The Futurist: Alberto Ibargüen and the Remaking of the Knight Foundation

Alberto Ibargüen. Photo: Knight Foundation

Alberto Ibargüen. Photo: Knight Foundation

There may be no funder that’s lately thrown more spaghetti up on the wall to see what sticks than the Knight Foundation. Its creative and experimental grantmaking has now been going on for a decade. Where has it been leading and what lasting impact might it have? 

Skeptics of Knight’s approach haven’t been hard to find. The Miami-based foundation got dinged last year in a report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which portrayed it as chasing “bright shiny objects” while lacking “well-articulated long-term goals and strategies.” The report said that Knight wasn’t doing enough to help marginalized communities in the 26 cities where it makes grants, nor engaging key stakeholders as well as it might. This was a foundation, NCRP suggested, that seemed more interested in appealing to the “cool kids in the cafeteria” with its blizzard of grants for innovation, many tech-related, than in advancing lasting social change.

In a recent conversation, Knight’s long-serving CEO and president, Alberto Ibargüen, told me that NCRP’s equity critique was off because the watchdog group wanted Knight to become a different foundation than its donors, the newspaper publishers John and James Knight, intended. On the other hand, he said, the concern about “bright shiny objects” dovetailed with Knight’s own sense that it was time to experiment less and start doubling down on the stuff that really worked.

Now, the foundation is out with an updated strategy reflecting a year of discussions that tapped numerous experts and stakeholders, along with a deep look into the future through scenario planning. The document strongly affirms the course Knight has set over the past decade, although in an essay, Ibargüen said that “after years of startup investing, we want to further invest in the most promising projects.” Without mentioning the recent election, Ibargüen also said that Knight’s long-time goals of protecting freedom of expression and promoting an informed citizenry have become more urgent than ever.

Otherwise, though, Knight seems intent on sticking with the cool kids who know just how fast the world is changing and how central technology is to these upheavals. “Disruption rules,” Ibargüen wrote.

The Insider’s Outsider

The Knight Foundation was founded in 1950 and now has assets of $2.5 billion. It’s a big legacy foundation, the kind of institution that can be tough to reinvent for changing times. But that’s exactly what Alberto Ibargüen has done over the past decade—so much so that it’s hard to think of another top foundation CEO who has more dramatically remade the organization he or she leads. 

As a UPenn-trained lawyer in his early 70s, Ibargüen is hardly a prime suspect to be talking the lingo of “disruption”—even more so if you take a look at his blue chip resume, with past board stints at places like the Council on Foreign Relations, Lincoln Center, PBS and several corporations. (Ibargüen currently serves on the board of American Airlines.)

Ibargüen has headed up Knight for nearly 12 years, and it’s easy to imagine an unhappy situation at this point: the entrenched establishment type punching the clock at a listless foundation.

But this isn’t the deal at all with Ibargüen, who’s been the driving force keeping Knight focused on innovation, and remains fired up by the big questions the foundation is wrestling with.  

If you’ve followed Knight over recent years, you’ll know that it has rolled out a succession of competitive grantmaking “challenges” in its key program areas. The first was the Knight News Challenge, which began in 2006, not long after Ibargüen arrived at the foundation. It was a $25 million effort to support new uses of digital technologies to advance journalism and information in the public interest. The simple idea, as Ibargüen told me, was, “We’ve got some money; have you got ideas?”

The news challenge has continued ever since, expanding in new areas, like libraries, even as Knight has rolled out challenges on the arts and cities similarly focused on backing innovation. Like journalism, the arts are struggling in the face of changing technologies and demographics, while thinking about cities is also in rapid flux. Knight’s goal has been to identify and back the most exciting ideas in each of these areas.

But why is that? Why has Alberto Ibargüen’s attention fixed so keenly on the future, just ahead of the curve?

One explanation lies in his personality. Ibargüen has always brought tremendous energy and curiosity to his work, said Stephen Heintz, the president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, who has known him for decades. The two met in Connecticut in the 1970s, when both were rising in public life in that state. Ibargüen, who was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in New Jersey, went to Wesleyan College, where he was a student activist. After spending time in the Peace Corps and getting his law degree, he returned to Connecticut and worked as a legal aid lawyer. He became one of youngest people ever asked to join Wesleyan’s board of trustees, and soon had a foothold in Connecticut’s power elite. “He was kind of a young superstar in the beginning of his career,” Heintz said. “He’s maintained that demeanor and approach despite the biological clock.”

Heintz, who has followed Ibargüen’s work at Knight as a fellow foundation president, attributes its dynamic grantmaking to Ibargüen more than any other factor, including a staff that’s younger in age than those of most comparable institutions. Ibargüen’s mind, it seems, naturally works more along the lines of a millennial tech type than a guy born during World War II who’s long been at home in corporate board rooms.

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, who’s also known Ibargüen for years and considers him a mentor, told me that among his key traits is a “willingness to put difficult issues on the table. He puts the elephants in the room on the table.” Walker says he’s seen that across various issues—which helps explain Ibargüen's willingness to turn a legacy foundation upside down. In effect, when Ibargüen first showed up at Knight, he questioned whether much of the foundation’s grantmaking actually made sense given the realities of a fast changing world.

A Front Row Seat to Disruption

Ibargüen worked in newspapers for most of his career, and his own explanation for his obsession with innovation starts with that backstory. Ibargüen came into the industry on the business side at the Hartford Courant and rose to publisher of the Miami Herald, a position he held when he was tapped to lead the Knight Foundation in 2005. His last decade in newspapers coincided with their sharp decline, and Ibargüen came to know firsthand what it looks like when an entire sector is sideswiped by dramatic change.

“I loved the newspapers,” Ibargüen said, and he came especially to appreciate the power of good journalism to advance the public interest. Again and again, he saw hard-hitting reporting move the needle on key issues. (The Miami Herald won three Pulitzer Prizes under Ibargüen’s leadership.) So it was devastating for him to watch as newspapers were sent reeling by the internet and changing consumer habits. “I saw it,” he said, sadly, regarding the industry’s precipitous fall.

That decline carried a strong lesson about the importance of anticipating the future. But it also raised questions about news that nobody knew how to answer. Foremost among them, said Ibargüen, was “How do you meet the information needs of communities?” Quite apart from the urgent matter of financial sustainability that tended to preoccupy newspaper executives, there were questions as to how people would consume the news in a digital age, and on what platforms, as well as what it would mean to be a journalist in this brave new world. Knight's historical grantmaking, such as funding endowed chairs at journalism schools, no longer made much sense to Ibargüen in this moment of flux. “What are you going to train a journalist for if not a world that’s digital, mobile, and multimedia?” The Knight News Challenge was a way to find answers to this and other questions. 

While the crisis of journalism was a key impetus for Ibargüen to move Knight aggressively into backing innovation, it was also a step that channeled the spirit of the Knight brothers. During their years as hard-charging leaders in the newspaper industry, the Knights had continually embraced innovation and new technology. Most famously, their newspapers had experimented with using fax technology decades before it hit the mainstream. The Miami Herald put out a facsimile edition for a year starting in 1948, looking for a way to speed up delivery of the news at a time when consumers were smitten with the immediacy of radio and when television was just emerging. The fax edition was expensive to produce, and it didn’t last, but it presaged further experimentation in coming decades at Knight-Ridder.

Ibargüen spent most of his career in that company and expresses certainty that the Knight Foundation’s recent experimental grantmaking reflects the intent of its donors. “I’m 100 percent in the tradition of Jack Knight,” said Ibargüen. He makes a similar point in regard to the NCRP's critique that Knight isn’t sufficiently focused on equity and underserved communities. “It’s not that foundation,” Ibargüen said. “It’s the foundation that Jack and Jim set up to create engaged and informed communities.”

Think Nationally, Act Locally

Knight's structure is more complex than most other big foundations, thanks to its mandate to focus giving in 26 communities that have had Knight-Ridder newspapers. Beyond Miami, the Knight Foundation has offices in seven of those places: Akron, Ohio, Charlotte, North Carolina, Detroit, Macon, Georgia, Philadelphia, San Jose, California, and St. Paul, Minnesota.

This is an unwieldy setup, and when Ibargüen took over the foundation, he initially saw Knight’s geographic constraints as a major drawback. Soon, he came to feel that “actually, it was an advantage.” While national foundations can find themselves operating a bit in the stratosphere, and funders focused on a single place are limited in an opposite way, Knight occupies an unusual middle ground. The communities where it operates are so diverse as to capture nearly the full range of the contemporary American experience. To paraphrase an adage, Knight is able to think nationally but act locally.

This hybrid role is key to its interesting grantmaking on the arts and cities. Both areas are the focus of widespread, high-level thinking across the U.S., and yet the real action is on the ground, where cultural institutions and local governments are trying to find the right way forward.

The Knight Foundation, Ibargüen told me, sees the arts as an all-important glue in community life. “People bond to a place because of culture.” But the arts have famously struggled in a distracted age when people can barely put down their phones, much less listen to an entire symphony. The Knight Arts Challenge started in 2008, initially focused just in Miami, and it was guided by the same logic as the News Challenge: to use a competitive grants process to smoke out interesting ideas that could inject new energy into the city’s cultural sector.

Notably, Knight’s approach to bolstering the arts in Miami wasn’t to sound the alarm about the sector’s problems or come to the rescue of yesterday’s institutions with emergency grants. It was to back cool new things in the arts that could thrive with an assist from philanthropy. “I don’t do need, I do opportunity,” Ibargüen said. Since 2008, some 20,000 ideas have been submitted to the Knight Arts Challenge, which now covers four cities, and over 700 winning projects have split over $50 million. Along the way, too, Knight became a leader in creative placemaking, the growing movement that uses the arts to catalyze stronger communities. It was one of the founders of ArtPlace America, a 10-year collaboration to advance creative placemaking that includes over a dozen other foundations, as well as federal agencies and financial institutions. 

Given Knight’s focus on using the arts to bolster communities, along with a mission centered on 26 cities, the announcement of the Knight Cities Challenge in fall 2014 should have surprised no one. Here again, the foundation has zeroed in on an area of enormous flux in American life with an eye on new opportunities, but also an appreciation of serious problems. While cities have lately been thriving, this renaissance hasn’t happened everywhere, and plenty of metro areas, including some of Knight’s 26 communities, are still in terrible shape. Knight cities include the Rust Belt's leading symbol of decline, Detroit, but also Akron, Gary and Fort Wayne. Even Knight cities that are doing well face major economic and social problems. In 10 of Knight’s cities, over a quarter of residents live below the poverty line. Gallup polling commissioned a few years earlier by Knight found that in none of its cities did more than 40 percent of residents say they were “extremely satisfied” with their city as a place to live.

That polling was part of a three-year partnership between Knight and Gallup called the “Soul of the City” to better understand the key ingredients of successful cities. It found that the arts comprise a vital connector of urban life, but that economic prosperity played a much larger role in resident attachment to a city. Researchers found that “cities with the highest levels of attachment had the highest rate of GDP growth.”

While there is no easy way to spur urban economic growth, one key idea behind Knight’s Cities Challenge is that cities that are appealing places to live for talented people will have stronger economies. The foundation sees a culture of civic engagement as another core ingredient of prosperity; economic inclusiveness is a third. Winners of the Knight Cities Challenges so far have been projects that advance these three goals in various ways, including with some pretty far-out ideas—such as a program that trains people in Boulder, Colorado, to turn debris from infested and diseased trees into furniture and art.  

But What About Equity?

Knight’s grantmaking through its challenge programs has often been pathbreaking, and the foundation well deserves its reputation for innovation. Yet it’s come at the cost of a greater focus on equity that held sway under Ibargüen’s predecessor, Hodding Carter III. In an analysis of Knight’s grantmaking between 2004 and 2012, the NCRP report found a sharp drop in the foundation’s grants to support marginalized community and social justice work. (A longer time frame for that analysis, it should be noted, would have captured a big $20.8 million grant Knight made in late 2012 to advance the engagement of black males in U.S. society.)

Quite apart from where its money goes, Knight’s positioning under Ibargüen has come to feel removed from any urgent quest to create a fairer society. Stephen Heintz, who’s led his own foundation in a progressive direction, sees Ibargüen as a kindred spirit who “grew up in the ‘60s and '70s with a sense of social purpose as our north stars" and described him as a “consummate insider with a profound social conscience." Yet these traits have not come across so strongly in recent years. To be sure, there are flashes of that Ibargüen, such as his pivotal role in the bailout of Detroit, or when, earlier this year, Knight made a historic $60 million grant to create an institute on the First Amendment at Columbia University. “The basic freedoms we take for granted under the First Amendment are hardly settled,” said Ibargüen at the time. “Threats to free speech are on the rise…”

The new First Amendment effort was launched before Donald Trump won the presidency, and if the next administration does veer in an authoritarian direction, you can see Ibargüen and Knight stepping up with new funding to defend free speech and civil liberties. In fact, even as it’s spotlighted these issues in its updated strategy, Knight has announced $1.5 million in matching grants to nonprofit news organizations through late January—groups that many donors now see as critical to resisting a Trump agenda, as we’ve reported.     

Otherwise, though, Knight’s grantmaking feels out of touch with the current moment in certain ways, given its lack of a strong equity through-line. Such concerns have moved front and center for many funders, especially in the wake of recent racial unrest, with a recent survey by the Center for Effective Philanthropy finding that foundation CEOs ranked inequality as the top problem that foundations should now be tackling. Creating more equitable and inclusive communities is part of Knight’s work, and that comes through clearly in the new strategy statement, but it’s a thread that is easily overlooked in a foundation that otherwise comes across as a hothouse for hipster philanthropy.

Meanwhile, some reports from inside Knight have described the culture as one more supportive of smart white guys who like to swap clever tech ideas than staff who are deeply worried about the many desperately poor people who live in the communities that Knight is charged with helping. Ibargüen’s embrace of robust debate and the contest of ideas is said to have fostered a competitive “male” vibe described as off-putting by some staff. Turnover at Knight has been notable under Ibargüen, a point noted in the NCRP report, although the exact reasons for this are unclear.

It’s worth remembering that Ibargüen spent most of his career in the newspaper business, as opposed to the genteel environs of the social sector where people are discouraged from saying what’s really on their minds. Darren Walker sees the style he’s brought to philanthropy as an asset: “Alberto is willing to be candid and get uncomfortable, which is the only way genuine problem solving can occur.”

In a brief response to the NCRP report last year, the foundation’s vice president for impact and learning, Sam Gill—a polished thirty-something Rhodes Scholar and former consultant—gave no indication that the foundation would place a greater focus on equity, and the new strategy statement doesn’t notably elevate this concern. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ibargüen is not interested in jumping on the same bandwagon that so many other foundation CEOs say they should be on.

As for exactly how Knight’s tweaks to its work will play out across the full range of its grantmaking, my guess is that we’ll see the foundation start making some much bigger bets on the ideas that excite it most, and also emerge as an unexpectedly strong opponent of the new Trump administration. That said, Alberto Ibargüen would be the first to say that nobody knows what the future will look like.