The Future of Community Journalism

15 09 2010

After I finished my formal education, I spent 10 years in state and local government.  After leaving government, I went to work in the private sector.  At that point, friends often asked if I missed being in government.  One of my half-facetious replies was “It’s nice not to wake up every day and dread reading the morning newspapers.”

Indeed, when I worked for the Governor of Colorado and the Mayor of Denver, there were often days when I awoke to read a newspaper headline about some bureaucratic scandal or impropriety.  At the time, there were more than 50,000 state employees and more than 20,000 city employees.  It was almost inevitable that, sooner or later, some employee would be caught loitering on the job, using government resources for personal purposes, or even embezzling money.

In those days, Denver was in the midst of a newspaper war between two equally-strong dailies: the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post.  As a result, entrepreneurial reporters had a huge incentive to get a scoop and to publish an exclusive story before the competition knew about it.  This led to occasional journalistic errors, where a story would be printed in haste – before the facts were verified or before both sides could be presented fairly.  But this environment also led to aggressive investigative reporting that was insightful, educational, and revealing.

Times have changed.  Last year, the Rocky Mountain News ceased operations after 150 years.  The Denver Post, the “winner” of the Denver newspaper war, is struggling to remain afloat financially.  Faced with competition from the internet and countless other news sources that did not exist just a few years ago, the Post has had to cut staff and other costs.  The paper today is much smaller than it used to be, with fewer reporters covering state and local news.

At one level, the end of the newspaper war is a relief.  The number of sensational, inflammatory, attention-getting headlines and stories has declined.  But, at a deeper level, the end of the newspaper war and the loss of the Rocky Mountain News have been tragic for our community.

A study by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation found that there is an inverse relation between the number of investigative reporters in the community and the amount of local government corruption.  In other words, investigative reporters uncover corruption and that leads to less corruption.  I suppose that if people in local government know they are more likely to get caught and be publicly exposed if they do something bad, they’re less likely to do something bad.

Printed newspapers are dinosaurs; they are becoming extinct.  Many members of my generation will never lose the desire to read a hard copy morning paper, to have ink-stained fingertips accompanying breakfast.  But such a desire is almost nonexistent among younger generations.  Before long, newspapers will be a relic of the past.

What will replace traditional newspapers?  Some people argue that the internet has already replaced newspapers, that wiki sites and open-source information collecting are a better and more customized way to get news than newspapers ever were or could be.  Other people argue that we are losing a crucial piece of our civic infrastructure.  This second group urges some combination of private, public, and nonprofit sources to finance local journalism in new and creative ways.  An example is ProPublica, the nonprofit, independent news source that won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting this year, or I-News, the investigative news network founded here in Denver by a former Rocky Mountain News reporter. 

What do you think?  Should The Denver Foundation get involved in supporting local journalism?  If so, how?

 — David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation


Nonprofit Boards: An Important Place to Invest

30 08 2010

One of my recent Next Decade conversations focused on nonprofit board development.

The person I met with is involved with several nonprofit organizations in Colorado and beyond.  He noted that there has been a proliferation of nonprofit organizations nationwide.  All nonprofits in the United States are legally required to have a Board of Directors.  In his experience, one of the biggest challenges facing nonprofits is governance

He believes (and I do too) that nonprofit organizations are much more successful if they are well governed.  He suggested that The Denver Foundation devote more resources to helping nonprofit organizations improve their governance.  This could be done by making more money available for technical assistance grants.  He advised that nonprofit organizations as well as The Denver Foundation should focus more on what outcomes they want to achieve.

Thinking about governance, I was reminded of my very first Board meeting as executive director of The Denver Foundation.  Shortly after I was hired in 1996, one of the five other staff people at The Denver Foundation resigned to take a job in the private sector.  Rather than replacing that person, I decided to reorganize the office and change the job responsibilities of several staff people.

I wrote new job descriptions and sent them to the Board as part of the Board packet prior to my first Board meeting.  At the Board meeting, the subject of Board reorganization came up on the agenda.  A member of the Board made a motion to approve the staff reorganization and to authorize me to fill the vacant position.  The motion was seconded.

Immediately, a member of the Board, Kerm Darkey, raised his hand and said he was going to vote against the motion.  I thought to myself, “Oh no!  This is my very first Board meeting and I’m already encountering a belligerent Board.”

Kerm went on to say, “The reason I am voting against this motion is that it is none of our business how David organizes the staff.  As long as he stays within the annual administrative budget that the Board has approved, the executive director should be free to create any job descriptions he wants and to hire any staff he wants.”

The woman who made the motion said, “You’re right, Kerm.  I withdraw the motion.”

I will always feel indebted to Kerm Darkey for his wisdom as a The Denver Foundation Trustee.  As an experienced business and civic leader, Kerm knew well the appropriate role of a governing board vis-à-vis the executive director and the staff.  The Board should set broad policy and the staff should implement that policy.

There is no doubt that there is a need for improved governance among many nonprofit organizations.  Is this something in which The Denver Foundation should invest a greater proportion of its resources?

— David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

Interview with a Veteran of Hope: Dr. Vincent Harding

17 08 2010

Lauren Casteel and I recently had the honor of meeting with Dr. Vincent Harding, Professor Emeritus at the Iliff School of Theology.  Dr. Harding graciously agreed to talk to us about The Denver Foundation’s Next Decade Project.  Because he was so eloquent, I have decided not to try to paraphrase his words.  Instead, I am presenting this in interview format.  We did not tape record the conversation, so Dr. Harding’s comments are not reported verbatim.  However, he reviewed, edited, and approved them before we posted this.  This is a long post; I encourage you to read the whole thing if you have time. 

Denver Foundation: Thank you for agreeing to let us pick your brain about the future of The Denver Foundation and philanthropic needs in our community.

Dr. Harding: You may pick my brain as long as you also pick my heart.

Your question has touched a spigot.  The first thing that came to my mind was a conversation my wife Rose and I had with María Guajardo when we first came to Denver in 1981.  María reminded us that demographers were predicting that Denver was a few decades ahead of the United States in terms of its diversity.  Therefore, what we do here is not limited to our city.  We in Denver can make a contribution to the entire country.

I am currently writing an article for Sojourners magazine about the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Martin said he dreamt of a time when his children will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.  The question that follows is how do you measure the content of a person’s character?  You must know that person as an equal, as a fellow human being.  We do not have the social or other structures to draw us into the encounters which will make it possible for us to be able to measure each other’s character.

Secondly, Martin dreamt of the time when little black and white girls and boys will be able to join hands.  Here again, the question is how they can get close enough to join hands when society today is pulling them apart.

So, this is on my mind when I think about what our community needs.  The Denver Foundation should convene people frequently.  The foundation should help to measure the character of people and to bring children close enough to be able to join hands.  Children start out with the need to join hands, but they can be discouraged by silence and by the absence of opportunities for touching and being touched.   

The Denver Foundation: What could the process of bridge building mean?  How do you practice the process of building common ground? Is the current economic and political environment changing this?  

Dr. Harding: The United States Social Forum recently met in Detroit.  This is a group of community organizers whose manifesto, which started in Brazil, says, “Another world is possible.”  They’re developing models for what a post-industrial city should look like and be like.  Grace Boggs, widow of the late Jimmy Boggs, is a first generation Chinese-American who speaks about this.  She notes that there are two aspects of the Chinese character for crisis: a time of great danger and a time of great opportunity.

The Great Depression caused a lot of pain but also generated a lot of creativity.

A West African, during the liberation struggles against colonialism in the 1960s, said, “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.”  You have to dream something before it can happen.

The Gardening Angels are a group of African-Americans in Detroit who moved there from the South.  They are teaching young children about community gardens.  They are one image that comes to my mind.  Schools in Detroit are now developing school gardens, where food goes straight into the school lunch program.  Look for opportunities for children to do things creatively together.

In our Ambassadors of Hope Project, we had diverse teens living together for a few weeks on the University of Denver campus.  None of these kids had ever lived with people from a different racial group.  One of these teens is now a youth organizer for Padres Unidos.  There, he is trying to bring black and brown children together.  We can help dozens of young people like him.

What kind of education is necessary to nurture young people who will be leaders in the development of a multiracial, compassionate democratic society? How do you create compassionate democratic leaders? How do you nurture people who can lead a multiracial society?  The Denver Foundation, located in a city like this, is well positioned to help with this work.

You do not become democratic just by being born here.  The democratic spirit has to be nurtured and developed.

Until Montgomery, most of us in the North (black and white) looked at rural southern black people as being somewhat backward.  Those people surprised us and became the heart of the movement to transform our entire nation.  “At risk” kids are really children of promise.

The Denver Foundation: We are increasingly concerned about boys in our society.  What do you think?

Dr. Harding: I have seen what great things young men can do.  But they have to be surrounded by people who value them.  We need to encourage young men to be all that they can be.  The New Jim Crow talks about how the U.S. penal system is turning young men into outcasts without any sense of future.  The author talks about the school-to- prison pipeline.

The Denver Foundation: How can The Denver Foundation do this work without being top down?

Dr. Harding: Start with people like Terrance Roberts from Prodigal Son and women from Mi Casa who are already working in the community.  The Denver Foundation should be honest brokers.  Bring together people from multiple generations, from separated communities.

The Denver Foundation:  For the last four years, we have hosted a paid internship program for college students to work in local nonprofit organizations.  We focus on students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in the nonprofit sector.

Dr. Harding: This sounds like a great program.  You should ask your interns what is their purpose now.  Many of them have overcome huge obstacles.  The question is, what next?  Do they want to be famous or make money, or do they want to help create the country that does not yet exist?

I remember that in the years before the Southern Freedom (Civil Rights) Movement picked up momentum many black (and some white) southerners dealt with the terrors and injustices of white supremacy by leaving the south.  It was only after a new generation of young people decided to stay and work for change that the south and the nation could be transformed.  (For instance, Martin Luther King declined numerous job offers in the North in order to return to the South.)  The work is clearly not complete but it could not have been begun unless a generation decided to stay and commit themselves to the dangerous and magnificent work of change.  I believe the same commitment, vision and courage are needed to creatively transform our urban areas—South, North, East and West including Denver, Colorado.  I don’t think that it’s wise to give our best and brightest young people the signal that their ultimate goal should be to escape from their home communities.  Young people who do succeed in overcoming difficult circumstances should do more than just buy their momma a house.  We need to encourage them to help transform the communities from which they came.

The Denver Foundation: How can The Denver Foundation do this?

Dr. Harding: For starters, find people like me who have been through that experience who can talk to them, also, give people regular opportunities to come together.  We need to develop new institutions for nurturing people – this used to be done by families, churches and schools.  Your internship program sounds good, but do not drop them at the end of the summer.

The Denver Foundation: Who has been most influential in you life?

Dr. Harding: There are so many people: my mother, my wife, my daughter, and many of my teachers.

The Denver Foundation: What role do you think The Denver Foundation should play in education?

Dr. Harding: The Denver Foundation should help to create a humane public-school education experience for the children of this city.  Young people have to be nurtured in the meaning and beauty of multiracial democratic life.  People have discomfort taking on issues of race and class in America.  We have to address these questions with our young people.  Something has to be done to help teachers talk creatively about race and the gifts of a multiracial society.

— David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

Words of Wisdom from Peter Goldmark

6 08 2010

Readers:  This is Part 2 of a Blog Post about David Miller’s meeting with Peter Goldmark.  Click here for Part 1.

Peter Goldmark did not know what I was going to ask him, so he did not do any advance preparation. Essentially, I asked him what areas he might get involved in if he were running The Denver Foundation in the next several years. He rattled off a large number of ideas in a remarkably short period of time. All of his ideas were off the top of his head, so they were general concepts.

Here are some of the main suggestions Peter Goldmark made for The Denver Foundation to explore:

1. Americans have become very polarized. Do we really want Americans to be fighting each other when the economy is so bad, when millions of American children are in poverty, and when we are facing intense economic competition around the world? The United States was founded on a variety of compromises. For centuries, people in other countries have admired how we govern ourselves – our Bill of Rights, our checks and balances. There is a huge hunger in this country to overcome the growing partisanship. We should encourage our elected officials at all levels to reach across the aisle, make compromises, and work together.

2. Forty percent of carbon emissions come from buildings. We need to reduce the carbon that buildings emit by retrofitting old buildings and building new ones that are cleaner.

A model that might be useful in this regard is the Community Development Corporations (CDCs) of the 1970s and 1980s. CDCs did not just improve housing in blighted areas. They reintroduced social values.  In one building, a middle-aged woman in the Bronx got fed up with the drug dealers. She organized tenants, kicked out the drug dealers, fixed up the building, and became fierce in protecting the building and making people pay rent on time.

The CDC model was successful in part because there were some national intermediaries such as the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). Intermediaries will probably be necessary for energy efficiency and retrofitting because it is technically complex. These intermediaries can be a buffer between large sources of money and all the local churning. It also is helpful to have a progressive utility company. Such a project could provide jobs, reduce carbon emissions, and use energy more efficiently.

3. The Environmental Defense Fund has organized a project involving business school students and energy efficiency. Twenty business school students are selected for an internship and given a short training program on energy efficiency. Each intern is then assigned to a different company with the task of analyzing the operations of the company to save energy. The first group of 20 interns saved their companies a total of $30 million through energy efficiencies!

4. In today’s world, every foundation, including community foundations, should have an international component. One part of this should be helping to reduce the local carbon footprint, to reduce the global impact of carbon emissions. However, that is not enough. There also should be international engagement. One way to do this might be through the arts and arts exchanges.

5. We need a place where anyone throughout the world can be a citizen. We need a place with no boundaries and no military, a place that transcends nationalism. Perhaps this could be Antarctica. The current treaties regarding the non-militarization of Antarctica expire in a few decades.

6. We are losing newspapers. Think about the value and the skills of the people in the traditional newsroom. How can we preserve that? Perhaps The Denver Foundation could make grants to journalists and young people to deliver independent, high-quality news in the community. You could establish and support what would be the equivalent of a local bureau of the Associated Press.

7. Look for successful programs around the country and bring them to Denver. One example might be a project in Boston called The Community Builders. This organization provides financial coaching for families in low-income housing. It assists them with job connections and seems to be effective and efficient.

8. Work with the state government to create a public authority that buys energy efficient HVAC systems for public buildings of all kinds.

9. Get successful charter schools involved in reducing childhood obesity. These schools are already models for education reform. Use their leadership to help show how school-based programs can be used to reduce childhood obesity.

As you can see, these ideas are both broad and deep. I’m sure if I had another hour with Peter Goldmark he could have doubled the length of this list. These ideas provide great food for thought. I welcome input from readers as to which of these ideas are most worth exploring.

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

A Discussion with Vice President Gore

27 05 2010

A few weeks ago, as part of The Denver Foundation’s Next Decade Project, I had the honor and privilege of meeting with Al Gore: Nobel Prize winner, Oscar winner, and former Vice President of the United States.  Vice President Gore was in Denver as the keynote speaker at the national conference of the Council on Foundations.  He was very generous in agreeing to meet with me privately to talk about The Denver Foundation.

I explained to Vice President Gore that grants from The Denver Foundation’s community endowment must be used to benefit residents of the seven-county Metro Denver area.  Given our geographical boundaries, I asked what The Denver Foundation might do to address issues raised by climate change.

The Vice President immediately rattled off a list of specific, concrete suggestions.  Among them were the following: 

  • Support tree planting programs 
  • Assist transportation planning, such as conversion of buses to natural gas 
  • Promote energy efficiency programs for buildings; buildings produce 40% of all carbon emissions
  • Enhance and expand recycling and composting programs

I asked the Vice President if he could only select one project what would it be?  He said the top priority should probably be working to increase public awareness of these problems and their solutions.

Finally, I asked if we should focus on the areas that we as a city do pretty well or focus on the areas that we do poorly compared to other places.  He said every city is different, but generally it is better to work on our weaker areas and try to improve them.

Vice President Gore referred me to projects in other cities that are worth studying.  The East Lake project in Atlanta is an example of creative partnerships among real estate developers, foundations, and neighborhood residents.  A similar program is underway in Indianapolis.  These area-wide projects can achieve multiple objectives: reducing crime, improving educational achievement, and strengthening neighborhoods – while at the same time cleaning the environment.  Chattanooga, Tennessee is a city on the forefront of conversions of buses to natural gas.

The Denver Foundation supports a wide variety of environmental organizations and programs through its community grants program and its donor advised funds.  Like all of our grants, they tend to be relatively small.  Grants from the community grants program average about $15,000.  Grants from donor-advised funds average considerably less.

The overwhelming majority of the scientific community is convinced that global warming is a serious problem – if not the most serious problem we face here on earth.  In his keynote speech, Vice President Gore noted that each meter of rise in the ocean level will create 100 million climate refugees!

In light of the magnitude of this problem, should The Denver Foundation in the next decade radically change its approach to grantmaking? 

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

Global vs. Local

22 03 2010

I recently read a book called Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.  The name of the book comes from a quotation by Mao Zedong in which he notes that women hold up half of the sky.

 The book discusses women’s issues around the world, ranging from prostitution and the sex trade to childbirth and health, from misogyny to microcredit.  The challenges and issues faced by women in developing countries are overwhelming.  The authors relate many heroic stories of individuals and organizations working to address and solve these problems.  Nonetheless, the resources available today are far outweighed by the magnitude of the challenges.

I came away from the book feeling that the problems we face in the Denver area are trivial and insignificant compared to the problems in the developing world.

The messages from the book were amplified many times over by the recent devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.  I have asked myself a somewhat-heretical question: “Should The Denver Foundation consider shifting its funding to international causes?”

Having pondered this question, my answer is a resounding “NO”!  Here’s why: 

  1. The Denver Foundation already does a lot for international causes.  There are two basic types of assets at The Denver Foundation: the community endowment and donor restricted funds.  The community endowment can only be used to support organizations in the Metro Denver area.  Most of the restricted funds, which constitute the vast majority of The Denver Foundation’s assets, can be used to support causes worldwide.  The most common restricted fund at The Denver Foundation is a donor-advised fund, and our donor-advised funds support many international causes.  Already this year, donor advised funds from The Denver Foundation have given more than $100,000 to Haiti earthquake relief. 
  2. We must scrupulously honor the wishes of The Denver Foundation’s community endowment donors.  Since 1925, thousands of individuals have contributed money to The Denver Foundation’s community endowment.  This money is invested, and the earnings from the investments are used to support charitable organizations in the seven-county Metro Denver area.  When these donors contributed to the community endowment, they did so with the understanding that it would be used to support local needs.  Probably the most important thing The Denver Foundation does is to honor the charitable wishes of its many generous donors.  To use money from the community endowment for international purposes would be inconsistent with the intent of our donors and we would never break our trust with them.
  3. There is a lot we can do locally that will directly and indirectly impact international issues.  For example, the more we reduce our energy use and become green, the more we help mitigate certain global environmental problems.  The stronger our local economy and the healthier our local community, the better Denver-area residents will be able to help people in other countries tackle the issues they face.  Finally, through education, we can inspire local residents—especially young people– to help others around the world.

— David Miller/President and CEO, The Denver Foundation