My mother has always loved stories.
From the books that fill Diana’s home, to her passion for documentary films, to her most recent obsession, podcasts, she has always believed in the power of narratives to capture the imagination, shift our world view, and challenge our assumptions. It was a belief that only deepened when, in her 50s, she went back to school and completed her college degree as an anthropology major at Mt. Holyoke. For Diana, stories provide a fundamentally human way of connecting, relating, learning and understanding complexity.
So, it should come as no surprise that throughout the past three decades of her life as a philanthropist, Diana has also invested deeply in the craft of storytelling – believing it to be an important approach which, when thoughtfully timed and skillfully rendered, can accelerate the very kind of social change the bulk of her grantmaking seeks to bring about.
The Kendeda Fund is by no means unique in this view, of course. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of foundations who share our belief that narratives are essential to human understanding, and those funders are responsible for all manner of important stories. Many of these investments are familiar to us all: Joan Kroc’s transformational bequest to NPR; the Knight brothers’ enduring commitment to journalism and communities; The Ford Foundation’s creation of JustFilms and its belief that “artist-driven moving image storytelling is vital to the pursuit of justice and equity in the 21st century.”
These are just a few examples of philanthropy playing a critical role in shaping how millions make sense of the world around us. At Kendeda, though, we’ve never viewed protecting community journalism or documentary film as our end goal. For us, shaping narratives, telling stories, and building the field of storytellers is a means to an end.
Let me explain.
When Diana embarked on her philanthropic journey, she was drawn to work on a very complex set of issues, none of which have simple or clear-cut solution sets. Most of our programs, by their very nature, defy easy “explainability.” For those who don’t know our work, Kendeda’s priorities include climate change, child marriage, economic justice, gun violence prevention, education transformation and more.
It’s obvious that these problems are each systemic, enormous, and intractable. None are going to be solved easily or quickly; they won’t be “fixed” before we spend ourselves out of existence at the end of 2023. (You can read more on our spend-out here.)
But Diana has never shied away from a good challenge. So, with her optimism as our North Star, we’ve worked hard to advance the ball in each of our chosen fields by investing in strategies that are familiar to most grant makers – things like movement building, organizing, innovative ideas, policy reform, research, leadership development, and community building. At the same time, we’ve also invested in telling powerful stories to illuminate and help reframe these complex problems – and it’s a strategy that’s working.
Guided by Diana’s belief that some of the best human connections happen through well told stories, we made a conscious decision to lean into the complexity of our chosen issues. It was a relatively easy choice for us, truth be told. We believe deeply that media grantmaking can be a powerful tool for change, and good stories authentically rooted in the communities we support are a useful way of honoring those communities by acknowledging complexity of their work.
Media grantmaking can be a powerful tool for change, and good stories authentically rooted in the communities we support are a useful way of honoring those communities by acknowledging complexity of their work.
More specifically, we feel that effectively-rendered narratives allow a reader/viewer/listener to take on the fear of that complexity in a way that pulls her toward it rather than scaring her off. In that spirit, the Kendeda Fund has taken a very ecumenical approach to how, when, and where we fund media. We have media investments in nearly every one of our grant portfolios, though we don’t have a media program per-se. As a result, our media investments take many forms. We have supported community journalism and documentary filmmaking, podcasters and playwrights, comic books and sculpture, radio, television, single subject digital news outlets and much, much more.
Let me share a few examples to show what this looks like in practice:
In Atlanta, where we are working to create economic opportunity for historically marginalized populations and communities of color, we have supported Canopy. It’s a relatively new nonprofit focused on collaborating with local residents to help them access information about the issues that matter to them most. Canopy’s work has lifted up stories on everything from generations of Black-owned businesses to tenants at a Southeast Atlanta complex who are organizing for fairer housing. Importantly, in addition to telling these types of stories, Canopy is also training up a new wave of citizen journalists to engage in and report on many issues that the mainstream media overlooks or ignores.
At other times our media investments have taken the form of advocacy and advertising. In the wake of the civil unrest and racial reckoning that tore at the fabric or our city and our country in 2019, we supported the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative in launching a campaign called Business is Black. That effort united dozens of partners – ranging from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute to the Partnership for Southern Equity – around a coordinated marketing and public engagement strategy designed to expand economic opportunity behind a “Buy Black” campaign and a push for greater flexibility in capital markets to support Black and brown owned businesses.
Beyond metro Atlanta, Kendeda has embraced a wide range of other media-centered, narrative change strategies with similar goals in mind.
Take the portfolio that I lead, our girls’ rights work. As we dug in with our partners at American Jewish World Service and considered the popular narratives commonly used to frame the problem of child marriage, we recognized that when media stories fail to represent reality accurately, the solution sets pursued by funders and policy makers alike can miss the mark. For example, when news stories focus only on the youngest child brides (as they consistently do) ignoring the reality that most forced marriages happen when young women are deep into adolescence, there’s a tendency for those with power to try and solve the wrong problem. The focus becomes “protecting children” rather than “empowering adolescents”. That’s why we invested in Population Media Center’s serial radio dramas in Nepal – which aims at upending erroneous perceptions of the problem and instead presenting the underlying causes of child marriage for what they truly are.
In our People Place and Planet program, our investments in media have been made not only to reframe the issues we care about, but also as a way to help grantee partners build power and reclaim spaces critical to their own self-determination.
Case in point: We recently made a grant to Rise Home Stories, a groundbreaking collaboration between multimedia storytellers and social justice advocates seeking to change our relationship to land, home, and race, by transforming the stories we tell about them. Rise Home Stories united longtime organizers, advocates, writers, filmmakers, journalists, game designers, and artists from over 20 different organizations in a collaborative co-creation process. Working across multiple platforms to reach audiences where they are, they are making beautiful and compelling content that’s advancing their shared goals. They created an interactive web experience featuring audio storytelling and dynamic illustration that makes the case against the financialization of housing. They produced an animated web-series exploring the timely theme of community versus individual survival, through the eyes of a teenager. And they built a narrative-driven video game in which a young Black woman living in her grandmother’s beloved home travels through time to witness key moments in her family’s past, present, and future, revealing how race, place, and home can collide in difficult ways. The point of Rise’s work is not only the creative power of the media they are producing. It’s about how they are blurring the lines between “art” and “activism” in ways that are also transforming their organizing practices across their respective fields.
We are also making significant media and communication investments to promote employee ownership as a way to help some of society’s most marginalized groups build community wealth and democratize our economy. Kendeda believes that democratic employee ownership can be a transformational way for communities to redefine prosperity, making them more vibrant places to live, more resourceful in hard times, and more capable of retaining the wealth they generate. While employee ownership is not our only strategy in this realm, we view it as a vital expression of democracy in action and an approach worthy of deeper investment.
To that end, as a part of a $25 million commitment we made to help four nonprofits working to convert businesses to employee ownership, we earmarked a portion of the budget to help those groups build a national marketing campaign called EO Equals. The campaign is deploying digital marketing strategies, social media influencers, op-eds, paid advertising, traditional PR strategies and more to reach as many owners of small- and medium-sized businesses as possible with actionable information about how they can grow their business and strengthen their communities by converting to an employee-owned structure. Again, this was not a traditional media investment, per-se. It wasn’t about underwriting at our local public radio station. Rather it was a conscious choice to create a targeted campaign to advance a programmatic objective. By letting the four grantee partners drive the campaign planning, we also helped each organization build new marketing muscles and messaging skills that will pay dividends over time.
The issue area in which Kendeda has leaned most deliberately into journalism, media, narratives and storytelling is our work in gun violence prevention. While we have plenty of GVP grants that are focused on things like community empowerment, public health interventions, and policy change at the state and federal levels, in a recent review of our program we recognized more than half of our GVP grantmaking has been media-centered. This is because we decided early on that a major undercurrent in national gun crisis is the way Americans routinely talk past one other where safety and violence are concerned. Popular media tends to center its coverage on mass shootings while ignoring the daily drum beat of suicide and community violence that account for the vast majority of gun deaths. And stories are consistently seen as either “pro” or “anti” gun, with little room for nuance or the complicated role firearms play in the lives of tens of millions of Americans. To counter this phenomenon, we’ve tried a few ways to tilt the frame and lift up narratives that might help open-minded Americans see the gun issue in a new light.
We worked with WAMU, one of the largest public radio stations in the country, to create a project called Guns & America. This ten-station, two-year reporting collaborative placed young reporters in big cities and small towns, red states and blue ones, coast to coast, where they dug in and produced more than 700 stories, video projects, and more. Guns & America even spun out a few podcasts, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize last year for original audio reporting. As a result, millions of Americans heard or saw deep and thoughtful stories about guns who never otherwise would have had that chance. The reporting was consistent, nuanced, balanced, compelling and provocative. And the best part of all? There are now a dozen or so up and coming journalists who will carry the knowledge and expertise gained as G&A reporters with them for the rest of their lives.
From racial and economic equity to girls’ rights, climate change and gun violence, our media investments have taken on multiple forms and methodologies over the years, with each grant different than the last, each outcome unique unto itself. Yet the singular current running through them all has been the power of the stories they’ve revealed.
Marshall Ganz once wrote “A story communicates fear, hope, and anxiety, and because we can feel it, we get the moral not just as a concept, but as a teaching of our hearts. That’s the power of story.” At Kendeda, we believe deeply in the transformational power of a story well told, and we hope our approach can inspire other funders to follow suit.