New Philamplify Report: Knight Foundation Needs to Pursue Innovation with Equity in Mind

National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy urges Knight to clarify goals, strategy to best help underserved communities

Dec 09, 2015, 08:00 ET from National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy

WASHINGTON, Dec. 9, 2015 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is synonymous with innovation, but many nonprofit leaders, peers and other stakeholders wonder about the effectiveness of its approach in addressing inequities and helping strengthen the communities it seeks to serve. This is explored in "John S. and James L. Knight Foundation: Can It Look Beyond #ShinyBrightObjects and Do More to Promote Equity?" from the Philamplify initiative of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). The report offers actionable findings and recommendations from a comprehensive assessment to identify the foundation's most and least effective practices. 

"Many of Knight's constituents weren't sure what the foundation is trying to accomplish. Is the drive for innovation an end in itself or the means to a greater good?" asked principal researcher and NCRP's Director of Foundation Assessment Lisa Ranghelli. "More than any other foundation we've studied, we heard very divergent views about the Knight Foundation's goals, impact and relationships."


Ranghelli and co-author Peter Haldis used extensive feedback from Knight constituents as well as publicly available information to analyze Knight's giving nationally and in 26 target cities. In addition to the lack of clarity around its pursuit of innovation, other key findings include:

  • Knight Foundation is widely praised for its commitment to risk, funding unproven efforts that most foundations would not pursue, including new technologies and challenge grants that bring in nontraditional grant applicants and ideas.
  • Its support for marginalized communities has been declining over time.
  • Constituents' perspectives of the foundation as a partner vary greatly, from glowing to frustrated.  

The authors and NCRP recommend specific improvements for Knight to solidify its impact, including:

  • Keep embracing risk, innovation and the use of flexible, multi-year grants to support nonprofits.
  • Create and share explicit goals and strategies for each program area and explain how innovative projects are intended to create long-term systemic change.
  • Make an explicit commitment to equity, increasing grantmaking that benefits and engages low-income residents, communities of color, LGBTQ populations and other marginalized groups.
  • Make internal structural changes to strengthen relationships with community foundations, nonprofits and other partners.

"We urge the Knight Foundation to consistently marry innovation and equity in all its program areas so that the most marginalized in the communities it supports will benefit," said Ranghelli. NCRP will be hosting a free webinar to discuss best practices in place-based philanthropy, including an analysis of Knight's model, on December 15, 2015.


With $2.4 billion in assets and $107.8 million in grants dispensed in 2013, Knight exerts a significant presence nationwide and in 26 cities across the country.

  • Technology: Knight Foundation has supported a number of efforts to increase diversity in the technology sector but is not considered a leader in this area. Grantees, peers and other constituents also noted Knight's pursuit of the most innovative projects, especially those involving the use of technology.
  • Media and Journalism: Knight funds a number of early stage media and information projects that seek to improve how information is created, accessed and used. Grantees include journalism schools, public radio, app developers and local governments.
  • Talent, Opportunity and Engagement: Knight works to revitalize 26 communities – especially downtown areas – across the country, focusing on attracting and retaining young, college-educated "talent" – but it's unclear whether these efforts support existing underserved populations.
  • Challenges: Knight challenge grants bring in nontraditional projects within every program area. However, a lack of guidance about goals within the judging process means challenge winners may not be contributing to any overarching strategy.

In a statement, Sam Gill, Knight's vice president of learning and impact, said, "While we may not agree with some of the opinions you've expressed about our work, we believe not only in your right to express them, but in the value of having a range of opinions and views. We will consider your recommendations."

"John S. and James L. Knight Foundation: Can It Look Beyond #ShinyBrightObjects and Do More to Promote Equity?" is available for free on NCRP encourages readers to share their feedback about the assessment and the foundation.

About Philamplify

Philamplify's foundation assessments provide a comprehensive examination of a foundation's grantmaking and operations. They incorporate feedback received from key stakeholders and offer recommendations to maximize foundation effectiveness. users can comment on and agree or disagree with these recommendations and nominate foundations they want "philamplified."

In addition to Knight, NCRP has released reports on The Kresge Foundation, Hess Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, The California Endowment, Daniels Fund, the Lumina Foundation for Education, Robert W. Woodruff Foundation and William Penn Foundation.

It is currently assessing New York Community Trust and Oregon Community Foundation.

About NCRP

Since 1976, NCRP has served as the voice of nonprofits and the communities they serve in philanthropy. Through research and advocacy, NCRP works to ensure that philanthropy contributes in meaningful ways to the creation of a fair, just and equitable world. Visit for more information.


SOURCE National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy