News and analysis
December 09, 2015

Knight Foundation Sows Success — and Confusion, Study Says

Title: Philamplify Report: Knight Foundation

Organization: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy

Summary: By ditching a "top-down" approach to grant making, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has successfully identified groups working for social change that might be overlooked by other major grant makers. But the foundation lacks a clear set of goals and an explicit commitment to helping marginalized communities, according to the report.

A central question grantees and other funders ask of Knight: "Can it look beyond shiny bright objects and do more to promote equity?"

The study praised Knight as an innovator in its approach to supporting the arts, community development, and media projects. The foundation has attracted an ambitious and youthful staff and its events often make a splash, the study concluded.

"The flip side of this innovation ethos is a lack of well-articulated goals and strategies, leaving many Knight constituents confused about what the foundation is trying to accomplish over the long term," the study concluded. The report added that the dynamic culture at Knight is refreshing "but does not always feel inclusive for women and communities of color."

The committee’s researchers reviewed Knight’s financial and tax documents and a grantee survey conducted by the foundation in 2014. They also interviewed 30 current or recent grantees and 34 Knight "stakeholders," including community leaders, staff members at other foundations, nonprofit leaders in the 26 communities where Knight supports programs, and current and former members of Knight’s staff.

Responses to the committee’s questions ranged widely, from "glowing" to "frustrated," the report said.

Using 2012 Foundation Center data, the researchers concluded that 30 of the 45 largest private foundations made a greater effort to benefit underserved populations than Knight. That year, Knight spent less than 20 percent of its grant dollars on "marginalized communities," down from about 50 percent in 2004, the researchers wrote.

Knight disagreed with some of the study’s findings.

"Our efforts to create informed and engaged communities explicitly seek to include everyone. Our funding of talent, opportunity and engagement seeks to engage the whole of any of the 26 communities where we work," wrote Sam Gill, the foundation’s vice president for learning and impact, in a letter to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

Mr. Gill took issue specifically with a characterization in the report, based on responses from several of the foundation’s journalism and media-innovation grantees who were not identified, that Knight’s focus on Silicon Valley-based technology start-ups resembled a "white men’s club."

Mr. Gill provided examples of Knight grantees that promote diversity in the tech sector.

"As a funder deeply invested in media innovation to meet the evolving information requirements of communities in a democracy, we’re well aware that the tech sector lacks the diversity needed to better meet the diverse markets it serves," wrote Mr. Gill. "That’s why we’ve been at the forefront of funding organizations such as Girls Who Code, Code2040 and LaunchCode, Miami, among others."

Send an email to Alex Daniels.