Media, the Internet and Philanthropy

The Transmission Project has always recognized the need for supporting public media and technology—and its necessity for community and economic development. Luis UbiƱas, President of the Ford Foundation, recently made a similarly passionate argument:

In years past, foundations have tended to view grant making focused on Internet policy as a “media” issue. The thinking was, “Let those grant makers already focused on media policy pursue that work, while others remain focused on their own important issues, from education and economic development to human rights and the arts.”

It’s clear that this binary thinking no longer fits with contemporary reality.

Today the Internet is fundamental to every issue we care about. Efficient and low-cost health care, for example, will soon depend on high-speed access to online medical and diagnostic tools. Some 77 percent of Fortune 500 companies accept job applications solely online, according to one study. And digital classrooms that use high-speed Internet are already connecting students with a vast new world of ideas and information…

The effort to ensure universal access to high-speed Internet among all citizens is a critical next step to ensuring that America realizes its great aspiration of equal opportunity for all…

A second major challenge is sometimes harder to see but is as significant. Even if all Americans gain access to the Internet, we need protections in place to ensure that the Internet itself remains neutral and open….

All of us committed to progress, social justice, and rigorous public debate have a stake in this effort, and foundations are uniquely suited to building discussions among business, government, and nonprofit organizations in a way that no other institutions can.

That is why the Ford Foundation is committing $50-million over the next five years to support efforts that ensure both that broadband access to the Internet becomes a reality for all citizens and that public-interest values in the online space itself are protected. We want this to be an open conversation.

  • Every person should have the opportunity to access high-speed Internet connections.
  • Everyone should have a choice of providers to drive competition and innovation.
  • Everyone should have the same legal rights and protections online as off-line.
  • We collaborate with citizens, companies, and government to build common-sense rules to prevent censorship and anticompetitive behavior that can stifle innovation.

There is a real debate to be had: How can government, business, and nonprofit organizations lead innovation? How can citizens enjoy the access they need on the Web? How can government craft workable, smart rules of the road for all? The debate needs many voices.

At Ford we have come to see that our commitment in this dialogue is critical to protecting all of the other work our foundation supports; indeed, it is central to supporting any work that relies on the freedom of people to come together and to communicate.

While we are fortunate to be joined by many other grant makers that are realizing the importance of broadband to the issues on which they work, many other donors must join the effort.

Hot on the heels of those prescient statements is a new report from Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media’s (GFEM): “Funding Media, Strengthening Democracy: Grantmaking for the 21st Century”. It similarly seeks to put information and media at the nexus of social change:

The importance of media and the crucial role played by philanthropy is laid out within these pages. Media, in all its incarnations, influences our decision-making processes, whether personal choices or professional ones, in policy-making, and at the local, national, and international levels. Regardless of how much or how little media one may personally consume, the world is saturated with and driven by media.

Philanthropy, with its mission to improve the human condition, has yet to meet the challenge of keeping pace with the growth and influence of media. We would like to change that. Funding Media, Strengthening Democracy continues a critical dialogue on how philanthropy can best harness its resources—dollars and leadership—to meet the needs of a media-saturated world, in an age of increasingly rapid innovation, where media and social uses of media can have revolutionary impact on individuals and, indeed, entire nations.

The report makes 10 great recommendations (and has the data to back them up), but I will highlight 2 of them here:

First, acknowledge the prevalence and impact of media. Foundations and government agencies of all sizes and in all fields will benefit from recognizing the growing importance of media, and screen-based media in particular, to the future of every field—education, health, the environment, and more.

Tenth and finally, funders should recognize that media reinforces their missions. If the public and government are going to understand and appreciate the work of philanthropy, they are going to be looking, or listening, or watching, or gaining and expressing these attitudes through media.


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