The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation received more than 2,300 applications this year for the Knight News Challenge, a contest awarding up to $5 million in funding.
While that deluge of applications might sound like a nightmare to many foundation program officers, it’s just what Knight was hoping for.
In its effort to find and fund the best new ideas in deploying digital media to strengthen communities, it’s critical to find the true innovators, wherever they may be, says Marc Fest, vice president for communications at Knight.
To do that, the Miami-based foundation deploys a variety of social-media strategies to discover, connect with and nurture that broader audience.
“We are now supporting people we never would have supported in the past because they would not have come to us, and we would not have come to them,” he says.
Social media takes Knight, and its message and money, to the places those non-traditional grantees live, work and play, allowing the foundation to reach not only more, but different people.
“For those that don’t know who we are, they’ll see specifically the types of projects we have more easily and in more places, in a way that inspires them for ideas,” says Eric Schoenborn, the foundation’s online community manager.
The combination of social media and the contest model, which is at the heart of the foundation’s five-year $25 million Knight News Challenge, as well as other funding programs, has given Knight a better shot at reaching the people who can drive the change the foundation aims to effect, says Mayur Patel, Knight’s director of strategic assessment and assistant to the president.
“Each time we’ve launched a contest, we’ve received over 1,500 applications,” he says. “That’s a universe of people we’ve never interacted with before. It has opened us up to a world of individuals, whereas before most of our relationships were organizations.”
At Knight, social media and other connective-tissue technologies are part of everyday work, keeping the foundation in touch with current and future grantees.
The foundation maintains a website focused on helping grantees manage their communications, with a section devoted to news releases, complete with tips, a worksheet, commonly-made mistakes and examples of effective and ineffective releases.
It uses a free web-based word processor that allows people to work together and simultaneously on a document – say in drafting a news release or taking notes during a meeting.
And one of the first things Knight’s larger grantees do is log into an online project-management website that creates common work areas across organizations, keeping everyone on the same page.
Knight also is active on Twitter, with more than 7,900 followers, and carefully monitors and manages Twitter chatter involving the foundation and its grantees using a tool called TweetDeck.
It can listen, answer questions, clear up misconceptions or otherwise chime in wearing either its public-relations or customer-service hat, says Schoenborn.
“They’re able to get a quicker human response,” he says of grantees or other interested parties. “That makes them more of a partner. We’re trying to shorten the space between us and the grantees, and anyone in the country.”
And by staying on top of conversations in cyberspace, the foundation can connect people working on similar issues that may not already be aware of one another.
“I can chime in and start a network immediately,” says Schoenborn. “Then those people start to communicate directly. That’s of great value to innovators so they can quickly move these ideas forward.”
Even Knight CEO Alberto Ibargüen is on Twitter, with 790 followers.
This spring, before testifying before Congress about the future of journalism, Ibargüen asked his Twitter followers what they would like him to say.
That Tweet was re-Tweeted over and over, and the resulting suggestions were compiled into a report Ibargüen reviewed before giving his testimony.
“It’s about listening and seeking information,” says Fest. “It makes a big difference for us.”
One impact of social media and the quest to reach a broader audience is the democratization of the communications function at Knight.
Twitter, blogs, websites and other social-media outlets require fresh content, and content must be generated by someone.
“We have to create far more content to keep all those conversations going,” says Fest.
That means working with external consultants, and in some cases, requiring grantees to blog about their work.
And employees outside the communications office are stepping up.
“From my perspective, everybody within the organization is hybrid now,” says Schoenborn. “People now are participating in the communications because it can’t all be bottlenecked with one person.”
That cultural shift is one the foundation embraces and nurtures, offering messaging tips and tools to help employees across the organization become content creators.
“Communications used to be an isolated entity,” says Fest. “In our case it’s spreading out and involving more and more people – and that’s definitely our strategy.”
And two-way communications tools allow for quicker, more meaningful feedback, says Patel, noting that the foundation no longer relies solely on annual reports from grantees to assess the foundation’s effectiveness.
“The ongoing way you’re able to integrate feedback from the field into your own program strategy is important,” he says. “Now we have new avenues to get feedback. It’s a much richer conversation so we’re able to make adjustments much faster.”
But with new technologies sprouting up almost monthly, it’s easy for organizations to be pulled off course.
“There’s definitely a possibility of getting sidetracked,” says Fest. “We ask one question about a new technology: Does this help us accomplish the mission of the foundation, which is to support the brightest grantees and innovators in our field?”
Just about any tool can be useful, he says, but they’re not all useful in a way that is goal-oriented. When that’s the case, they can become time-wasting distractions.
“There has to be a certain openness to doing something and finding out it’s not the right thing,” says Fest. “There has to be a willingness to experiment.”
While that openness isn’t always comfortable, it’s an important part of the strategic shift the Knight Foundation envisions with the time and money it’s putting into new technologies and new people, says Patel.
“As the foundation’s role has become not just grantmaking but leadership, we’ve had to make a greater investment in our systems,” he says. “We’re no longer just a grantmaker. We’re a changemaker.”