About this Assessment
In 1940 newspaper co-owners and brothers John S. and James L. Knight founded a foundation that grew over time and eventually came to bear their names. Today, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has an endowment of $2.4 billion; in 2013, it gave away $107.8 million in grants, primarily in the 26 target cities where Knight-Ridder owned newspapers. Knight has four main program areas: Fostering the Arts, Engaged Communities, Journalism and Media Innovation. In many ways, Knight Foundation represents a breath of fresh air in philanthropy, with a broad mission to engage and inform communities and a clear commitment to innovation, including its frequent use of challenge grant contests. However, it lacks well-articulated goals and strategies, leaving many Knight constituents confused about what the foundation is trying to accomplish over the long term. Stakeholders often differ about whether or not Knight wants to help disenfranchised populations and advance equity. Knight can amplify its impact by marrying the best of its innovation ethos with a more explicit equity lens and more grants that directly address the needs of underserved populations. This will ensure that the foundation is engaging, informing and benefiting all of the residents in its 26 cities, especially the most marginalized, to realize its deeply rooted democratic ideals and achieve lasting positive social change.
Lisa Ranghelli, with Peter Haldis, conducted the assessment of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
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Key Finding and Recommendations
The foundation should continue its most effective features, including the challenge grants and prototype funds, convenings and abundant communications to promote its grantees.
Background: Knight Foundation is synonymous with “innovation,” which has led to some significant outcomes. Knight’s challenge grant programs have successfully attracted nontraditional grantees and fostered community collaboration. Knight’s impact is most visible in the variety of arts and culture organizations it has funded in its resident cities, the urban planning and revitalization efforts it has supported, and its push to help journalism survive and thrive in the digital age.
Stakeholder Quote: “We would not have seen ourselves as eligible for a normal Knight grant. … It was clear to us from observing others who might not otherwise have applied or been selected that there was an intentional effort to attract nontraditional grantees, people of color, individuals, not [established] organizations.”
Have explicit goals and strategies for each program area and explain how innovation will lead to long-term systemic change.
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The foundation eschews traditional “charity” grantmaking in favor of “social investment,” but it can have greater impact by setting clearer objectives for these investments. Chasing innovation, funding startups, issuing challenge grants and targeting nontraditional grantees are all great ideas individually, but the lack of an overarching strategy limits their combined effectiveness. A grantee may create an innovative product, such as a voting widget, but that doesn’t guarantee it will have widespread benefit, let alone help to effect positive social change.
Background: Knight lacks well-articulated, long-term goals and strategies, in some cases making its intended impact unclear. For example, Knight Foundation is strongly committed to civic engagement, leveraging community foundations as key partners. But without explicit strategies to build resident power and adequate staff capacity to capitalize on opportunities, the potential for its community engagement grants and innovations to have long-term impact can be limited.
Stakeholder Quote: “More needs to be known about what the strategies are. The tendency is to see [them] as all flash and no substance. We know this isn't the case because they have great, smart people and are innovating. But, without knowing what the strategies are, it’s hard to know.”
Make an explicit commitment to increase grantmaking that benefits and engages marginalized communities, and describe how Knight seeks to advance racial and other forms of equity.
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Knight can demonstrate its commitment to equity and underserved populations by (a) increasing the proportion of grant dollars that benefit underserved communities; (b) stating its equity goals overtly; and (c) incorporating these goals into the grantmaking of each program area.
Background: While a quarter of Knight’s grants typically support marginalized populations, this proportion of grant dollars has been declining over time. Knight funds a number of equity-focused initiatives, yet, without a stated commitment, stakeholders lack consensus about its intent.
Stakeholder Quote: “We watched what Knight was doing for a while, with amazement, but also because we were wondering ‘What’s happening on the other side of the tracks?’ For us, seeing what was going on and not seeing any of that trickle to the Black community was a problem for us. … You need to make sure your ecosystem is inclusive of all Miami communities. There have been steps in the right direction [at Knight] in the past year.”
Make internal structural changes that will improve the quality and consistency of relationships with community foundations, grantees and other partners.
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Knight Foundation is a complex organization with both national and local grantmaking programs, resident and nonresident communities, traditional grants, donor-advised grants and challenge grants. To its credit, the foundation has made structural changes over the last several years to try to align these many moving parts, but it has not found the sweet spot yet. It needs to address local demand for more interaction across the 26 cities, high staff turnover, uneven responsiveness to partners and perceived disconnects among programs to boost the foundation’s impact.
Background: Knight collaborates extensively with multiple sectors at the local and national levels. Yet, stakeholder perspectives about Knight Foundation as a partner vary widely, from glowing to frustrated. Grantees and community foundations especially appreciated convening opportunities, but internal structural changes and staff turnover undermined relationships with these stakeholders.
Stakeholder Quote: “Knight is very person- and personality-driven. There’s an enormous amount of flexibility in Knight’s orbit based on who is in charge on any given day. It has a less central strategy than other foundations. When there are staff changes – which happens a lot – strategy changes quite a bit.”
Communicate clearly to grantees and applicants about how and when the foundation uses general operating support, capacity building and multi-year funding to achieve impact.
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Clearer communication across programs and cities can address some stakeholders’ perception that many Knight grants are “one and done” and their uneven experience with being able to access core support or additional assistance beyond the grant.
Background: Knight Foundation is a learning organization that communicates abundantly and creatively but not always strategically. For example, Knight Foundation engages in several good grantmaking practices and has proudly grown the diversity of its investment managers. Yet, many constituents don’t realizes that the foundation provides a significant proportion of its grants in the form of operating and multi-year support.
Stakeholder Quote: “I would point to one thing [to change]: We always look to foundations to have an interest in unrestricted dollars. For any organization, but especially a smaller organization, [we need operating] funding for sustainability and growth, multi-year funding for staff building. Otherwise, they’re a really terrific partner.”