Continental Shift: New Trends in Private U.S. Funding for Media and Development - by Anne Nelson


This work is an October 2011 update of the October 2009 CIMA report, “Experimentation and Evolution in Private U.S. Funding of Media Development” by the same author.


The field of private sector funding of independent media abroad has continued to undergo a massive upheaval over the past two years.  Two major factors have driven the change.   The first is economic: the 2008 recession sharply reduced the portfolios of most traditional foundations and media philanthropies, many of them by 20-30 percent.  They were still recovering when the aftershock of 2011 struck. These institutions, many of them based on the East Coast, had formerly led the way in funding international media development activities, with an emphasis on journalism training and support for freedom of expression.  Now they entered a period of retrenchment, struggling to maintain existing commitments and with few resources to pursue new initiatives.


The second disruptive force, driving the field in a new direction, has been that that of digital technologies.  Vast new fortunes have been made in the field over the past decade, and some of these are now creating new models of philanthropy that display a keen interest in the role of digital media in the world. 


Digital media have also altered the geography of philanthropy.  In the past, international media development grants were often earmarked for specific countries or regions. Now, thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet, many new grants are borderless, with major “international” grants paid out to U.S.-based institutions, and many other grants going to individuals and platforms that operate internationally, with virtually no fixed address.  


The working definitions of media development are also shifting.  U.S. foundations have long funded programs in both “media development” and “media for development,” but recent political and economic trends have blurred the lines and shifted the balance between the two fields.  Crowd-sourcing and citizen journalism have forever altered the definition of the “news media.”   


Two additional factors have appeared on the horizon that will further disrupt the field.  One is the impact of the ongoing economic crisis on government funding.  Over 2009 and 2010, many European donor agencies began to react to the crisis by cutting back staffs and aid budgets (though media assistance was not always among the programs affected).  Substantial cutbacks in U.S. foreign aid are now predicted.[i]  If these cutbacks do reach into the media sphere, they will place added pressure on the already stressed private foundation community to maintain assistance levels.  But the second emerging factor may mitigate the cutbacks in media, and that is the increased attention to the role of social media in political unrest.  Donors (on all sides) are wrestling with the duality of the thrill of the Arab Spring, and anxiety over the loss of control represented by Wikileaks and the social tensions spreading across the globe.  It may be that, even in a period of general cutbacks, the field of media will remain too critical to ignore -- even though the outcomes of media development programs can be themselves unpredictable.


Major findings:


There is a growing list of foundations, many of them based on the West Coast, sprung from the powerhouses of new media technology, that are making their mark in the fields of media and development. These include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Omidyar Network, the Skoll Foundation, and the Google philanthropies.


Two other institutions deserve special note. The first is the Open Society Foundations (formerly known as the Open Society Institute), which support a broad array of innovative media projects on a vast scale.  George Soros also funded the creation of the influential Media Development Loan Fund (MDLF) to provide direct investment and managerial advice to media companies. 


The second noteworthy organization is the Knight Foundation, which originated in a newspaper family foundation but has become both an innovator and a convener for media funding strategies in the digital age.


The philanthropic fields of media and development can be expected to continue its rapid evolution.  Some of the growing trends include experiments in a venture capital model, including social impact investment and the acquisition of equity in media projects; support for non-professional citizen journalism projects; and a heavy emphasis on media that promote public health, environmental protection, and education. Digital media is also affecting the grant-making process itself, by creating more transparent online platforms for applications and engaging online audiences in the funding process.  Technology companies are showing increasing interest in offering direct services on a pro bono basis, such as Google’s “Person Finder” (an online platform to locate individuals displaced by catastrophes such as the Japan earthquake) and Skype’s “Social Good” partnerships with international relief agencies and NGO’s.  Traditional boundaries are blurring between private donors and government agencies, media companies and implementers.  This trend can be expected to accelerate.