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The Knight Foundation Welcomes Ideas to Strengthen Libraries' Roles in the Digital Age
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Posted On September 9, 2014
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Beginning Sept. 10, people from around the country (“anyone from anywhere, but our primary focus is on U.S.-based library projects”) can submit entries for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s (KF) latest Knight News Challenge: “How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities?”

Even before the challenge officially launched, the KF set up a webpage and encouraged people to “talk to us about what inspires you about libraries, about what problems and opportunities you would like to see addressed through the News Challenge.” From 9 a.m. EST on Sept. 10 to 5 p.m. EST on Sept. 30, anyone can post a submission. On Oct. 21, semifinalists will be announced and given 1 week to finalize their proposals. At this point, a group of advisors (which often includes past winners, experts, and folks from other foundations) will review the semifinalists and select the finalists. The KF will announce the final winners in January 2015.

Bringing Change to the Foundation Funding Cycle

Collaboration between foundations and other entities—governments, research centers, and so on—has become a major feature of 21st-century philanthropic and charitable organizations. However, the KF has broken ground by making social media and social consciousness essential features of the funding process.

The great philanthropists of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Andrew Carnegie, built many of the public facilities still in use today—libraries, schools, hospitals, parks, universities, and theaters. Recent philanthropy has continued this legacy, expanding the range and depth of support to an amazing variety of activities, including the arts, social welfare, education, and medical support. Through one-time gifts, regular donations, and other backing, philanthropic foundations and charitable bequests today cover the world. Philanthropy has been tied closely to the rise of individualism; a foundation has been able to create and communicate its values and identity through its goals or operations. With many of the foundations established in the past half-century, we see goal-oriented, transformative organizations that are working to shape the world around them while also transforming their self-images, the wider world’s perception of them, or their legacy for posterity.

These new philanthropists are generally younger, richer, more likely to be self-made, and very connected to the larger social and political life of their culture. They support interests such as global health or climate change. The way in which these newer organizations operate is also notable: They often bypass existing charities to set up their own foundations or projects, which gives them more hands-on involvement in the funded work itself. They demand far more evidence of impact and success through specified, measurable outcomes and ongoing communication. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is often cited as the prototype of this new foundation and charitable mode. The KF, with its motto of supporting “informed and engaged communities,” has established a social model of operation that uses the wisdom of the crowd along with highly engaged social networking as part of its Knight News Challenge grants.

The Florida-based KF was first launched as the Knight Memorial Education Fund in 1940 and today has an endowment estimated at $2.3 billion. “The number of foundations giving media grants (about 2/3 of the total) stayed about the same,” notes Eric Newton, the KF’s senior advisor to the president. “That means a third of America’s foundations are not on the path to becoming digital age philanthropists. It can seem a daunting journey. We who have started along the way need to work harder to explain why it’s worth the work. We need to show why foundations need healthy, independent flows of news and information around the topics they care about to achieve their missions. We need to make the case that in the digital age every foundation is now a media foundation, just as every company is a media company.” The KF seeks to help cultivate ideas to ensure that journalism and our democratic society grow and change with the times. Its Knight News Challenge has already made an impact by supporting ideas in the areas of digital literacy and civic awareness.

Bringing the Wisdom of the Crowd to the Role of Libraries

Chicago-based John Bracken is the KF’s director of journalism and media innovation and is responsible for the Knight News Challenge. The project represents a sea change in terms of how foundations work to develop ideas and seed efforts for change: It makes extensive use of social media to widen the circle of influence and ideas while remaining results-oriented and creating carefully crafted projects. As example entries show, users can easily “applaud” (approve or support), comment on, or see how many people have read each entry. Many use this feedback to further refine their proposals and strengthen their ideas.

“We started the Knight News Challenge about 6 or 7 years ago,” Bracken says. “KF’s background has been significantly as a journalism foundation, and we realized that although we had a strong set of investments around journalism education and journalism training, the foundations under which journalism operates were shifting dramatically and that many of these were caused by the disruption of the internet.” 


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Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Kate Patterson9/9/2014 1:31:32 PM

This is a great opportunity for libraries and anyone who cares about books, learning and civic responsibility. I love the graphics and the author is right about the unique aspects of this. Can't wait to read who wins this challenge! Thanks for a great article!

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