grantee had no existing relationship with the McCormick and MacArthur foundations prior to CNM. “Nobody who’s doing what I’m doing has any sort of connection to those foundations,” explained the project’s leader. But after receiving a CNM award, this new media leader was approached by the McCormick Foundation for his input on a subsequent Hacks and Hackers event the foundation was sponsoring. Grantees also report that support from the Trust has better positioned them to approach other foundations for potential funding.
Taking Collective Action in the Ecosystem
Finally, the focus on forming and enabling partnerships among Trust grantees has resulted in heightened levels of coordination and collective action across the broader ecosystem of actors in the hyper-local online media space. Through its commissioned research and in informal conversations with its grantees, the Trust learned that many of the smaller, locally-focused media organizations were concerned about their sustainability and unsure of how to use advertising to generate revenue. Several CNM grantees had dreamed of creating an advertising network, in which smaller sites could band together and offer advertisers a larger market than any one of them could do alone – a network that could provide them long-term, sustaining support. But none had the connections, time or expertise to pursue the idea. The Trust recognized the opportunity, gathered site operators to discuss it, and then funded a feasibility study that will determine whether the idea will work in Chicago and will provide a start-up road map. Before Community News Matters, the Trust wouldn’t have had the knowledge or connections to have taken this on; now having worked to build a community of new-media innovators, no one was better suited to play this catalytic role.
3. Amplifying the Foundation’s Visibility and Local Prominence
A final outgrowth of launching the Community News Matters program is the emergence of a true funder collaborative around community information and news with the Trust in the center of the action. As it began Community News Matters, the Trust reached out to the other major local funders of news and information – MacArthur and McCormick – to see whether it might make sense to collaborate. It was the first time the three had ever met to strategize about news and information. As a result of that meeting, the McCormick Foundation went on to host the first meeting of Chicago-area foundations interested in funding information projects, working with the Trust to introduce other funders into the mix.
As a result, smaller funders in the region have since become involved, including The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and the Woods Fund of Chicago. These funders welcome the Trust’s convening efforts as they perceive the foundation to operate from an important point of neutrality; one funder compared the Trust’s role to that of “a Switzerland that is able to bring partners together in a welcoming and collaborative manner.” Just as the Trust’s grantees perceive the community foundation to be playing an important and unique convening role based on its deep connections in the community and its locally-focused approach, funders in Chicago are beginning to see the Trust as playing a similar role among philanthropists as well.
III. LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP
The Chicago Community Trust has long been renowned and respected for its efforts to address key issues affecting Chicago’s residents, including its support for some news-related programming. The KCIC grant provided the opportunity for the Trust to step into a more prominent leadership role in a realm where there was limited sustained philanthropic interest. The Trust’s efforts have served an important function in raising awareness of community information needs among other funders in the city—a number of whom are now joining the Trust to support elements of the ecosystem. The research and gatherings funded by the KCIC grant have made the landscape more comprehensible to both those leading it and those with the means to support it. Finally, through the Community News Matters program, the Trust has been able to leverage its local knowledge and connections to regional leaders to make community information needs a subject of primary concern for those who care about the strength of Chicago’s urban fabric. Community-based leaders, funders and individual participants in the online news ecosystem have taken note of the Trust’s active, innovative efforts and perceptions of the foundation have shifted. The foundation is increasingly seen as a community leader that can set the agenda in addition to being an invaluable civic resource.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation advances journalism in the digital age and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers. Knight Foundation focuses on projects that promote informed and engaged communities and lead to transformational change. The Knight Community Information Challenge is part of the foundation’s Media Innovation Initiative, a $100-million plus effort to meet America’s information needs. The Challenge is a $24-million contest that helps community and place-based foundations find creative ways to use new media and technology to keep residents informed and engaged. For more information on the challenge, visit informationneeds.org
FSG is a nonprofit consulting firm specializing in strategy, evaluation and research, founded in 2000 as Foundation Strategy Group and celebrating a decade of global social impact. Today, FSG works across sectors in every region of the globe—partnering with foundations, corporations, nonprofits, and governments to develop more effective solutions to the world’s most challenging issues. FSG brings together leaders that are hungry to exchange information, elevate learning, and to create collective impact in discovering better ways to solve the world’s most difficult social problems. For more information, visit fsg.org.
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Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.