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It’s Okay to Have Fun (VIDEO)

Post by: Paul VanDeCarr

Your reaction to a new Knight Foundation video might be somewhere on the spectrum between “weird!” and “what’s that?” After all that’s not how most foundations typically communicate, no matter how much they might want to be seen or heard. And that’s just fine with Eric Cade Schoenborn, the foundation’s creative director. Okay, let’s stop there for a moment: yes, I did just write creative director. How many foundations have creative directors on staff?

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Still the first question still stands: How did such a colorful—yes, even bizarre—video get made by a major foundation to explain the online submissions platform for the latest Knight News Challenge–a contest to fund innovative ideas to harness information and data for the health of communities?


Schoenborn says it all comes down to some simple facts: Knight is a place that encourages a spirited exchange of ideas and has a culture that is conducive to this kind of video. And that combination plays out in how the foundation communicates about its work.

Sure, you may say, institutional culture is important, but what kind of culture yields a video with jet-pack rabbits and mention of something called a “hamburger internet”?

The process began around the beginning of 2013, when the foundation decided it needed a way of explaining the new online submission platform. Schoenborn suggested an animated video by Ronnie Rivera, himself a former Knight grantee, and showed other staff some of the animator’s work samples. Schoenborn made the case that the whole goal of the Journalism and Media Innovation program was to attract “the disrupters and the makers”; a traditional talking-head video would bore those people to tears. Program leader Michael Maness agreed. Staffers hammered out a script for the video, and by March the platform was ready to be rolled out and a solid draft of the video was complete.

But there was resistance. Some staffers thought the video trivialized the work of grantees; others thought it was just too out there. At stake was the very image of the foundation, after all. Legitimate concerns, says Schoenborn, but a disappointment nevertheless when the completed video “died in committee.”The platform was rolled out in more traditional fashion with blog posts and “customer service” to answer users’ questions. But Schoenborn sat tight: “I’ve been involved in the internet long enough to know that what’s weird today will be cool in another month.”  Besides, the video wasn’t tied to a particular round of the Knight News Challenge. When a new round came up in August, Schoenborn reintroduced the video and staffers agreed it was fine. He says they asked, in essence, “Why did we have a problem with this the first time?”

The video was released on the FAQs page at the end of August and has been generating buzz among designers and other creatives. One of the leaders at rock-star design innovators OpenIDEO tweeted up the video, and nonprofits and foundations have already been calling to learn more about it.

Whether the video has prompted more submissions or more creative submissions is hard to say, but “Knight gets this attention among ‘makers’  and our peer organizations as being creative,” says Schoenborn. That makes it easier the next time they or another foundation want to test the limits. Not bad for staff morale, either, says Schoenborn. “It gives us more confidence that it’s okay to have fun.”

Communications Network contributor Paul VanDeCarr is managing director and co-founder of Working Narratives.


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