“Bright and Shiny” Syndrome: Philamplify Looks at the Knight Foundation

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Knight Arts Challenge / Knight Foundation

For those readers who are not yet familiar, Philamplify is a project of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy designed to externally assess the effectiveness of foundations by interviewing and surveying grantees and stakeholders and examining documents. Because it is initiated from outside of the foundation, the Philamplify process is a bold philanthropic accountability project that is in its way fast making itself a part of the landscape. In this case, 30 grantees and 19 stakeholders were interviewed, along with partner funders and Knight Foundation staff. This particular report was authored by Lisa Ranghelli, who developed the assessment process, and Peter Haldis.

Here, we look here at what the grantees and stakeholders have said about the personality of the institution. However, this article should in no way be interpreted to be a judgment on the breadth or worth or impact of the Knight Foundation’s work. We encourage readers to visit the Knight website and to read the full Philamplify report to get a full sense of the institution.

Knight is a complex operation with a variety of approaches to building fields and knowledge. In addition, Knight’s payout is often above the required five percent. Its leadership has a stated commitment to civic engagement for its own sake, it works hard to share the information developed within its grantmaking pools, it engages in bold longer-term initiatives in partnership with other foundations along with its own direct grantmaking, and it is a pathfinder in foundation digital communications strategy.

Finally, Knight fully claims and prides itself on its innovative and entrepreneurial bent, and that includes a lot of interest in technology. It is known for its experimentation in and exploration of the digital future and its implications.

Still, long story short, many of the stakeholders interviewed for this report seemed to agree that while the foundation is super innovative, they are not always sure to what end. The impression is that in its direct grantmaking, many individual projects that have emerged from new and often untested ideas have been funded, but there is no sense that a coherent vision knits it all together. This, they say, makes for many unusual grants and lots of access for younger people who are not the usual suspects (good so far) but not a lot of funding of strategies already proven.

In a whole section on the topic, the report discloses that nine different stakeholders used some form of the term “bright and shiny objects” when discussing the focus of the foundation. When a term is used that much to describe an organization, it may be considered a hefty part of its brand as experienced by stakeholders.

And besides the use of that particular phrase, there were other comments in the same vein, as in:

I think in the media field, Knight sees its impact as finding attention-getting, field shaping projects before anyone else.

Even some that start out well sometimes end up in the same place.

They’ve had some great results. There’s some really great ideas. I’m excited about that…seems cool and fun but slightly fluffy.

The dynamic may be most intense in the small grants area, where the report likens their philanthropy to venture capital funding: a lot of small “one and done” grants being made with every expectation that many of them will fail. While one side of this coin is indeed bright and shiny—we do need that risk taking, right?—it may leave something to be desired.

They have funded a lot of things that haven’t been able to move to another level. In a way, they have fallen in love with the “let’s be entrepreneurs in the tech industry” approach and in a way dismissed some of the players that may have better business models and more sophisticated approaches.

Coupled with this were many comments from people who just “don’t get” the foundation’s overarching strategies in all that bright light. Some comments were from peer funders:

What is the strategy? I don’t get it. […] The grants they give out seem scattershot. Random people come in with an idea and if they like it they give them a grant.

And some from grantees:

It’s the Knight foundation falling in love with some techy guy. […] I always look at who they’re funding. […] They’re funding a lot of great things. It’s not clear what strategy is guiding those decisions.

You get the picture. Additionally, there are questions about whether Knight, even in areas where it has been most intensely involved in knowledge building, like nonprofit journalism, has been instrumental in assisting the emerging field in charting its future course or just accompanying it on its wild experimental journey. (Presuming, of course, that that matters. A consistent accompanying philanthropic presence willing to take the lead of grantees is sometimes just perfect.)

Finally, and perhaps most troubling, are the reports of a real divergence of opinion when it comes to stakeholders’ views of their relationships with Knight: “For every comment praising the Knight Foundation’s partnership with stakeholders, one or more respondents expressed a contrary opinion. While it is rare to find unanimity of opinion about a foundation among its constituents and peers, the variation in experience documented in this assessment was pronounced relative to the other foundations reviewed by Philamplify.”

In fact, there appeared to be different classes of relationships. Some were being consulted and welcomed into its (by all accounts) exciting convenings and opportunities for learning. They speak “glowingly” of the foundation. However, the larger 60 percent of those interviewed expressed mixed or less-than-glowing impressions—even a sense of exclusion. Along with this, some grantees reported a heavy-handedness:

They have a really bad bedside manner. They have a tendency to play hardball with us.

The program director thinks she knows better than everyone else. S/he always talks about how everyone needs to collaborate but what she really means is they need to do it just like s/he wants. And if you don’t you become persona non-grata.

I think the Knight Foundation is missing empathy, It has tons of the positive “let’s make things happen” quality, but it’s missing empathy, even from all of their staff…I wish they were more human-centered.

This reflects a feeling that the foundation staff have favorites in which they are invested, and that other grantees that are not so privileged are frustrated by the lack of access. Partner foundations mentioned similar issues.

And all of this may be intensified by turnover among staff. As one grantee said, “Knight is very person- and personality-driven. There is an enormous flexibility in Knight’s orbit depending on who is in charge on any given day. It has less central strategy than other organizations. When there are staff changes—which happens a lot—strategy changes quite a bit.”

In the end, we seem to be looking at the portrait of a foundation that may have tipped too far over into the tech innovation culture. Perhaps it has focused more on the developers of the next great idea (and is willing to take the fall for the many failures that entails) and less on getting things done in community over longer periods. To do so requires acceptance of the mundane and iterative as important in advancement as well as the breakthroughs. The impatience with slog and the passion for choosing of the brightest among the brightest may be a part of that techie development culture, but that corporate personality could conceivably be a tough barrier to success should it leak into work in communities to build grassroots engagement, where relationships built on long-term trust and consistency count like crazy.

For its part, the foundation appears to be taking the findings of the Philamplify report in stride. Sam Gill, Vice President/Learning & Impact at the Knight Foundation, is quoted as saying, “While we may not agree with some of the opinions you’ve expressed about our work, we believe not only in your right to express them, but in the value of having a range of opinions and views. We will consider your recommendations.”