Foundations of the Future: 8 Insights from the Knight Foundation Media Learning Seminar

Thursday, February 16, 2017

By Alfonso Wenker, MCF Vice President

A few weeks ago I got an email from my buddy, recent MCF conference speaker and futurist Amy Webb. The subject line read “URGENT – ALFONSO READ THIS”. Amy was writing to make sure I would attend Knight Foundation’s 10th Media Learning Seminar. Never having attended I wasn’t sure what I was signing up for but the speaker line up and promises of a conversation about media, democracy, community engagement and community information needs piqued my interest. Little did I know that the URGENT subject line was more than just an urging to sign up, it ended up being the feeling I had about the future of democracy and the role of philanthropy.

MCF recently shared our new strategic framework. Our focus is to support Minnesota-based philanthropy to become foundations of the future to advance prosperity and equity. Below are eight insights from my time at the Media Learning Seminar that are urgent and important for philanthropy to pay attention to.

We lack trust; We look for our own truth.

Many speakers at the MLS discussed fake news, “alternative facts” and the idea that many in the U.S. don’t trust the information we receive from media and other institutions. I was listening to LatinoUSA podcast this week and the commentators reflected that trust in media is essential to a functioning democracy. One speaker at the MLS went as far to say that “we live in a time when, if presented with facts contrary to our belief, we feel attacked.”

What is our role in philanthropy to build community trust and shape institutions that provide the information communities need?

Knight Foundation has put out a call for ideas to improve the news and information ecosystem.


We are the defenders of democracy.

In front of the entire audience at the MLS, both Terry Mazany, president, Chicago Community Trust and Alberto Ibarguen, president, Knight Foundation asserted the idea that foundations (especially community foundations) are essential defenders of democracy. Philanthropy can play an important role in making sure our democratic practices remain intact during this time of mistrust. We can invest in transparent media, support efforts to engage disenfranchised voters and work to ensure a fair and accurate Census.

In what ways is your philanthropic work defending democracy?

MCF has established a democracy funders working group for members interested in addressing grantmaking practices, issues, and public policy and systems change related to strengthening democratic systems and civic engagement.


Pay attention to AI and VR and other tech trends.

There was a lot of talk at the MLS about Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR) and other digital and tech trends. Admittedly, a lot of this was over my head. I started to realize, I don’t think we’re talking much about these trends in philanthropy. Our future is automated, our future is voice-controlled and our future will be determined by algorithms taught by our preferences and behaviors. We will reach a time when computers can do more of our work for us and virtual experiences will shape how we consume products and relate to one another. It might seem like sci-fi or something far off, but it’s all being shaped now and in philanthropy we don’t spend too much time considering the impacts these digital trends might have on the issues and institutions we care about.

Curious about your own digital literacy?

Lucy Bernholz's Blueprint 2017 provides reflection and assessment tools for the social sector on data and tech.


Cultural bias: gender and ethnic studies.

Think that tech and data trends don’t link to social issues? During her plenary session on future trends, Amy Webb discussed the fact that most folks in college and university tech programs are white males, and within those programs there are usually no gender or ethnic studies requirements. In philanthropy we work hard on workforce and education issues, there is an opportunity for us in this space.

Is your foundation concerned about implicit bias and achieving equitable outcomes? During her talk, Amy shared this 2015 Wired piece, you can read about how bias gets coded into our tech:


Where was the movement?

I spend a lot of time in national spaces focused on equity and social movements. This was a different crowd. There were certainly speakers and attendees who were thinking at the intersection of media, tech, future and equity but there remains an opportunity to link these conversations. Much like Captain Planet, with our powers combined….we can do big things.

Curious about the connection between futurism and equity? Check out Katherine Haynes Sanstad’s presentation from the MCF Annual Conference.


Latinos FTW.

As a journalism student, media nerd and Latino I was in heaven at the MLS. There were so many Latinos on stage sharing wisdom and strategy and I even got to meet my podcast Shero Maria Hinojosa, producer of LatinoUSA. The conversation at the MLS emphasized community engagement as a key strategy in building trust and sharing information. Spanish-speaking media were hailed as the leaders in media/community engagement.

Wondering how Spanish-speaking media has set the bar for engagement? Check out just one of many examples from Univision.


Being informed isn't about us and them.

The process of gathering, analyzing and sharing information can feel like an “us and them” dynamic. Speakers at the MLS encouraged us to, at this time of deep national polarization, stop asking “what do they need to know?” The call at the MLS was to deeply engage communities affected by current issues and allow those impacted to inform the ways we gather and disseminate the necessary information for community change.

Here at MCF we’ve been talking, for several years, about human-centered design as a process for listening to communities and co-designing strategy. Are you curious about engagement processes to provide communities with the information they need to succeed? Knight Foundation announced at the MLS its new InformationLab to support community foundations to lead design processes.


What about rural? 

Minnesota was well represented at the MLS, especially among our Greater MN members. Blandin Foundation and Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation were in attendance. Blandin’s Allison Ahcan was a visible presence in the plenary rooms calling important questions about our rural communities. With an emphasis on tech, data and new media, we have to remember that many across the country in rural communities don’t have access to broadband, high-speed internet. If the future is digital, a prosperous future means ensuring all communities can participate in this future.

Curious about equitable access to high-speed internet? Check about Blandin Foundation’s Minnesota Broadband Vision.


What’s next?

What role do you think philanthropy and the media play to ensure a prosperous future democracy? How can our vibrant philanthropic community work together to shape the future?

Share you thoughts with me @alfonsowenker or .


For videos of the plenary sessions and other resources from the MLS visit or check out #infoneeds on Twitter.

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