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Molly de Aguiar wonders why philanthropy isn’t ‘placing bigger bets’

July 17, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
Generocity caught up with Molly de Aguiar, the president of Independence Public Media, last week — after the foundation announced its first set of grants and a new partnership with Bread & Roses Community Fund.

The foundation is allocating a total of $5.3 million to 11 organizations. The grantees are varied, as are the dollar amounts granted; several of the grants are intended to provide multi-year support, others are project-specific. (Read about each grant in detail here.) The grantees are:

  • African American Museum of Philadelphia, $300,000
  • Digital Literacy Alliance, $500,000
  • Doc Society, Inc. (Good Pitch Local Philly), $307,500
  • The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, $1,300,000
  • PhillyCAM, $150,000
  • Scribe Video Center, $1,110,000
  • SEAMAAC (Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition), $250,000
  • Taller Puertorriqueño, $100,000
  • Temple University, Klein College of Media & Communication, $850,000
  • The Village of Arts and Humanities, $200,000
  • WHYY, $250,000

In addition, Bread & Roses will get $800,000 for the partnership with IPM to support grassroots media and media making across the region.

De Aguiar answered Generocity‘s questions, via email, about Independence Public Media, about its grantsmaking processes, and about what she believes philanthropy can do better.

Generocity: Independence Public Media is a fairly new foundation — tell us a little more about its genesis, its mission, and the need it answers. What is the trajectory you envision for it? 

De Aguiar: Sure – I love the story behind this foundation. Independence Public Media was formerly a public broadcaster operating WYBE Channel 35. It was a small, alternative public television station with a real artistic sensibility to it, and it was known for programming and staff that reflected the diversity of communities across the Philadelphia region.

In 2017, IPM decided to relinquish its broadcast license altogether as part of the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadcast Incentive Auction. In return the organization received a one-time payment of $131.5 million. With the auction proceeds, IPM transformed itself from the television station into a private foundation dedicated to supporting media and media making across the region.

From our Partners

As someone who has supported traditional and nontraditional media organizations and initiatives for years, I can tell you that there are surprisingly few funders supporting media locally or nationally relative to other focus areas, like the arts, education, health, and the environment. And yet, intuitively we all know how powerfully (in positive and harmful ways) media shapes our understanding of the world.

So our foundation represents a fairly rare opportunity to creatively and thoughtfully support media in this region that supports social and economic progress for all. My hope is that over time other local funders will embrace the importance of funding media as well — we are eager to collaborate!

Generocity: You’ve just named your first round of grant recipients, but I don’t remember there being a big call for applications. Were the organizations invited to submit applications? What is the process, and when do you begin to consider the next round of possible grantees?

DeAguiar: Yes — for this first round, we invited organizations to apply, based on feedback and ideas we received through dozens of interviews with nonprofit leaders, community members, media makers, funders, and others.

I don’t have a definitive answer about the process going forward or the next round — we are discussing options. What I can say is that we will support organizations and initiatives in the region and not just in Philadelphia (though we haven’t defined what we mean by “region” yet), and I imagine we will experiment with our grantmaking processes over time.

Regardless of how we move forward, we are committed to sharing our processes, decisions and learning publicly.

Generocity: You have said that you are interested in community-led grantmaking — tell us what that looks like in Philadelphia.

De Aguiar: I can’t tell you exactly what that looks like in Philadelphia, but I can tell you what I mean by it.

I believe that the people closest to the issues are also the people who best understand the solutions and opportunities available to them. Yet rarely does philanthropy share its power with communities by letting them decide how to allocate resources. Funders can’t bear to give up that control or sense that they know what to do and how best to do it.

And often funders are betting — incorrectly — that the nonprofits they are funding have a full and up-to-date understanding of the community’s needs.

So community-led grantmaking, in my mind, means meaningfully handing over decision-making power to communities where possible, and doing a much better job finding, funding and providing wrap-around support for grassroots organizations that are working as close to the ground as possible.

Generocity: Well-funded, larger (sometimes anchor) organizations now get foundation support for efforts to diversify or expand their outreach to neighborhoods or demographics that have traditionally been served almost entirely by cash-strapped small community or ethnic organizations. Those small organizations say that narrows the pool of funding for them — who are actually serving those communities 24/7. It seems like a diversity & inclusion vs. equity question, and if so, how do foundations answer it?

De Aguiar: This is a good question. In an ideal world, this is a “both and” solution in which funders recognize that they can play a role in pushing larger, more well-funded organizations to be more inclusive and representative of the communities they serve, while also trying to give equal footing to the small, cash-strapped community and ethnic organizations that have been authentically serving their communities.

Obviously, this is not how it typically plays out, and I would guess that foundations are either unaware of the small organizations or deem them to be too “risky” (too financially shaky, perhaps too political, too unsophisticated, etc.). Until philanthropy is willing to take a lot more risks and be more agile, these smaller organizations will continue to lack real access to philanthropic capital.

A hill I will die on is that philanthropy is ridiculously and tragically risk averse.

Generocity: Along those same lines, we see an upswing in funding meant to be regranted, but how do you make sure that the regranting organizations are culturally competent? Also, doesn’t this just keep power with the same gatekeepers?

De Aguiar: I said earlier that funders often incorrectly assume that their grantees have their fingers on the pulse of people’s needs and hopes. In fact, it’s depressingly common for nonprofits (whether a regranting organization or not) to do work that is for the community, but not with the community (shoutout to Laurenellen McCann). Which means that nonprofits can be out of touch with the needs of the communities they are supposed to be serving. It’s really the responsibility of funders to understand the difference and to support work that is with, not for.

With is culturally competent and shares power. For is usually not culturally competent and does not share power.

Generocity: Looking at the first set of Independence Media grantees, there is quite a range — not only in organizations, but in the amount granted to each. Tell us what that should say to future applicants.

De Aguiar: I think there are two takeaways: the first is that our definition of “media” is intentionally broad, (and judging by the feedback about our first set of grants, people are very excited by this). If media shapes our world in complex ways, then we need wide latitude to experiment and pursue multiple avenues of support for media and media making that improves people’s lives and builds stronger communities.

The second takeaway is that the grant amounts reflect some experimentation on our part, and it’s hard to say whether our grant amounts will always have a large range like this or not. As a new foundation, we made a choice to make a handful of larger, multi-year grants in the first round, rather than dozens of smaller grants, which require a lot more work than we had the capacity to handle.

Over the years, I have become interested in understanding what depth of investment (financially as well as other kinds of support) is needed to help nonprofits achieve their goals, because I believe that funders chronically underfund their grantees and undercut the goals both the funder and the grantee are trying to achieve.

So I am thrilled to be able to make larger grants to the organizations in our first round. That said, not everything or everyone actually needs grants in the six (or seven!) figures. I have seen many examples of amazing creativity and impact with very small grants.

Generocity: You bring extensive experience at a number of different foundations to your work at IPM. First, tell us about your background, and then what stays the same and what changes from one foundation to the next? 

De Aguiar: I worked for nonprofits in Philadelphia for 10 years (the Free Library, the Kimmel Center and Gesu School) before landing a job with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in New Jersey, where I worked for 12 years, learning the complexities of philanthropy. While I was there, I had the opportunity to design and lead their Informed Communities program, supporting local news and information across the state of New Jersey.

Prior to joining IPM (truly, my dream job), I led the News Integrity Initiative, which is a philanthropic project focused on combating media manipulation, and fostering informed and engaged communities here and abroad.

I think the thread that runs through my work over the last 14 years is a deep interest in understanding and pushing back against all the structure that philanthropy puts in place to avoid risk.

So I’m interested in the mechanics of grantmaking — how to remove barriers to applying, making quicker decisions, getting beyond the organizations we already know about, etc. I’m also interested in reducing the power imbalance between funders and nonprofits (I co-wrote an article with Jessica Clark about this, with tips for funders). And, as I mentioned earlier, understanding the level of investment needed to help people’s work succeed.

So much of what philanthropy sees as “risk” (supporting the small, cash-strapped organizations, for example) is not what I would consider high stakes. But in any case, philanthropy is supposed to be society’s risk capital, so why aren’t we placing bigger bets? That’s something I spend a lot of time thinking through and working on.

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