The Path to Transparency: International Initiatives to Make Donor Support for Media more Transparent

By Beth Kwon

At a time when media outlets face intense financial pressures, international donors are stepping in to support media outlets. However, reliance on donor support can create new issues in terms of newsroom independence. This is particularly true when donor organizations are funding specific areas of coverage (e.g., reporting on local health initiatives). This tension is the topic of CIMA’s report by Anya Schiffrin, “Same Beds, Different Dreams? Charitable Foundations and Newsroom Independence in the Global South,” which I contributed to as a researcher.

One of the best ways to mitigate potential conflicts created by donor support is to make it transparent. Our research uncovered a number of respondents who felt that there is currently an overall lack of transparency in the donor-journalist relationship. To address this problem, a number of initiatives have sprung up offering data-sharing platforms and codes of conduct. These initiatives are all-voluntary, and rely on self-reported or public data. And while there is still no global standard on how to track donor flows, there are a number of interesting projects attempting to shed more light on the issue and to offer guidelines meant to improve the donor-recipient relationship. Here are a few that I found most interesting:

  • International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) is a network of 27 partner countries and more than 450 “publishers”—foundations, NGOs, and private companies that voluntarily upload and publish data that can then be accessed and shared by anyone on the IATI website. Publishers include organizations such as the International AIDS/HIV Alliance, the Gates Foundation, UNICEF, the World Bank, and WaterAid. It is one of the largest and most important of donor transparency efforts.Publishers use the IATI Standard, an open data standard with hundreds of available codes including information like type of aid (e.g., refugee support, debt relief, scholarships); whether it’s a grant, loan, or debt forgiveness; whether the funds are disbursed through a ministry of finance, a separate bank, or whether donors manage funds themselves; and whether there are multiple partner organizations or governments distributing funds.IATI provides guidelines, reference materials, coding language and toolkits explaining the technical aspects of these codes. The IATI Standard allows entities to generate and tag information, with the goal of letting other publishers share and compare datasets. IATI is administered by a Secretariat comprised of representatives from the United Nations Development Programme, the Ghanaian and Swedish governments, the United Nations Office for Project Services, and Development Initiatives.The IATI platform has its share of critics. Some say the programming language is not user-friendly and that IATI heavily favors larger donors because smaller organizations may not have the capacity to devote staff time to upload data. In addition, there is not a feedback loop between donors and recipients, which means that the data is not verified or evaluated by people who are actually receiving the funds and who might offer perspective on gaps in funding or ineffective programs. There are hundreds of published datasets, but publishers also note that IATI does not provide adequate context or help to understand the big picture.
  • Media Impact Funders is a “knowledge network” for donors seeking to support media and technology with the broader goal of driving social change. Its counts the Ford Foundation, Dow Jones News Fund, the Knight Foundation and the Open Society Foundations among its several dozen members.In addition to thought leadership and research, Media Impact Funders has an interactive tool that allows one to search more than 10,000 donor organizations, nearly 14,500 recipients and more than 80,000 grants. An advanced search tools allows people to look up recipients and foundations by categories like demographic; type of support (e.g., policy, advocacy and systems reform, or research and evaluation); transaction type (cash grants, in-kind gifts, program-related investments and loans); organization type and of course keyword. There are also data visualizations allowing people to see a broader picture of where money is going.
  • UKAid’s Development Tracker targets UK-based foundations and relies on data published by the British government and its partners. The Development Tracker follows the IATI standard and endeavors to follow aid from the donor to beneficiary in order to ensure effectiveness. The UKAid has a user-friendly website that allows visitors to look up aid by country, sector and department, with charts and maps showing the data in a global context.
  • The Donors Funding Charter is a document to help organizations assess whether they are adequately informed and prepared to take on global development projects. Launched by the international consultancy net, the charter offers a 12-question checklist to help organizations better target projects.The checklist starts with a basic but crucial question of whether the donor understands and has seen the problem that a project is addressing. Other questions include implementation and evaluation, such as whether local-based people and organizations will carry out the work, and whether thought has been put into measures of impact and success. Finally, the checklist asks donors whether they are willing to post their summary project proposal and future progress reports online for the benefit of open sharing. The process of answering the questions is telling. If donors have trouble answering most of the questions, they are urged to “try picking a problem closer to home.”

Some examples include a donor bill of rights developed by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the American Association of Fundraising Counsel, the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education; and ethics codes and standards by international entities including the International Committee on Fundraising Organizations, the New Zealand Council for International Development and the Czech Donors’ Forum.

The donor-recipient relationship will always cause a certain degree of tension, but initiatives like these offer mechanisms to improve and make the funding relationships on which many media outlets now depend more transparent.

Beth Kwon is a freelance writer and editor based in New York.

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