The following is a conversation between Alberto Ibarguen, President & CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: The Knight Foundation was established by John S. and James L. Knight Brothers, who led one of America’s largest and most successful 20th century newspaper companies. It was their belief that a well-informed community could best determine their own true interests, and they entrusted future generations of trustees to do just that.
For the past 18 years, the foundation has been led by Alberto Ibargüen, who recently announced that he will be stepping down as President and CEO, leaving behind a remarkable record of achievement, and he’s with us now. Welcome back to The Business of Giving, Alberto.
Alberto: Thank you, Denver. Pleasure to be here.
Denver: You know, the Knights Brothers legacy is the cornerstone of the foundation, and you’ve navigated an involving world with finesse to honor it. What were some of the measures you took to ensure their legacy thrived amongst all these changes?
Alberto: Well, I had an unusual advantage over, I think, everybody else. And that is that I sat in Jack Knight’s chair for almost a decade before coming to the foundation when I was publisher of the Miami Herald. And before that, I was at the El Nuevo Herald.
So, I had plenty of opportunity to not only think about how the Knight Brothers used to run their papers, their news operations, but what their values were and how they acted in the community, and what they really valued. They had a very unusual structure. Jack was 17. Of course, I would never dare call him Jack.
If he were president, I would call him Mr. Knight, but everybody knew him as Jack and Jim. And Jack was 17 years older than Jim. Jack had all the editors reporting to him. Jim had the general managers reporting to him. Jim was the business guy. Jack was the editorial and, frankly, the inspiration.
And they ran it in a very different way. Jim ran a similar kind of business all the way along. The purpose of that business was to create an independent news organization that reflected the communities. Jack hired editors who reflected their communities, who put out one same newspaper all across the country, or TV stations when they had them.
And so, his belief was Detroit was different from Miami, and neither of them were San Jose… or for that matter, Philadelphia or Biloxi or Aberdeen. And so, he had an editor who really understood that community and was able to tell the local story.
That respect for local news and the ability of a local audience to gather trust and respect in the news operation because it was news they understood. If you get stuck in a traffic jam, and you read the story, you know these people got stuck in the traffic jam, too.
Alberto: If you read a story talking about those two towns in South Florida– Miami and Fort Lauderdale– as if they were the same thing, then I know you’re not from here.
Alberto: Because the people from here, just like in Minnesota– Minneapolis and St. Paul– you talk to somebody, “Oh, you’re from…” “No, I’m from St. Paul” or “No, I’m from Minneapolis.” That local knowledge insight is what Knight was all about, and I think was the key to their success. And we try to replicate that.
Denver: Yeah, I used to work in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and somebody said, if you go to Lancaster and you ask for directions, and you say Lancaster instead of Lancaster, you get the wrong directions. So, these are big differences. And, you know, another thing that touched me, what you said, was how you sat in that chair for 10 years.
And I know the Knight Foundation is back full time right now, but I don’t think people sometimes fully appreciate the importance of proximity… just the osmosis that occurs in being around and picking up things that you’re not even doing consciously, but it can really influence you over your career.
Alberto: Absolutely. And so, when I came here, I just considered it as such an amazing privilege. I knew, I felt in my bones that the newspaper industry was ready to… I don’t want to say crater or implode, but it was really ready for a deep and serious drop because of technology.
I love quoting Yogi Berra who said if the fans don’t want to come to the ballpark, nobody can stop them. Well, our fans were already going to another ballpark, our fans at the newspaper, and we hadn’t figured out how to get the news to them. It’s our job to get the news to that citizen, that community in whatever way they will take it, in whatever way they want it, and wherever they want it, and however they want it.
And it used to be that people were happy to have it dropped on their doorstep or picked up at the coffee shop. Not anymore. Okay, fine. We have to change with that because the essential function of a newspaper is to inform those citizens so they can be effectively engaged in a democracy.
And for the first time in the history of the Republic, we’ve decoupled the way that we inform ourselves from the way that we elect people. We still elect people by geography. We still elect congressional districts and commission districts and mayoral districts, and that used to be the circulation area of a newspaper… or the signal of a radio station… or the signal later of a TV station. Not anymore.
Now, it’s geography-less, but we’re still electing people by geography, but don’t have the same mechanisms for informing by the system that we elect people. And that means that we are consistently electing people that we don’t know, to do things we’ll never hear about. And that in a democracy is a train crash waiting to happen. We have to work on that.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. I think back, you know, in the day, there were really only two national sports. They were horse racing and boxing, and everything else was local. Every baseball game was just in your local market. And I take a look at our local paper, and unfortunately, it is covered with the press release of City Hall.
You know, there isn’t anybody out there because down there, they’ll say, “Hey, what are they saying here? We just get the boilerplate that’s coming.” Well, how has that background in journalism, you know, including The Wesleyan Argus… I don’t want to leave them out… influenced your approach to leading a philanthropic organization?
Alberto: I take both sides of this really seriously… that journalism and the community, and by the community, I mean the whole community. There used to be nothing in a sense more democratic than the cheap newspaper. We would gather the news printed on cheap paper and sell it for a song, and if it got too much more complicated than that, you were doing something wrong.
And I take that attitude. If we’re not all in the room, if you sit around and say, We’re going to do this project in the community… If you don’t ask the right question, which is: Are we all in the room? Is everybody here represented? That’s what happens in a really good local paper.
Everybody’s in the room, everybody’s reflected. You pick up the paper and you say to yourself: This newspaper is written for people like me. That’s what I want you to feel, and it isn’t a paper anymore. The paper part of it, for decades, has not been the issue. It’s the news part of it. You want the community to be informed.
It is a hundred percent Jack Knight’s view of what a great newspaper is supposed to do– to inform the minds of its readers so that the people may determine their true interests. That’s a direct quote from Knight, and it’s very Jeffersonian. There’s that famous letter where Jefferson writes to somebody that if he had to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he wouldn’t hesitate to choose the newspapers.
Alberto: Although, I did work at the Hartford Courant, which Thomas Jefferson did sue for libel. And, by the way, the newspaper won. But the point is that the next sentence that most people don’t quote is that he says, “Because an informed citizenry, a well-informed citizenry is the best decider”… to sound like George Bush.
It is really so important in a democracy that people have reliable and consistently reliable information. So, what we’ve done at Knight Foundation is that, okay, from the beginning of my tenure, we used to do lots of endowed chairs. In fact, we still have, I think it’s 20-some endowed chairs of journalism.
But instead, what we did was say, Okay, let’s stop pretending that we have the answer for this digital future, for these new social media platforms. And instead, we’ll say, Okay, we’ve got some cash; you have some ideas. Let’s marry the two, and we began experimenting. At one point, the Media Lab at MIT was our biggest journalism.
And then, when we had begun to have a sense of what the new technology could be, which by the way, was also a hallmark of the Knight Brothers… they were always early, intelligent adapters of new technology. In 1948, Jack Knight was talking about faxing his newspaper.
Denver: I saw that. I couldn’t believe it. 99.99% never heard of a fax. And he’s out there spending money doing it.
Alberto: Absolutely. And so, the intelligent application of technology so that you get the news to the people who need to make the decisions in a democracy is what we’re all about, and then getting that community engagement, including everybody in the community, weaving in, in all programs, diversity, and inclusion.
That’s what we’ve been doing, and I think it’s paying off. We’ve done really, I think, a decent job of seeding a lot of newspaper organizations. I’m not claiming credit for the hard work of any of them, but we were early funders or founding funders of things like Texas Tribune, Republic, New Haven Independent, Voice of San Diego, Mint Post, now in Houston, the Houston Landing.
All of them online, most of them not-for-profit. We were the first founders of the American Journalism Project that has now stood up dozens and dozens of local papers. We helped out at The Baltimore, and a new Baltimore effort that Stuart Bynum is doing.
Alberto: I think this is a really, amazingly exciting time. And the best part is that thanks to the leadership of Jim Brady from Knight Foundation and John Palfrey, the president of MacArthur Foundation, which is a little bit premature, but I think in a very short period of time, you’re going to hear some numbers of willingness to invest in online local news that will knock your socks off. Watch for it in about, I would say, a month and a half.
Denver: Okay. That’s exciting to look forward to. Interesting things you said, you know, the Knight Brothers, about the fact that they were not trying to keep up with the times, they were trying to stay ahead of the times.
Denver: And open, to be ready for when the times came along. And, I guess, what I heard you say there too, in terms of the journalism and the 26 different cities, you have 26 Knight communities, and you’ve approached each of those communities with real humility… not with the answers, but really with the blank check.
And, I think, a good example of that might have been the work you did after Katrina, particularly in Biloxi. Tell us a little bit about that, how that maybe shaped the way you thought about disasters and the way you thought about community development.
Alberto: That’s fantastic. Gosh, that happened a long time ago, didn’t it?
Denver: That’s when you started, as a matter of fact.
Alberto: Exactly. Yeah. You have a good memory. So, the hurricane hits Katrina, like it did New Orleans, but in Katrina, instead of the water coming in and staying there because the levees broke, in Katrina, it came in and washed out, literally washed away that whole row of beachfront property and, I guess, in some cases, several blocks. It was devastating. Absolutely devastating!
And I had just started, I came from the newspaper business, where disaster happens, and you go look at it and then report it, and then you put it in the paper. And then somebody writes an editorial, and on the third day, you move on to the next story, and everybody’s happy. But here, I couldn’t get through.
So, I went up to Atlanta and took a flight to Mobile. In Mobile, I rented a white pickup truck and drove to Biloxi because I needed to see it. And what did I know? That, later, Susan Berresford, who was president of Ford, said, “Alberto, don’t you understand? Foundation presidents don’t go to the disaster. They wait for the white paper about the disaster.” “No, Susan.”
Denver: Not if you’ve been a newspaperman, you don’t.
Alberto: That’s not how you do it in the news business. So, I got down there, and I remember the editor having a bunch of papers and saying, “My job is to take all of these stories, put them together, tell people what’s happening, and give them hope about how to go forward.” Great! I thought that was the idea.
And I told Ricky Mathews, who was a publisher of the Biloxi Times Herald at the time, “If you get somebody who’s willing to approach it that way, then I’m in, and we’ll help out at Knight.” So, I go back. I was actually in New York talking with Ford and others about what I’d seen. And I was going… literally on my way from the city to the airport, to LaGuardia when my phone rang. And it’s Haley Barbour, the Governor of Mississippi.
Alberto: Who I said I would kill to imitate, but I can’t.
Denver: Oh no. He was great. You didn’t have to be in the room to know he was on TV.
Alberto: Absolutely. And he says, “Oh, Alberto!” He said, “We’re going to put together this group for the reconstruction of the south coast of Mississippi.” “Mississippi?” And he said, “I’ve got this guy, Jim Barksdale, whom I knew from when I had been chairman of PBS.”
Jim Barksdale is a huge supporter of PBS and a great guy and a brilliant manager. He had run Netscape. I think, before that, he had been at FedEx. Anyway, first-class executive. And he said, “Barksdale is going to lead this, and I’ve got a guy from down your way, Andres Duany.” And I said, “Oh, you mean Andres Duany? Yes, Governor, I know.”
And he said, “Well, I want to put this together, and I wonder, you know, I hear that you might be interested in helping.” I said, “Well, Governor, you get Barksdale, and you get Duany, and we’ll pay for it.” And he said, “Well, now, son.”
He said, “We’re not talking tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands, we’re talking some real money.” And at that point, I had this out-of-body experience where I could see myself as the shortest-tenured foundation president.
Denver: Oh, absolutely.
Alberto: Over-promising to the Governor of Mississippi.
Denver: Wonderful months at the helm.
Alberto: Yes, exactly. And I said, “Well, Governor.” I said, “You get up; you do your job; you get Barksdale, and you get Duany. And if I can’t get Knight to pay for the whole thing, I promise I’ll find the money someplace else.” I figured I’d go back, turn the cab around and go back to Ford and ask them for money.
But in any case, we ended up putting in a million. Barksdale, himself, put in a million. What better safeguard do you have than somebody watching over his own money? Within weeks, we had hundreds of city planners, lawyers, community citizens, and community leaders. They did 11 charrettes to reimagine 11 communities that had had the disaster.
And in December, when New Orleans sadly was still arguing about who should be on the commission, to decide where to go forward, Barksdale was able to hand Haley Barbour a blueprint for the redevelopment of the south coast of Mississippi.
And that said to me, Look, yes, on the one hand, you’ve got risk capital. On the other hand, you’ve got research capital, but you also have this opportunity to say, “I know it looks like a disaster, but it’s really just an opportunity to rethink and to engage citizens in having a refresh of what their community should be like and should feel like.”
And, I think, that plan was not followed exactly, but that plan served as a metric. It served as a guide, as a compass. These days, you don’t need maps, you need compasses, and directionally, it was right.
And I’ll tell you, the leadership that Haley Barbour provided during that time was simply extraordinary. And Barksdale too, and many, many other people. I felt we put in more money in a bunch of different things. I think Biloxi is genuinely all the better for it.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, from my perspective, who follows philanthropy pretty closely, it was one of the earlier examples of bottoms-up instead of top-down. You know, often foundations come in with the answers, and this was a case where you came in and you let the community determine what those answers were going to be. And it really did serve as an inspiration and I think a model for a lot of others who followed.
Alberto: And similarly, when you take that attitude and apply it to the news business, we came up with the Knight News Challenge, and we said: We’re going to offer $5 million a year for ideas to use digital platforms to deliver news and information to geographically-defined communities.
What does that look like? That’s what newspapers used to do, except not on digital platforms. And all of a sudden, we started getting amazing ideas. Some of them were really cockamamie ideas that were never going to work as it turns out. Okay, fine. We learned from it, and then we moved on.
And then, in the next iteration of Knight, we brought back news editors and news reporters. I remember when we did an awful lot of digital training for some small, some new, and some traditional newsrooms.
At one point, we had the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald, I think it was the Minnesota Tribune, and Dallas Morning News, all at Temple University in Philadelphia— get training cohorts– 10 people each from those newspapers. All of them talking about the different pieces of the battleship that had to be turned around in order to be able to do that.
And at the same time, we had begun funding and then later really funded more of these new green shoots that were coming up all over the country that were digital-native and locally focused. And I think that’s where the future is.
As philanthropy, I think, we have no business in participating in the national shouting match that happens on cable television every night. We don’t have enough money. We don’t have the right people. We tend to want to explain things more than soundbites. So, let’s work where we can really be effective. And where I think, we can help to rebuild trust rather than shout louder than the other guy.
“Anybody who doesn’t do diversity is because they don’t want to.”
Denver: We got plenty of people doing the shouting match. We don’t need anybody else. You know that space is more than filled.
Let me ask you a couple of things about diversity. Obviously, you did so much with your board, but what I thought was really interesting as well is how you diversified how your investments were made and brought in more firms with people of color and women-led. Tell us about the impact that it’s had on your long-term financial health and also about your decision-making.
Alberto: I think it’s always important, in the old phrase, to walk the talk. It’s a long story, but early on, I was surprised to find that though we talked about diversity in all things, we really hadn’t done that much of it. And an example is what you’re citing: who manages our money?
And that’s an opportunity for a real contribution to the professional advancement of individuals and of groups within different communities. At the time, we had out of what was then a $2-billion endowment, $6 million invested with a diverse firm, and none invested with women.
Alberto: None, zero. And so, our CEO and our CFO and I, Juan Martinez, went around saying, Well, okay, how’s that possible? Well, all things being equal, yeah. We’d give the nod to the woman or a minority firm. What’s all things being equal? Well, all things being equal you had to have owned the firm for 25 years.
Alberto: Or I’m exaggerating.
Denver: No, but the guidelines exclude them.
Alberto: Right. And so, he said, Well, how about if you start with… you have a track record of, say, 15 years of making money for other people, but you’re really successful, and you’re really good at making money. And that’s who we need because people don’t think about this, but foundations… private foundations have an endowment, and they’re market investors. That’s how we make money. We invest in the market every day of the week.
Alberto: We make that money, and we, on the other side, invest it in social causes. And, that’s…and the IRS requires that you do your 5%… we typically do 6%, and sometimes maybe a little more depending on the circumstances. So, we just said to our very, very good, major investment advisor, Cambridge Associates: We still want to start walking the talk.
And, we went past $50 million, we went past $75 million. We never even talked about it publicly until after we were past $250 million. And we had actually removed one for lack of performance as we would do with anyone. They’ve been absolutely terrific performers, along with the others. We’re very, very lucky.
Cambridge is excellent. And we now stand at over a billion dollars managed by women or diverse firms out of an endowment of two and a half billion dollars while we’ve increased the size of the endowment, thanks to the people who manage our money, while we have also on my watch given almost two and a half billion dollars away.
So, if we had not given anything away, I guess, we’d have $5 billion or some such thing, but the point is you have to be intentional about it. And you have to ask that question. And I said before: Are we all in the room?
Alberto: You want everybody in the room when you’re making these decisions. Same sort of thing for vendors, the same sort of thing when you’re doing hiring. Oh, you only found people in this category. No, that’s not diversity, that’s not how we want to do it.
I want to make sure that we hire from a diverse pool of people you can look me in the eye and say: I want to work with any of these two or three people. Okay, then we’ve got something to talk about. And then comes the interesting part because honestly, anybody who doesn’t do diversity is because they don’t want to.
Denver: For sure.
Alberto: Inclusion is harder because now you’ve got a whole bunch of people in your employ or in your vendor group who have different points of view. Then you’ve got to figure out how to take advantage of that rather than have that tear your organization apart. How do you take advantage of that so that you have a stronger perspective on how to act in the community? How to do the work that the Knight Brothers left us all that money for, which was to inform the community and engage the community for a more effective democracy?
“I don’t think we need hard and fast rules because they’re going to be broken with the next technology. So, we need guidelines for figuring out how to deal with the speed, the volume, the evolution of the technology, the fundamental change that has happened.“
Denver: Absolutely. Let me change gears for a minute. I remember when you were back on the show in 2017, I believe it was you, along with Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn and Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. You had just funded, I think it was a media lab at MIT, which you just mentioned a moment ago, and the Berkman Center at Harvard who imagine the governance and ethics around artificial intelligence.
So, you were seeing the importance of artificial intelligence even back then. What’s your thinking on it currently and the impact that it’s having and it’s going to continue to have on journalism and on democracy?
Alberto: Well, that’s a really interesting question for me because I think that’s one of those instances where the $27 million fund that we put together with Reid and Pierre and the Media Lab… and Berkman worked on, I think was probably a little early, not unlike by the way the Knight Brothers invested in something called Viewtron.
Denver: Yeah. Right. Was that sort of the pre-internet or something?
Alberto: Yes. Well, the internet was just beginning. I think it was before even Netscape made it easy to manipulate, to access; and it was when it was black and white, no video, no photographs, no images, and so it was early.
They lost a lot of money on it. I think this was a similar thing. I think we were too early, and we spent the money with a number of experiments, some in the criminal justice system, some in media, some in other.
I think if we had waited maybe even three or four years, we might have then been able to have more people having experimented more with AI systems, and we could have then tried to engage a broader range of people in developing a set of standards for how to deal with both the speed, the volume, the unknown turns that technology has continued, and I imagine, will continue to deliver.
Look at generative AI. A year ago, if I’d said to you “generative AI,” you would’ve said, What the heck is that?
Alberto: At least I would.
Denver: A month ago I would’ve said it.
Alberto: I know it, and now, it’s everywhere. And think about life before the smartphone, for Pete’s sake, or life before computers themselves. I left the house the other day. I was rushing out, got downstairs. I live in an apartment house, and I got downstairs, was about to get in the car. I said, “Oh my God, I can’t get in my car. Why? Because my phone is the key to my electric car.”
Denver: Sure. Yeah. I think I’d rather leave my house without my shoes than without my phone.
Alberto: So, I think that was well-intentioned, right, correct directionally, but I think we were too far ahead to do what I think would’ve been really helpful… is to give society, really, a set of guidelines. And I think we had the right people. I mean, I think, you don’t get smarter than Reid Hoffman about these things. And Reid Hoffman or Pierre Omidyar or…
Denver: …MIT or Harvard. You had a good group of people.
Alberto: Yeah. So, we had the right people. We were at the wrong phase. And sometimes you just got to admit: “Okay, fine, good on you, but that one didn’t work.” I believe we still need, and now it’s harder, we still need guidelines. I don’t think we need hard and fast rules because they’re going to be broken with the next technology.
So, we need guidelines for figuring out how to deal with the speed, the volume, the evolution of the technology, the fundamental change that has happened between a curated system of news where, first, go back to Gutenberg, it’s: the Cardinal controls the monks who illuminate the manuscripts.
They write it; they write one book or two a year, and they copy the Bible, and then the Cardinal comes along, puts an imprimatur and says, “This is the truth.” And only a few people get to read it. And then, all of a sudden, this German Gutenberg comes along and mechanizes the Chinese printing press. And any Tom, Dick, or Martin Luther can mimeograph new stuff.
Alberto: People then, Elizabeth Eisenstein writes brilliantly about these things from the University of Michigan, and she says people are complaining about the volume and the speed: How can you keep up with all this information? Well, we’re on steroids now and still dealing with the same thing. Still human, always more complex.
We need, I think, directional guidelines, and we need, I think, some kind of probably, this I don’t know, but I speculate, some kind of regulatory authority that is flexible enough. It isn’t legislative. Legislative, I think, can point the direction, but they’re not flexible enough, and they’re not nearly fast enough to keep up with it.
“Insistently, big communities, small communities, urban, suburban, rural, what consistently comes up as something that attaches people to place is culture and a sense of the beauty, the art, the offering, the cultural offerings that are there. People and culture.”
Denver: Yeah. Right. And they’re not even qualified, you know what I mean? They don’t know what is going on. I mean, how could they be? You know, I think, you make a great point though about what you did back in 2017. A lot of people always look at the merits of an idea and have missed this, missed that.
But we sometimes underappreciate the timing of an idea. And the timing of an idea can really make all the difference in the world. And I think you pointed that out just wonderfully.
You know, you just mentioned you’ve distributed two and a half billion dollars in investments in your time there. A full 20% of it and nearly $500 million has gone to the arts. Why do you believe the arts are crucial for community building and development?
Alberto: Thank you for asking that. I am absolutely, absolutely convinced, and not just because of my gut, my experience, but because we had Gallup do this over three years… interviewing hundreds of thousands of Americans and trying to answer the question, “What attaches people to place?”
If you’re serious about building community, you have to ask that question. Well, sure, I would’ve answered: my job or education or something like that. But insistently, big communities, small communities, urban, suburban, rural, what consistently comes up as something that attaches people to place is culture and a sense of the beauty, the art, the offering, the cultural offerings that are there.
People and culture. People and culture. So, you know, hit me over the head with a bat. So, let’s do it. If we are interested in building community, great! Especially in a town that had as much influx from outside, as much influx of people from all over the hemisphere, especially as Miami, which is where our headquarters are. Three quarters of us were born someplace else in the town.
Alberto: Three quarters. Think about that.
Alberto: And half, in another country. So, if you’re serious about building community, you need to say, How do we do that? How do we find the lowest common denominator that brings us together? Well, when Gloria Stefan sings, your toe taps automatically. When Beethoven sings, I think your soul sores. You see a photograph that just knocks your socks off, you say, “Whoa!”
When you go to a movie that really moves you, when you go to an ultra-music festival here in Miami. And then, so what did we do? We dropped poems from a helicopter onto the ultra-music crowd. The poems… in case anybody’s getting nervous… the poems were written on biodegradable paper.
Denver: That was my next question.
Alberto: Yes. And we also created, I think, the most interesting poetry festival going, O, Miami, the purpose of which is to engage everybody in the area.
“Despite all the problems, Denver, and, boy, do we ever have them, and they’re more complex than ever, and they’re probably more of them than we’ve ever had before! And I continue to be a prisoner of hope.”
Denver: I love that flavor. I mean, if you could lead a day-long tour of Miami and showcase the impact of your arts funding down there, which is almost half of what you’ve done in terms of that arts funding, what places would you take people to, and what stories would you tell?
Alberto: You know, you could go to any one of the Pritzker Prize-winning architect concert halls; César Pelli, Frank Gehry, Hertzog and de Meuron have all built museums, concert halls, opera house, all of them, in the last, say, 15 years here in Miami. There’s simply no city that can claim that. We’re very young. We have a lot to catch up, but I might take them there.
And by the way, I would also take them to a classroom, where kids are writing haiku poetry based on their zip code. My zip code is 33133. So, you write three words, three words, one word, three words, three words.
Denver: I like that.
Alberto: And if your zip code is something else, you get a different kind of pattern for your haiku. We’ve engaged people in street art. We’ve had poetry on buses. We’ve had poetry and music. We have had the Poet Laureate of the United States come here and read. We have also engaged and supported all manner of popular music.
I think the only thing that I would caution about is that you really have to focus on making it really good, really great within the genre, within the type of art it is. Be inclusive. Make sure that everybody’s in the room; represent people to themselves.
Let them be inspired to think of themselves as able to do that, but make sure that it’s good because, you know, a bad song isn’t any fun to hum, and a bad piece of art isn’t going to inspire anybody. And what do I know about that? Exactly nothing.
So, you bring in artists and you say, Okay, here are the 80 applications we have for the Knight Arts Challenge in Miami. And our goal is to make art general in Miami. Great. This is from a line from James Joyce where it said the newspapers had it right. Snow was general all over Ireland. This is in the last paragraph of The Dead.. And, of course, he had me at the newspapers, so I say, the newspapers had it right. Art was general all over Miami.
But in Detroit, we took a different approach, and Detroit was a city that a lot of people had written off…that It is corrupt, that it’s falling apart, and the economy is impossible, and so forth. And then comes the bankruptcy. And Detroit is… you’ve never met a stronger, grittier bunch of people who were not giving up.
Denver: Yeah. They were down for the count. Everybody had counted them out.
Alberto: No, not them.
Alberto: And so, I thought, Well, great! So, let’s fund artists to tell the new narrative, the narrative of the new Detroit. Let those artists speak. And, by the way, we’ve also introduced digital because why? Because Yogi Berra said what I told you.
Alberto: Fans don’t want to come to the ballpark. Nobody can stop them. They’re over there. They’re listening to music on their iPhone. So, for example, I was with some other people from other foundations; we were at the Motown Museum, and I asked the brilliant woman who runs it… I just heard some of the most amazing Motown music.
Berry Gordy had kept records, and they have wonderful digital archives. They have wonderful archives that need to be digitized. And we had listened to Marvin Gaye singing “What’s Going On.” You may remember it because you and I are old enough to have been there when he first sang that song.
Denver: For sure. For sure. That’s one you can hum to.
Alberto: And I heard, I was sitting with some others in Studio A listening to Marvin Gaye, the soundtrack of his voice, the voice track, singing “What’s Going On”. Then they said, “Let us play for you that track plus the response,” which was also sung by Marvin Gaye, which I didn’t…
Alberto: And then they played two other tracks. One was the Hollywood music background, the music background that was done in Hollywood where Motown had moved, and Berry Gordy didn’t like it. He said it was too lush. Sent them all back to Detroit because this is a protest song.
Alberto: We need to be grittier, and then you play. And I said to the woman, “I think everybody should have this privilege.” And she said, “I know.” And I said, “Well, what’s your concept?” And she said, “A digital jukebox.” And I thought we’re in. That is one of the great moments of being a foundation president.
You hear a genius idea like this person had, and you say, “Oh, my job is to help you make real your insight, help you reach all those people. Oh my God. The number of people who are going to be able to hear this stuff and be moved by it and be made better by it.”
More recently, the Doris Duke Theater at Jacob’s Pillow burned down. We support dance. We started the National Choreographic Center in Akron, Ohio at the University of Akron. But Jacob’s Pillow is sort of, I don’t know, the mecca for art, contemporary dance in America.
And this old barn burned down. And a couple of days later, I called the person who was the executive director, Pam Tatgei. And I said, “Okay, I’m sorry, your theater burned down.” Actually, I wasn’t. I thought this is a great opportunity. I was really struggling with myself.
I said, “How far can I push this?” And I said, “I’m sorry your theater burned down, but I know you’re going to build it back up. You know, I can’t imagine the Doris Duke Foundation is not going to help you build it back up, and you must have some insurance. And if you decide you’re going to digitize this thing so that you can beam this everywhere in the world.
Alberto:… So, you can engage audiences anywhere. So, you can take advantage of the fact that dance is a universal language. So you can redefine what contemporary dance means for the modern world we’re in. And so, now, a year later, they’ve found an absolutely brilliant architect.
They’ve developed a new building that is so flexible. It’s so beautiful. And indeed, Doris Duke is leading the charge. Bar Foundation out of Boston, and the Hostetters there have been phenomenal in their support.
And we are going to have the most amazing combination of, I’ll call it, traditional in-person contemporary dance, but also experimentation with digital technology of every sort, and having tech staff that works with willing choreographers to create a new form. This is a new tool.
Alberto: This is not trying to bastardize anything. This is saying, “Hey, I’ve got this new thing called a paintbrush instead of a stick. Let’s do that.” That’s how to think about this thing.
And they’ve got some brilliant people from Northeastern University who are working with them, from Brown University who are working with them. Despite all the problems, Denver, and, boy, do we ever have them, and they’re more complex than ever, and they’re probably more of them than we’ve ever had before! And I continue to be a prisoner of hope.
Alberto: And this job has allowed me to express that.
“And I think rather than thinking of philanthropy as a charity, as a charitable burden on the rich person, I think what you’re seeing in the most effective philanthropic organizations, the most effective foundations are the ones who think of themselves not as charity so much as social investors.”
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. And you can always listen to Marvin Gaye. As a matter of fact, I prefer to listen to Marvin Gaye than even listen to Haley Barbour, to tell you the truth.
So, let me turn our attention just for a moment to philanthropy.
And I think it’s fair to say, Alberto, that philanthropy really hasn’t been disrupted as an industry to the extent that other industries have. Certainly journalism, and I would probably add music into that as well. I mean, do you see a coming disruption in the field of philanthropy? And if so, what do you think it might look like?
Alberto: It’s hard to say because I think the disruption, if it comes in philanthropy, is probably going to come because of technology, but really more likely, I think because of changes in society. I remember when the Iron Curtain came down in Eastern Europe.
Alberto: Rockefeller Brothers Foundation helped the Czech Republic write laws that allowed for philanthropy. Why were they only just getting around to doing that? Because in a communist system, the state is responsible for all kinds of things that in our capitalist systems, philanthropy tends to do.
So, you could have changes in society that would make philanthropy less and less vital, perhaps. I think the change in philanthropy that technology allows, of course, of transparency. But I think the key is the engagement of people in the process.
And I think rather than thinking of philanthropy as a charity, as a charitable burden on the rich person, I think what you’re seeing in the most effective philanthropic organizations, the most effective foundations are the ones who think of themselves not as charity so much as social investors, who think like an investor. You want a return.
So, if you’re doing charity, you give away the money and perhaps, God is great, and will reward you in heaven, and that’s it. If you are a social investor, you want a return. You want to see, “Well, I gave you a thousand dollars, what’d you do with it? What happened?” Focus on the outcome, not on the output.
Alberto: Focus on the announcement, how for $10,000, I’m going to save democracy. No. Prove to me that this and that changes the way that you work. Now, the staff of a foundation is not working to put out great press releases and then walk away and go on to develop the next possible grant.
But rather that that person, just like a venture capitalist, the job of the program officer in a foundation, I think, ought to be to make this grantee successful.
Alberto: How do you do that? Well, you help them find experts in their field. You are a thought partner. You make sure they get invited to meetings and conferences, and they make sure that people know that the services are available. Do whatever is necessary to make them successful, because this isn’t like a bank loan.
In a bank loan, the bank has already said, Okay, I’m calculating. I need, I don’t know, 5% return and I want it back in five years, and I’ve got my books. And so, what does a banker say when they really love you? He paid as agreed.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Alberto: That’s fantastic. This is the kind of borrower we want. Okay. Terrific. A venture capitalist gives you $10 and expects you to turn it into a hundred. But if you turn it into two, that’s even better. And because he makes more money… or she makes more money.
Alberto: Similarly, a program director ought to take that same attitude. Here’s $10 to educate kids. Then if you educate 10 kids, that’s terrific. If you educate 50, I’m a genius.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah.
Alberto: So, I think having that different attitude is something that I think I see happening. I think the focus on outcome that, honestly, new fortunes coming out of the Western United States, coming out of, technology… businesses have really challenged the traditional: We know we’re sitting here in the office, we have some ideas about what you should do.
And instead, I think they’re more entrepreneurial, and I think will have led us, all of us, who work in traditional philanthropy to be much more focused on outcome. And I think that is much better for society. And that, I think, in a very real and concrete way, in my view, is a better use of Jack and Jim Knight’s money than before.
“I’m always preaching that we need to leverage or accelerate the trends that we find already existing in the community. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to fund same old, same old. That means you’re going to look and say, ‘All right, what is available?’”
Denver: You know, in listening to you too, if I was a social investor and had $10,000, I might go into a community and invest it in the things they’re doing really well and try to get a return from that. Because often what we try to do is we try to fix things. And fixing things sometimes doesn’t work, you know; it’s almost like a strength finder. You know, they would tell you as a leader: Don’t try to fix all your faults.
Try to find out what you’re really good at, and invest in that. And I think that could also hold true for a community. You know, I always think about dandelions and trying to dig the dandelions out of my lawn, and I can do that now and again, and they’re back about two days later.
But when I fertilize the grass, and I take the good grass and I fertilize it, it ends up strangling the dandelions, you know? So, I sometimes think investing in strengths of a community and not just going in there and giving them a complex that “we’re coming in to fix things” might be an approach. I was just thinking about that as you were talking.
Alberto: I think you are really onto something here, and I think that’s one of the reasons why in our communities program and in our arts program, I’m always preaching that we need to leverage or accelerate the trends that we find already existing in the community. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to fund same old, same old. That means you’re going to look and say, “All right, what is available?”
In Macon, we had a terrific partner in Mercer University. We had some interesting neighborhoods next door, and we had a downtown. There was a movement afoot already. What we did was help to generate the leverage and accelerate in partnership with Peyton Anderson Foundation.
If you go to Macon today and you go to Capricorn Theater, where Otis Redding used to record, and Allman Brothers used to record… so if you go to the neighborhoods around there, in between the university and the downtown, you’re looking at a very different community than you would’ve seen 20 years ago.
“And if somebody one day compares my tenure at Knight to a John Cage concert, I’m going to be a really happy guy.”
Denver: Finally, Alberto, I know that your leadership of the Knight Foundation has never been about you, but with that said, how would you like your legacy to be remembered?
Alberto: Gosh, I think it’s a balance. I think, we’ve tried to have diversity, equity, inclusion in all of our programs. The Knight Brothers were not directive, they were directional, and we have been faithful to their donor intent.
We have experimented because sometimes you do need to use it as risk capital. We’ve experimented. We’ve experimented in journalism; we’ve experimented in community; we’ve experimented in researching the impact of media on tech and society. We are now a major funder of social science research.
We just started an institute at Georgetown University to study this and to bring people together to think and talk and try to come up with solutions for going forward in terms of the impact of technology on media and society and democracy. I think I want us to be known as a place where they’ll listen to your idea and then give you the freedom to make it real. That comes from the newspaper.
Alberto: As a publisher, I never once, I could’ve… entered the editorial system, because I didn’t want anybody ever to feel like the publisher was putting his thumb on. You build the structure and trust the people you hire.
And then, now, the next day, I was reader number one, calling the editor, saying, “Where did you leave your brain when you put that out there?” Not really. Well, sometimes, but not before. I think that kind of independence for writers, for researchers, for artists, for the community, I think, is what we should do.
For me, maybe the most important single moment that led me to think in this way was… this is a crazy example maybe, but it’s true. In 1965, John Cage comes to Wesleyan University, where I was a student. In the chapel, in an old New England, brownstone chapel, this man offers a concert in electronic music.
I go down there because I had no clue: what is electronic music, but it’s a music concert, so how bad can it be? And he had set up in descending order thrusting from backstage toward the audience… in descending order metal sheets. He put microphones along the sides, and he stood in the back and he rolled ball bearings that went plink, plank, plink, plank.
And I thought, Oh my God, if this is music, and that’s what the program says, then there are no rules except for the blinders that we’re willing to put on our own imagination. But he also has built a structure that allows our imagination to just explode. And if somebody one day compares my tenure at Knight to a John Cage concert, I’m going to be a really happy guy.
Denver: Wow, what a perfect note to end on. I want to thank you, Alberto, for being here today. It is such an honor and delight to have you on the program.
Alberto: Thank you, Denver. I really appreciate being here.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.