The Knight Foundation: 
Inspiring others to Engage 
the Community in New, 
Creative, Innovative ways (Part One of Two) – 2012-03-24

By Katie Sobiech

What does it take to come up with a fresh, inspiring idea that changes a city for the better? And once the idea blooms in the mind, how does one bring it to fruition? For those who stay awake at night thinking of how they can make change – the dreamers, thinkers and entrepreneurial minds – the Knight Foundation may be the key that unlocks the door to your bright idea.

The Knight Foundation, a somewhat hidden gem, is a national foundation with local roots. It encourages out-of-the-box, innovative, creative, interactive ideas, and supports chosen “masterminds” with grants to turn their dreams into a reality. The key is that they be transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities, and foster the arts.

The foundation hasn’t received too much press, and probably for good reason – too many people would apply for grants! But that may be a good problem for a city to have.

For those with a well of inspiration flowing within them that is about to spill over, this could be the place you share your ideas for bettering city life.

Encouraging Creative Minds

The Knight Foundation is headquartered in Miami, Florida with 8 offices in other major cities around the country. They give grants in 3 areas: Journalism and media innovation, the arts, and community engagement.

Jennifer Thomas

Jennifer Thomas

“We fund sustainable initiatives that really give people a sense of belonging and caring in their community,” Jennifer Thomas, Program Director of the Knight Foundation in Akron, said.

Thomas came on board the Akron division of the Knight Foundation in 2010 and is known for developing innovative ideas in Northeast Ohio. She launched and led the Civic Innovation Lab, which provides mentorship and funding to civic, social and technology start-ups in Cleveland, and founded ClevelandClicks, a social networking group for entrepreneurs.

“These initiatives increase the flow of information and allow people to pursue things that are meaningful to themselves so that they can start something on their own that they’ve sort of been trained and ready to do,” Thomas said of the Knight Foundation.

Since starting working for the foundation 1 ½ years ago, Thomas has given about 5 major grants.

Soul of the Community Report

In measuring what makes a “Good Place”, Thomas said it goes back to a study that they did called “Soul of the Community Report”. With this, they surveyed across the country in major Knight Foundation cities asking ‘What makes people have a good sense of place?’ and ‘What makes it matter to live there?’

“What they found was that time and again there were 3 characteristics that people really counted as important in their sense of place,” she said of the results.

The 3 things they found matter the most to people in the city that they live are social offerings, openness (how welcoming and friendly people are), and aesthetics (such as parks, outdoor recreation and so on).

“Akron is the highest in aesthetics. We have a gorgeous park and a lot of outdoor offerings, but may be last on social offerings,” Thomas said.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t find a place to go to the orchestra, it just means that people in general feel there’s not as much going on here that fits their interest and personality. So we have to work on some of those things to sort of increase our belonging and sense of place,” she continued.

Thomas says they’ve been doing this report for 3 years and that the community is definitely starting to pay attention to it.

Setbacks and a New Way of Doing Things

“I also think that the last 3 years have been tricky too because we’ve gone through a major recession. Even if people want to increase social offerings or increase ways to access a park or something like that, money has been really tight,” she explained.

“We see a city that really has to scale back to the point where it has to lay off police officers, and you see all of these non-profits really just trying to survive. It’s a tough time economically; we moved out of the recession but see people locally trying to figure what comes next. What’s important for us to have a vibrant city? And they’ll start to be able to focus on that,” she said.

Thomas says the turbulent economy threw us into a “new formula” across the country.

“It’s changed what matters, where you put your assets, time, and resources, because it’s not pre-2008 anymore where everything seemed like it was worry-free,” she continued.

But creative thinking and innovative ideas can take us farther than we ever would have been.

On the Look-Out

The Knight Foundation is always looking for new, creative ideas to build up the community. New perspectives and ideas during this time of transition in our nation, and city, are greatly encouraged.

“I’m always looking for grants that I can categorize as informed and engaged,” Thomas said.

akronistlogo

She brings up the Akronist (www.akronist.com), a local citizen journalist media outlet, as an example of a non-profit they support under the “informed” category.

“(With the Akronist) you’re building the capacity of everyday residents to become journalists and help get information out to the community. I’m not saying (we’re looking for) that exact model, but how do you increase the flow of information? How do you increase people’s access to technology?” she said, on what they are looking for.

Thomas’s mind flows with new ideas of what kinds of things people can bring to the table…

“What kind of mobile app could you come up with, for example, to increase engagement around an issue that you care about? It doesn’t have to be an issue that we’ve done already. It can be an issue someone really cares about, as long as they can convince me that there’s an increase in information flow,” she said.

The interactive component is also important.

“When we talk about engagement, we talk about intentional engagement. It’s not just someone participates in a program and gets a service. It’s more like, what do they do next? How do they go out into their community and have an impact and show that it matters to them?” she said.

“I want people to be creative and bring me ideas that other foundations might not look at, or that maybe wouldn’t typically fit into a foundation, that are thoughtful and innovative and new,” Thomas said of her hopes.

Stay tuned for next week’s story on the non-profits that have been granted finances by the Knight Foundation to start up their ideas, and be inspired by the practical ways they are putting their plans into action! If you are interested in finding out more about the Knight Foundation you can visit their website at http://www.knightfoundation.org.

 

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