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5 Questions for...George Abbott, Community & National Initiatives, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

October 21, 2016

Headquartered in Miami, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation long has been regarded as one of the most interesting and innovative foundations operating in the United States. Led by Alberto Ibargüen, a former publisher of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, Knight bills itself as a national foundation with strong local roots an orientation informed by the Knight brothers' high regard for the more than two dozen communities where they once published newspapers. Today, Knight's stated goal is "to foster informed and engaged communities," which it believes are "essential for a healthy democracy." To help advance that goal, in 2015 the foundation launched the Knight Cities Challenge, a competition designed to surface innovative ideas that can make cities more interesting and vibrant places to live and work.

Earlier this week, PND chatted via email with Knight's George Abbott about the 2017 Cities Challenge, the kinds of ideas the foundation is looking for, and Knight's unique approach to grantmaking. The challenge will be accepting applications through noon on November 3.

Philanthropy News Digest: You and your colleagues have opened the application period for the third annual Knight Cities Challenge and have announced that, in 2017, you'll be awarding $5 million in grants through the competition. Without prescribing in too much detail what kind of ideas you're looking for, what kind of ideas are you looking for?

Headshot_George_AbbottGeorge Abbott: We're looking for ideas with the potential to create impact in one or more of our three focus areas: keeping and attracting talent, expanding economic opportunity, and creating a culture of civic engagement. The challenge is designed to fund innovation and to provide "risk capital." We're not looking to do maintenance funding — to give money to fund year three of a four-year program. Instead, we're looking to fund new things and ideas and help cities add to their success, with those three focus areas in mind.

PND: The 2016 challenge attracted forty-five hundred applications and awarded grants ranging from $4,400 to $334,000 to thirty-seven entries. Any personal favorites among the winning entries?

GA: I couldn't single any one out as a favorite, but I'm happy to mention a couple of projects that stood out.

There's the Sunset Rises Again project in West Palm Beach, Florida, which will engage residents of that community around the renovation of the Sunset Lounge Jazz Club in that city's Historic Northwest neighborhood. While the community engagement aspect of the project is still in its early stages, the head of the Community Redevelopment Agency there told me the project has already redefined the way the city thinks about public civic engagement.

The Innerbelt Bicycle Park in Akron, Ohio, is another project that stood out. Our grant is helping to kick-start a process to turn what will soon be a non-operating freeway in downtown Akron into a new amenity for the community: a mountain bike park. The highway isn't even closed yet, but the project has developed tremendous momentum, with the city already having identified which section of the highway can be used for this project, calls coming in from around the country offering pro-bono support, and the project garnering widespread media attention in national outlets such as Fast Company and CityLab.

And the third project I'd mention is Pedal to Porch in Detroit. The organizers of that project are going to use their grant to fund monthly bike tours of Detroit's various neighborhoods that enable riders to meet and interact with longtime residents of those neighborhoods. Actually, this was a project that was launched through our Emerging City Champion program last year, and its success there led to a Knight Cities Challenge application and the project lead, Cornetta Lane, being asked to expand the program in other cities, including Charlotte.

PND: The focus of the Knight Cities Challenge — and much of Knight Foundation's work — is on local, bottom-up efforts. That's a reflection of the Knight brothers' desire to give back to the communities that supported their newspapers. Does it also reflect something larger about the nature of successful communities that Knight has learned over the years?

GA: We believe strongly that communities are in the best position to determine their own future. And we've seen first-hand that top-down efforts from outside often don't pan out the way they're intended to, or benefit the people they're supposed to. There is a value, however, to outside expertise and a balance between the two that can be struck. Many of the grants we fund involve a partnership in which a local group partners with a national, or even international, organization, combining local with national expertise. The Pop-Up Minimum Grid, the Exchange House, and Minimum Grid: Maximum Impact are all examples of partnerships between local and national organizations.

PND: The twenty-six cities where Knight works run the gamut from thriving to barely hanging in there. What separates the former from the latter? And do you see things happening in those barely-hanging-in-there communities that give you hope for their future?

GA: You're right, but there are commonalities between all our cities. Every city is competing for talent, and every city faces challenges in providing equal opportunities to all. Both of those are issues that the challenge addresses. Of course, cities are complex systems, so it's difficult to identify one or two issues that have led some places to succeed. That said, it's important to constantly be working on improving the community for all its residents. That kind of approach and attitude sets cities up for success when outside events like a recession or a natural disaster threaten their vitality.

PND: Any final words of encouragement for people out there who might be thinking about entering the 2017 challenge?

GA: I would encourage them to apply! The application form is easy to fill out, and the challenge really is open to everyone. We believe that good ideas can come from anywhere, and we want our Cities Challenge to reflect that belief.

Mitch Nauffts

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