Growth in aid to media foundations aimed mostly at web-based efforts

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Foundation support for media-related activities increased 21 percent between 2009 and 2011, according to a study that examined how private philanthropies responded to the increased fragmentation of the media landscape.

Grants for traditional public media organizations grew at a slightly slower rate than other categories of media grantmaking, from $100 million in 2009 to $118 million in 2011, an increase of 18 percent. Yet major stations such as New York’s WNET and Minnesota Public Radio are among the top recipients of philanthropic aid.



“Growth in Foundation Support for Media in the United States,” released Nov. 12 by the Foundation Center, is a comprehensive look at the scope and size of foundations’ investments in media.

The study defined “media” broadly, broken into five categories: journalism and information; media access and policy (including grants to Creative Commons and Free Press); media applications and tools (including Public Radio Exchange); media platforms (including NPR and Sesame Workshop); and telecommunications infrastructure (including Community Telecommunications Network and the Miami-Dade Broadband Coalition).

Among the categories, support for media applications and tools, including interactive games, grew most rapidly, doubling to $47.5 million in 2011.

During the three years covered in the survey, foundations awarded a total of $1.86 billion in media grants. Yearly grant totals grew from $562 million in 2009 to $687 million in 2011. When compared to other categories of philanthropic giving in 2011, such as education and the environment, the media grantmaking total ranked within the top seven.

“I would hope that this is viewed as an undiluted positive message for media makers and media organizations,” said Vince Stehle, executive director of Media Impact Funders, which collaborated in producing the report. Foundation support for media is rising more quickly than overall domestic grantmaking, which grew by 5.8 percent over the time period. “And yet I do think we have to appreciate that the media environment is much more fragmented than it ever was, and so the competition for resources is more intense.”

The results point to a growing interest among philanthropists to shape the media landscape of the future, according to an analysis from the Knight Foundation. More than 1,000 foundations awarded a total of 12,000 grants to media organizations during the three-year period.

The study responds to a 2011 report from the Federal Communications Commission, “The Information Needs of Communities,” that called on foundations to respond to the decline of local newspapers and other ad-supported media by directing more of their philanthropy to media-related activities.

“Hundreds and hundreds of funders across the country in their communities are demonstrating that they have an interest and appetite for funding media,” Stehle said. Funders that typically support other social causes, such as the environment or public health, are seeing a bigger return on investment by delivering grants to media organizations that cover or otherwise provide aid to their area of interest, he said.

Stehle encouraged local media organizations to adapt to foundations’ growing interest in media grantmaking. Instead of relying on traditional media funders, he said, outlets should “look at the leading funders in a particular community.” As an example, he pointed to the Heinz Endowments, the Pittsburgh-based general purpose philanthropy group, which has supported many media organizations over the years, including the city’s pubmedia stations.

Five of pubcasting’s major producers ranked within the top 10 media grant recipients between 2009 and 2011: New York’s Thirteen/WNET; NPR; Boston’s WGBH; Washington, D.C.’s WETA; and Minnesota Public Radio.

A separate analysis that categorized media grant recipients differently found that foundation support for new media increased much more quickly than grants to traditional media. During 2009–11, new media grants, including support for ventures in mobile and web-based media, increased 116 percent, from $100 million to $217 million. Grants to traditional media outlets (TV, radio and print) increased 29.4 percent, from $130 million to $168 million.

Grants were categorized according to the initiatives they supported, not by the recipient. For example, grants supporting public radio’s expansion to web and mobile platforms added to the growth in spending on new media, according to Jonathan Sotsky, director of strategy and assessment at the Knight Foundation.

The Foundation Center developed the study with Media Impact Funders, conducted its research with support from the Knight Foundation and Wyncote Foundation. Current is funded in part by support from Wyncote.

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This article was first published in Current, Nov. 18, 2013.

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