Philanthropy on the Edge: Foundations, Egypt, and Press Freedom
February 04, 2011
Take Egypt. Many, who as recently as a week ago may have known little about Egypt, have been riveted to television, Facebook, and Twitter as the drama of a people challenging a government -- and that government pushing back -- unfolds. But foundations have been funding projects in and about Egypt for years, and many of the people, ideas, and institutions they have supported will be vital to that country’s future.
What is the foundation "line" on Egypt? Well, there isn't just one; American foundations are private institutions, so it all depends on the interests, values, and expertise of each donor. Using the Foundation Center's database, I did a simple keyword search for "Egypt" and found more than five hundred grants awarded since 2003. The largest number has gone for higher education, either to U.S. or European universities or directly to Egyptian institutions like the American University in Cairo or Cairo University. Whatever the outcome of the current crisis, Egypt will still depend on skilled human resources to build a modern, competitive society. Other grants have gone for issues that speak more directly to current events such as human rights, personal liberty, and the status of women. These can be controversial anywhere, and in Egypt addressing such issues takes skill, a keen sense of politics, and, well, courage. Even supporting cultural activities, where certain artists are state sponsored and others are not, can represent risk for a funder -- and more so for those who do the work on the ground. Research grants we found help to better understand the complexity of Egyptian politics, transformations in the region, and the role of religion. Good data is lacking, but there are also African and European foundations that consider Egypt important to their programming.
Take Press Freedom: While in Tunisia and the early days of the Egypt protests everyone was celebrating the liberation of information through Twitter, Facebook, and CNN, authorities quickly shut down the Internet and mobile networks and angry pro-Mubarak mobs began to target journalists. A free press is one of the pillars of a democratic society and a favorite target of authoritarian leaders of all persuasions. Even in democracies, where the press remains largely free (though subject to commercial interests), it is frequently accused of one bias or another. Here, some foundations have also translated their values into grants. The same kind of quick search in Foundation Directory Online yielded hundreds of grants made since 2003, most to a select group of organizations created precisely to combat press censorship and persecution. They include the Committee to Protect Journalists, the World Press Freedom Committee, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Not surprisingly, among the foundations that support them are several like the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Gannett Foundation with origins in the newspaper business. For a glimpse into how such grantmaking might strike a raw nerve, check out Silence or Death in Mexico's Press: Crime, Violence, and Corruption Are Destroying the Country's Journalism, produced by the Committee to Protect Journalists with support from the Knight, McCormick, Oak, and Overbrook foundations.
Imagine what it's like to be a foundation that has staff and grantee partners in Egypt at the moment. Imagine what it's like put your foundation's money behind press freedom and see journalists arrested, beaten, and harassed -- in Egypt and elsewhere. This is philanthropy on the edge: driven by a sense of justice and a willingness to take risks.
-- Brad Smith