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Case Study

Spurring Innovation

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

In nearly 70 years of grant making, the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven had targeted its investments in the areas of education, health, youth, community and economic development.

Program staff functioned as domain experts, vetting the urgency and potential impact of grant requests. But in 2006, following listening sessions with local leaders, the foundation – one of the oldest and largest of the nation’s 700 community foundations – dismantled traditional funding silos. It reorganized its giving into a flexible framework that prioritized grants that spur innovation and expand capacity.

Staff now serve as “quarterbacks of the process,” providing operating and technical assistance to community service providers, said William Ginsberg, the foundation’s president. The new focus gives the foundation “more discretion to choose the best and strongest projects to make the biggest difference in the community,” he said.


The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven serves a 20-town region in Connecticut.

One of the first grantees to benefit from the new priorities was the New Haven Independent, a vibrant community news site launched in 2005. From an initial, two-year gift of $21,600, the community foundation hasbecome the New Haven Independent’s major funder.

By mid-2009, the community foundation will help fund a related news site to serve nearby towns as part of a matching grant program with the Knight Foundation.

Shared news and information are “one of the things that holds a community together,” Ginsberg said. When people understand what’s going on, they can advocate for their own interests.

Support from funders such as New Haven’s community foundation has provided more bandwidth for the New Haven Independent. The site’s founder and editor, Paul Bass, a respected, longtime local journalist, said his community news enterprise had a budget of $180,000 in 2008. With the new Knight grant, which will be matched by the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, that annual budget will grow to $450,000 starting in mid-2009.

The Knight matching grant will help fund a sister news site, the Valley Independent Sentinel. Knight will fund $500,000 over two years, which will be matched with $140,000 from the community foundation.

From an initial, two-year gift of $21,600, the community foundation has become the New Haven Independent’s major funder.

When launched, the new site will serve five towns of the lower Naugatuck Valley, a region largely abandoned by legacy media. Bass – as executive director of the nonprofit Online Journalism Project, the umbrella group for the New Haven Independent and the Valley Independent Sentinel – will effectively serve as publisher for the two news sites.

Knight’s deep investments in community journalism can be a game-changer for foundation boards, Ginsberg said, especially as they are pressed to boost support for direct-service providers.

His foundation serves 20 towns and 600,000 people through a $300 million endowment. It awarded a total of $13 million in 2008 and expects to increase overall grant making in 2009.

Ginsberg’s board doesn’t see the foundation’s grants to the New Haven Independent in isolation but as part of “a big national initiative growing out of the same root,” he said.

However, Ginsberg says that persuading his board to fund journalism is not always easy. “Not everybody agrees with it. Sometimes it’s a struggle at the board level, especially in a time of needs like this,” he said.

But Ginsberg hammers home his point that journalism is crucial to community building. “That’s what it takes to mobilize a community,” he said. “First [citizens] have to understand.”

Case Study

A Look at the New Haven Independent

In its fourth year of operation, the New Haven Independent has a staff of three full-time

The New Haven Independent’s budget will more than double with new funding in 2009.

The New Haven Independent’s budget will more than double with new funding in 2009.

and two part-time journalists, as well as stringers. The site attracts about 16,000 unique users per week, and its audience grows about 25 percent every six months, said site founder and editor Paul Bass. Users can drill into 40 topic areas plus sections on 24 neighborhoods, be they home to blue-collar workers or Yale University faculty.

Community response to the site may be due in part to the curtailing of traditional media coverage in the city. The daily newspaper, the New Haven Register, let go 7 percent of its news staff in 2008 and its owner, the Journal Register Co., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early 2009. WTNH, the ABC affiliate, was sold in 1994 to LIN Interactive in Rhode Island.

With the sell-off of local media, “there was such a hunger for information in New Haven,” Bass said.

Stories on his online news site can prompt 50 to 100 comments per day – and those comments can bloom into full-fledged discussions, in which residents of effectively segregated neighborhoods thrash out solutions to local problems together.

“There are conversations that happen in the Independent that never happened in the years I was reporting” for other news outlets, Bass said.

As a result of New Haven Independent reports about shooting deaths in poor areas of the city, some members of the victims’ families have wound up talking online with middle-class and
suburban residents – and lawmakers – “who would never go near [the victims’] neighborhood,” Bass said.

Bass urges other journalists to take the plunge into the new media world. “Do it!” he said. “It’s the future and it’s fun and it makes a difference, and it’s why you went into the business in the first place.”

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