Civil society is often referred to as a third sector of society, with business and government being the other two. The very nature of civil society is undergoing transformation – from how we gather information, to how we engage in debate to how we support one another.
Alberto Ibargüen has a unique perspective on the rapidly changing nature of civil society. He grew up in a family that practiced impassioned political discussions in two languages. He practiced law, worked in the Peace Corps, spent a career in journalism and now heads the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight Foundation works to create informed and engaged communities. They do so in the context of a civil society undergoing transformation.
Several times in my conversation with Alberto, I thought of this Eric Hoffer quote. Hoffer wrote in Reflections on the Human Condition:
In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.
Similarly, when Alberto arrived at the Knight Foundation, he looked at their activities. He told me, “It struck me that we were taking the best people to the best universities and training them for a future that didn’t exist.” He and his team recognized that they did not have all of the answers. They set about to transform how the Knight Foundation would give – using contests to spark creative solutions. But how would they recognize a successful proposal? “All transformational processes seem to have a set of five characteristics that are common,” he told me. They are as follows:
- Discovery – Deal with the facts
- Vision – A vision of what could be
- Courage – You have to have the courage to share that vision
- Know-how – You have to have or obtain the know-how
- Tenacity – Stick to it when things get rough
Using these criteria, the Knight Foundation funds projects in communities, journalism, and media innovation. They also fund the arts.
I deeply enjoyed this wide-ranging conversation with Alberto Ibargüen. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Civil Society Quotes from Alberto Ibargüen:
“When mission and commerce were in balance in the newspaper industry, it was a phenomenal model. When it got out of balance and commerce started to make requirements that cut into mission, that’s when I think we had the problems.”
“I need to know the idea. I need to know that you’re capable of executing and I want a return. I don’t invest just to throw the money out the door. I want to invest to make the community better. That’s my return. Impact is my return.”
“One of the things you look for when you’re making these investments is, does this have the capacity for transforming the field or the community?”
“Be realistic about the circumstances. Don’t deal with things you wish were there, just the facts.”
“You have to have the courage to put out that vision and be laughed at if necessary.”
“That’s what I look for when somebody walks in and says ‘Hey, I have an idea to do X.’ It almost doesn’t matter what X is. I just want to know, are you dealing with the facts? Tell me your vision. Do I think you’ve got the courage to do it? Can you put together the know-how, and have you got the intestinal fortitude to stay with this?”
“I think it’s as important as you be impassioned about the goal that you be feet on the ground about the business plan and about the sustainability.”
“Anybody who thinks that he or she is running an organization that is not a media organization, isn’t paying attention.”
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