Media Coverage of Philanthropy

After my post Friday arguing that press coverage would encourage the innovations that Cheryl Dahle wanted to see from foundations, Maggie Keenan left the following comment disagreeing with me:

…my question to both Sean and Holden, is then "So What?" More press coverage and the outcome of that is …? To me it’s like some famous world-ranked tennis players, some of which if they spent less time in front of the camera for sponsor promos, may have had a better year on the court.

The point is to be great not big. Sorry, I don’t think more press coverage is the answer to what you think they should try to be accomplishing.

As I said in my response to Cheryl’s rant, foundations have no market or regulatory forces facing them that encourage innovation. I then listed a number of innovations from foundations and philanthropy that the mainstream press has covered in limited fashion or not at all. People who create innovations are risk-takers. Most people are not risk-takers, so for more people to innovate or follow other’s innovations there must be mechanisms to limit their risk. Press coverage is one such mechanism because it let’s people know that 1) “everyone else is doing it” and 2) “people who innovate will be celebrated for their innovations”.

I just started reading The Slow Pace of Fast Change, a book about how innovation happens. From the books cover:

While everyone loves a great idea, individuals will embrace it only if they believe others will too.

Safety in numbers and all that. Maggie is right that press coverage will not lead to innovation, but it will lead innovations to be embraced. I’m not a very cutting-edge kind of guy. I’m not an early adopter. In my response to Cheryl’s rant, I said that she was wrong or “too far ahead of her time”. Press coverage of philanthropic innovation is the key to the mainstreaming of philanthropy. That’s what I’m interested in; the ideas and innovations that are about to, or just have, made the jump into the mainstream.

Speaking of the mainstreaming of philanthropy, the Chronicle of Philanthropy has a comic this week that shows a man walking past a coffee house. The window sign is advertising private foundation set-up services when you buy a cup of coffee. For now, that comic is only funny to the readers of the philanthropic trade journal. When that joke is funny to readers of the New York Times, we’ll know that the Second Great Wave of Philanthropy is cresting. But that’s a long way off.


  1. To me, there’s an even more basic reason for trying to increase press coverage of foundations. It’s to increase public awareness and understanding of the work foundations do, their efforts to improve people’s lives, and the value, overall of their contributions to society. Similarly, increased coverage might also bring more attention to the issues and causes that drive their work, the changes they are trying to foster, and reasons why. Seemingly more attention to those things will lead to greater public discussion, debate, and perhaps encourage more people to get involved and do their part. Also, the more clarity about the kind of work foundations do, the greater opportunities for partnerships with other sectors of our society — government, business, civic organizations, etc., that share interest in achieving the same outcomes.

    Ironically, and as a point of clarification, there already is a lot of coverage of foundations. And almost all of it positive. For more see the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative report “Foundations in the News.” As that reports shows, most coverage is “transactional”–amount of grants awarded, personnel shifts, etc. Much of the coverage lacks, depth, explanation or attempt to draw a bigger picture. A bigger picture, with more explanation, interpretation would be helpful.

    Finally, having the press routinely looking in, reporting and commenting on what foundations do could provide a kind of healthy external force that you rightly note, Sean, doesn’t exist today.

  2. Yes, more press coverage would have the additional positive affects that you mention. You’re also right that there’s lots of coverage of foundations that is transactional. Kind of as if the business press was full of stories like, “Exxon builds another gas station” or “AT&T: Another billion phone calls completed”. Ie, the transactions being completed by the biggest companies, instead of the business press we have that is full of stories about startups, giant flops and grand successes.