Don't Let Impact Investors Capture The Non-Profit, Activist Media!

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I wrote last week about Sir Ronald Cohen's assertion that the non-profit sector MUST be restructured and centralized in service of social impact investment markets. The elite demand this transformation, one that will ease the flow of performance data and venture philanthropy capital at scale. I've come to terms with the fact that this shift is poised to fundamentally remake education, and many other public service sectors. However it had not occurred to me, until a few days ago, that the reach of global impact markets would extend to the realm of media, communications, and documentary film.

In an impact investment scenario, media messaging must ultimately advance the interests of funders. Funders will pay content providers for desired behavior change. Narratives will be weaponized not only as propaganda, but as profit centers via innovative financial instruments like impact securities. Articles, tweets, comments, video clips, feature films, online games, even virtual simulations will be coordinated to achieve (or impede) social change. Powerful investors will use their largesse to compel digital media influencers to deliver (or withhold) votes, catalyze (or suppress) protest, and deliver (or derail) accountability to the public.

Source for infographic below here.

As the print model of journalism crumbled, new media paradigms emerged, creating opportunity and peril. Communication outlets today are increasingly structured as non-profits, which comes with a whole host of issues. The grants that support the work being done are de facto extensions of corporate and state power (the operations of WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR affiliate, currently underwritten by the Department of Homeland Security being but one example). It comes as no surprise that impact finance would wade into this arena, but the implications of such a move are grave indeed.

This month the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism announced the creation of a $20 million fund to promote "innovative" journalism for the digital age focused on metropolitan areas with profound challenges.  They've invited other philanthropists and corporations to pitch in, too. More here. Resources will be devoted to "change management training" around data-analytics, audience engagement, and product development. Philadelphia will be a focus area, because they are already working with a dozen newsrooms and institutions of higher education. The Knight Foundation press release notes the initiative is intended to "help news organizations accelerate their shift to digital delivery." Remember, data is the new oil.

I sense the non-profit media is being positioned to advance the message that the answer to our entrenched poverty problem is venture philanthropy and data-driven, outcomes-based finance. The amount of money being poured into this effort indicates just how much profit financiers anticipate extracting from the misery of the poor in the years to come. They and the telecommunications industry aim to create a secondary impact investing market by hijacking activist media to SELL the broader poverty-mining impact investing agenda, a truly macabre example of vertical integration.

The image above was taken from an article in the Philadelphia Tribune, read it here.

Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) appears to be a hub of "impact" journalism activity. Headquartered in New York and funded by many of the most powerful philanthropic institutions in the world, it was launched in 2013 (a year after social impact bonds were imported here from the UK). SJN promotes coverage of social issues with a focus on evidence-based solutions. Link to interactive version of the map below here.


SJN's website states over 10,000 journalists have gone through their trainings; their curriculum is being used in 17 schools of journalism; they've collaborated with 148 newsrooms on projects; and are operating in nine communities including: New York, NY; Washington, DC; Los Angeles, CA; San Francisco, CA; Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; Paris, France; Kampala, Uganda; and Manila, Philippines. In Philadelphia their influence extends through a new venture called Resolve Philadelphiaan SJN spin off focusing on issues of poverty and re-entry of people who have formerly been incarcerated (both major impact investment sectors).

I don't think it's coincidental that Solutions Journalism Network launched the same year the Gates and Knight Foundations partnered with the Annenberg School of Communications at USC on the "Media Impact Project." That grant was to "help media organizations, journalists, and social change-makers expand their use of storytelling through data and impact measurement." The plan was to use the $3.25 million to "develop metrics that are more robust than TV ratings, page views, retweets and the like to determine how media influences people's awareness and actions."

A 2015 article by Anya Schiffrin and Ethan Zuckerman for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, "Can We Measure Media Impact? Surveying the Field" discusses efforts to devise metrics for media impact grounded in social change rather than advertising reach. Those working in this area include not only the Gates and Knight Foundations, but also the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, the Annenberg School of Communication at USC, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, and the Pew Center. Tools like Media Cloud, a collaboration between scientists and MIT and Harvard, are being developed to track digital engagement with content and ideas across the internet. The funders of this platform (Gates, Ford, MacArthur, Johnson, Open Society) are the same individuals funding the impact investment agenda.


The implications of these developments are chilling. Media is changing, becoming more online than offline, more visual than text. Surveillance and predictive analytics are built into everything. We are inundated with information processed by opaque algorithms. Few people are aware of the sophisticated ways our emotional engagement with online content can now be analyzed. If you haven't checked out Affectiva, you should. The way content creators and investors can track media consumption and engagement with digital platforms, correlating it to offline behavior in the burgeoning world of augmented reality and the Internet of Things, is unnerving. Media streams, including playlist education, can be intentionally or unintentionally curated to create feedback loops that lead people to certain ways of thinking. As I've processed my understanding of the intersections between impact investing and digital media over the past few days, I'll admit to feeling more and more unsettled.

The media has always served as a mechanism of social control; see Noam Chomsky's "10 Strategies of Manipulation." Those at the upper echelons of empire understand the power of compelling stories, which is why they fund their own documentary film initiatives and pay for research on weaponized narrative. If media can be tied to outcomes-based funding streams, then content producers can be compelled to deliver "results" to private investors. So what will those results be? Who gets to decide? Whose interests are advanced? Do they seek behavior change? Political action? Cultural shifts? Are we looking at a future where we have propaganda not only as an end in itself, but also as a "social impact" profit center? Source for image below here

I came to write this post because of an invitation I received to attend "Media, Movements, and The City" on September 28, 2018. I was a guest of Cheri Honkala, founder of the Poor People's Economic and Human Rights Campaign and one of the most vocal advocates for the un-housed in our city. Listen to her brief message; it distills our next steps pretty clearly.

Attendees came from a variety of media outlets and academic, philanthropic, and cultural institutions. There was also at least one company represented, whose focus is open data with a bit of predictive policing software on the side. The event was not open to the general public and was not a gathering of "the people" so much as a gathering of people who see their role as sharing stories of "the people." It was sponsored by Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Jefferson University, and Rutgers University.

See map below-the large purple dots are sponsors. Click here for interactive version.

Agenda (note the wifi signal above the fist, it's always about the data): 

When I was preparing the event sponsor relationship map, I saw a number of the facilitators were connected with the Media, Inequality and Change Center, a program of Penn's Annenberg School and the School of Communications and Information at Rutgers University. In addition to sponsoring the September 28 event for the "non-profit media," the program is also working on a very different event, "The Media Future Summit," scheduled for November 8, 2018. That exclusive one-day gathering convened by Bob Garfield, a fellow in the Wharton Future of Advertising Program, is by non-transferable invitation and comes with a hefty price tag of $3,000. Attendees get access to C-Suite decision makers shaping the future of corporate media not only for the day, but it grants access to their exclusive club. This summit is intended to be a day of common cause that can be "marshaled only at the highest levels of ownership and management."


A tale of two conferences: in the first, regular folks enjoy collegial conversations over coffee and construction paper charrettes (see my activism memory below). There are discussions about creating a collaborative "ecology" around activism and generalized next steps. No mention of tough topics like planned change management, impact metrics or data analytics, or philanthro-capitalism. No, it's all pretty superficial stuff. Now picture a second conference, one where executives in expensive suits are seated around banquet tables engaged in high-powered discussions around Blockchain micro-payments and monetizing the attention economy. Two sides of the same coin-or perhaps crypto-token. We both have power, but the nature of our power is very different.


My collage activism memory blogged here.

I discovered this other conference when I was creating the relationship map of the event sponsors, which leads me to wonder if it was on the radar of other attendees? It would be interesting to know how non-profit media factors into the program of the "Media Future Summit." It seems likely it would merit at least some mention given recent developments around the Lenfest/Knight initiative.

Do these executives view non-profit activists as pawns in their games of message manipulation and social impact schemes? The Media, Inequality and Change Center states they're "committed to studying the political economy of social problems, media and democracy, while engaging local activist projects and drawing connections with national and international social movements." But it doesn't clearly state whose interests are being advanced. Perhaps Annenberg is trying to play both sides (non-profits and corporate) in the hopes no one notices or draws attention to the dissonance conjured up by the screenshot below.

It felt incongruent to be talking about movement building in an expansive oak-paneled reception hall of leaded glass windows, waxed flagstone floors, and limestone fireplaces. The last time I'd been in that space was under very different circumstances with North Philadelphia activists Jackie Wiggins and Ruth Birchett as they led Stadium Stompers in a vigorous challenge to the plans of Temple's trustees to construct a football stadium in their community.

I went into the September 28 gathering as an independent researcher and blogger who has taken up the cause of tracking down and exposing the impact investment machine in Philadelphia (see the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia's 2016 whitepaper on growing our "impact economy"). I take no money, seek no rewards, and don't join groups. It's not that I want to be a loner, but at this time we need independent people who can show up and ask the provocative questions those angling for their next grant or seat at the table cannot.

I came with handouts and an invitation for people interested in doing research and creating media about poverty in Philadelphia that is unplugged from philanthropic and corporate influence to join me at Bartram's Garden on November 10 from 11am-1pm to brainstorm possibilities. I consider myself a strong addition to the research arm of this initiative, but it is imperative we link research to on-the-ground struggles that uplift the perspectives of those targeted by impact predators. We need to create offline spaces where we can nurture strategies to confront this technocratic force. I hope this can be a step in that direction.

We are living through a time when humanity is under dire threat. The bio-capitalist machine that is Blockchain identity impact investing is almost ready for prime time. People in the room on the 28th are aware of such plans. This is not some distant threat. Our situation will not be meaningfully improved through incremental change, tweaked around the edges. Massive mobilizations and coordinated offline strategies are required to mount a credible challenge. Fin-tech wants to turn our lives into data for dangerous speculation, and we need our nimble activist media to stay out of the impact investment net. Winning efforts will not emerge from sanctioned gatherings in spaces like Mitten Hall. Academia has too much to lose, so it is not surprising that those interests prefer to get out in front, take the reins and attempt to establish terms of engagement.

The change we need won't happen there. The true resistance will rise up in spaces like the one below, where the linoleum tile and the visage of Dr. King set the tone. Our imagination and belief in truth and justice will take us beyond the limiting confines of monopoly capital. I believe in the capacity of Philadelphians to rise to meet this challenge, tell our stories, and devise solutions the people deserve. Join us November 10th, and email your RSVP so I can be sure to have enough sandwiches on hand. If you can make it drop a line by November 6 to [email protected]

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