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Knight Foundation CEO on Social Transformation and the Bottom Line

An interview with Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

I had the opportunity to speak with Alberto Ibargüen, the president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a $2 billion foundation that promotes quality journalism, media innovation, community engagement and the arts.

Alberto has had a storied career as former publisher of the award-winning Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Wesleyan University. Prior to that, he served five years in the Peace Corps in Venezuela and Colombia. I caught Alberto as he was preparing to fly out for last week’s Forum on Communications and Society at the Aspen Institute, which set the stage for our conversation about his role as an advocate for democracy, and an educated and engaged citizenry.

Aaron Hurst: There has been a lot of recent discussion in the nonprofit sector about the emerging trend of social enterprises that have a dual purpose of generating financial as well as social rewards. Do you see journalism as double bottom-line industry?

Alberto Ibarguen: I was publisher of a Knight newspaper and sat in [Co-founder of Knight-Ridder newspapers and the Knight Foundation] Jack Knight’s actual office for eight years. There was a unity of business and mission under Jack Knight’s ownership, and informing community was at the core of his business model: If he didn’t inform the community, he didn’t make money. That’s a big issue in media today. The institutional shareholders of some publicly held media companies are not committed to news or information; they are committed to a certain return on their institutional investments. Jack Knight was committed to both.

It’s a great opportunity to apply Jack’s business tradition at the Knight Foundation. Running a nonprofit should be little different from a for-profit—the major difference is just a question of what you do with the return, if there is any. When I look at the nonprofit or online news organizations that we fund, I’m interested in their ability to continue doing that job indefinitely because the community’s need for information is indefinite, so part of the model needs to be about sustaining the organization by providing value to the market. It’s a way of thinking about philanthropy that is about social investing rather than charity. As a social investor, I want some return in the form of sustainability and the evolution of the project so that it continues to do the good that we intended in the first place.

AH: You recently joined the board of directors of AOL. What parallels do you see between what they are doing and John S. Knight’s vision for the role of media?

AI: AOL has made a very big bet on local news as a way forward and is moving to create a series of “Patches,” or local news operations that include locally produced journalism and blogs and community information. They reflect the community and are technologically very easy to use. The grand vision is you end up with the United States covered by these Patches, with The Huffington Post overlaying a regional and national perspective. That creates a future news organization that is sustainable by the engagement of readers and advertisers at the very local level.

To the extent that you can figure out how to create a for-profit business, you may also be able to figure out how to create sustainable new operations that may or may not be for-profit. Separately, at Knight Foundation, we are also interested in looking at possible changes in the tax laws that might be needed to encourage local nonprofit and community-owned news operations in the United States. There are all kinds of models and hybrids that are being talked about in lots of different places, including in Congress. They may look and run like businesses, but in fact are for public benefit. They could be community institutions or even universities.

AH: You were a leader in the publishing industry for a long time before moving to the philanthropic sector. What has been the most challenging part of making the transition?

AI: It’s hard to remember that you’re not doing the project. I come from a world where I was very much an activist. At a foundation, it is important to remember that you are supporting an individual, a set of leaders, or an idea. The biggest trap is that others will pervert their own idea so radically that it becomes some version of your own idea in order to get the foundation’s money. In my experience, that leads to failure because there wasn’t a commitment by the person doing the project or idea. It is important to maintain open communications and remind ourselves that it is not our project. We look for great ideas that can inform and engage communities, and allow them to come together to decide their own interests.

AH: So then, in your role as a foundation president, how do you measure success?

AI: People in philanthropy seem to want an equivalent for cash as a metric of success. Cash is an easy metric to have in business: You sell the product and make the money, and at the end of the day, you add it all up. You can put a number on it, and it is concrete. We’re in a different business. We should not be afraid to look for metrics, but we should also not be afraid to say you can’t assess social change in the same way you can count cash. We shouldn’t confuse the two. It’s as Jack Knight said: You want to be fair, open-minded, and opinionated. You take in all the facts, you try to be as fair as humanly possible, and then you develop an opinion. We’re in the judgment business, and we ought to be more comfortable—and transparent about—expressing that judgment.

AH: Both in journalism and philanthropy, you are constantly being pitched ideas. How to you filter and respond to these multiple requests?

AI: Coming into the philanthropic side, I underestimated how much pressure feeling good can create. It feels wonderful to say, “That’s a great idea. Here’s a million dollars!” It is much harder to say, ‘”‘m sorry, that’s a wonderful project you’re doing, but that’s not what we fund. We fund informed projects that lead to informed and engaged communities.” Sticking to the strategy and funding focus is really very hard because it is so easy to fund feel-good projects.

AI: How do you maintain that discipline?

AI: The pressure has to be self-imposed. In my past positions, there were readers who could simply walk away if the newspaper wasn’t providing services, or my legal clients could find another lawyer. At a foundation, there is no market pressure to achieve goals—it is all internal. Part of my job as CEO is to provide some of the urgency that is natural in business and necessary for foundations to stay focused on the changes in society. At Knight Foundation, we fund projects that will lead to transformational change by supporting informed and engaged communities. This comes directly from Jack Knight’s philosophy on the purpose of a great news organization: to inform and illuminate the minds of its readers so that the people may determine their own issues and interests and best decide how to move forward. I think that is a wonderful model and the kind of thinking that should inform an organization like ours, creating the pressure that will substitute, to some extent, what the market does for a business.

Read more from this interview at Taproot.

Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.

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