Philanthropy and the Digital Public Dialogue: Challenges and New Opportunities

Posted on April 23, 2012 by Guest Blogger

By Jeff Stanger, Director of the Center for Digital Information

Wayne Gretzky famously said that a great hockey player skates to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. These are instructive words for philanthropic foundations and other groups confronting fundamental and rapid shifts in the communication landscape.

Two disruptive forces are reshaping the terrain on which our public dialogue takes place: digital communication technology and the unraveling of traditional journalism. This is of enormous consequence for social sector organizations whose effectiveness relies in part on a functioning, well-informed public debate on issues such as health, education, the economy, global development and the environment.

Foundations and the groups they fund have long played an important part in informing, framing and participating in the public conversation on their issues of concern. Their strategies include research and information dissemination, public communication activities and campaigns, and funding media. An example of the centrality of these efforts: there are thousands of organizations whose sole purpose is research and dissemination to inform the public policy dialogue and process.

One of the oldest American foundations, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, made "diffusion of knowledge and understanding" its philanthropic mission a century ago. So these activities and their importance are nothing new. The need for them is greater than ever before as traditional sources of public information disappear and policy challenges become more complex.

What's new and changing is the communication environment in which this all takes place. It looks less familiar with each passing day — decentralized, networked, mobile, interactive. In a word, digital. Whether this new public dialogue thrives — with social organizations' knowledge as a meaningful part of it — will depend on whether the sector can recalibrate its communication practices, heed Wayne Gretzky, and skate to where the digital puck is moving.

This is unsettling for foundations and others that have operated in a communication system in place for generations. That system — with sources, media and audiences neatly in line — has come apart. With commercial pressures on journalism intensifying, the topics that the philanthropic sector strives to keep at the forefront of public consciousness could be among the first to be cast aside. The lack of a familiar last-mile institution of journalism presents a substantial challenge to organizations that have historically relied on that function and are still structured to navigate the old landscape.

That challenge is accompanied by enormous opportunity. Unlike in past eras, social sector organizations are now in direct control of a mass communication medium, more powerful than any that preceded it, with global reach, unique capabilities, and expanding potential to engage and inform. An intimidating prospect for those not accustomed to "being the media," but a golden opportunity nonetheless.

Whether viewed as a challenge or an opportunity, the social sector must adopt new psychology, create new organizational structures, develop new strategies, invite new skills, and take a fresh look at how resources are allocated toward informing citizens and policymakers on critical public issues.

These new realities are what animate the mission of the Center for Digital Information. CDI was created to help the social sector rethink its methods of producing and communicating information, specifically by supplementing its traditional output of reports, white papers and journal articles with newer interactive digital products. My objective, however, goes beyond replacing PDF documents with something new. I hope by demonstrating new ways of communicating information and how to achieve them that CDI can help the sector tackle the more important task of developing new digital age structures and processes.

CDI is placing these issues center stage at "Philanthropy and the Digital Public Dialogue," a roundtable on Monday, April 30 as part of the Council on Foundations annual conference in Los Angeles. Communication scholars, internet experts, and foundation executives will look at the trends in digital media, their adoption and use, and the changing contours of our communication environment. The group will discuss where the puck is headed, and what structural and operational changes are required for philanthropic institutions to become better, faster, more nimble skaters in an increasingly digital public arena.

The discussion group includes:

-Geoffrey Cowan, President, Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands

- Ernest James Wilson III, Dean, Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California

- Michael Delli Carpini, Dean, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania

- Lee Rainie, Director, Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project

- Lucy Bernholz, Managing Director, Arabella Advisors

- Marta Tellado, Vice President, Communications, Ford Foundation

- Debra Jacobs, President and CEO, The Patterson Foundation

- Matt James, President and CEO, The Center for the Next Generation

- Michael Smith, Senior Vice President, Social Innovation, The Case Foundation

- Mayur Patel, Vice President, Strategy and Assessment, Knight Foundation

- Mary Lou Fulton, Senior Program Manager, The California Endowment

Join us in person if you'll be at the Council on Foundations conference. If you can't make it to Los Angeles, watch the live webcast on Monday, April 30 at 12:30pm PDT/3:30 EDT. You can follow along and participate on Twitter using the hashtag #cdicof.

Full details are at

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