The Dodge Q&A series is designed to introduce you to Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation staff as they share what they’re learning and thinking about as they visit with nonprofits around the state. They’ll also reveal a few things about themselves you might not have known.
Today, we talk to Molly de Aguiar, director of Dodge’s Informed Communities program.
Welcome back to the Dodge Blog Molly! The last time we spoke, your role at Dodge was Media Program Director. Now, it’s Informed Communities Program Director. Can you tell us a little about why the change and how “informed communities” better reflects your work?
Sure — we changed the name for a few reasons. For one, “media” is a really vague term that often gets confused with public relations and communications. And with respect to journalism, “media” is often associated with national news outlets, and our focus is very much at the local level. But perhaps most importantly, we really felt that “media” didn’t accurately capture the substance and depth of the work being supported in this program area.
We’re not just funding journalism for journalism’s sake, and we’re not funding only journalism initiatives. What we care about is building the capacity of communities to be informed and engaged with local news and information — news and information that serves their needs and is relevant and useful to their lives — in order to increase civic participation across the state.
You and Josh Stearns, Dodge’s Director of Journalism Sustainability, recently released Lessons Learned from the Local News Lab, in which you document what you’ve learned over the past 18 months supporting journalism experiments in New Jersey. First — wow, you’ve been busy. Can you share one lesson you learned in that time that really took you by surprise?
For me, one of the biggest takeaways of the work that Josh and I have been doing over the past 18 months — particularly with respect to the small local journalism sites we’ve been working with — is the importance of coaching and mentoring to reinforce new ideas, provide ongoing encouragement and reassurance to take some risks. It makes me reflect on how philanthropy might provide more wrap-around services and hands-on support to nonprofits, even beyond Dodge’s amazing Technical Assistance programs, to help nonprofits innovate and thrive.
I realize this is sort of like asking which of your children is your favorite, but of the many projects the Local News Lab and Dodge funded last year that are coming to fruition this year, is there one you are particularly excited about?
Instead of talking about just one project, let me talk about a big theme that I see coming to fruition. At the heart of the work of the Local News Lab and the Informed Communities program is a deep commitment to community — to supporting opportunities for people in communities to have agency, to be creators and decision-makers. And yet traditionally journalism has not allowed for much public participation. Editors and reporters decide what gets covered, who gets covered and publish their stories often with little or no community input. In contrast, we’re supporting projects that embrace robust community participation as fundamental to improving the journalism, which, in turn, improves communities. We believe that the public can add context, complexity and more diverse perspectives and voices which will lead to coverage that is more relevant and meaningful to people’s lives.
So we have a number of projects that we’re funding that I would put into this category, including Hearken, which is a true pioneer in turning the traditional model of journalism on its head, Free Press’ News Voices New Jersey project, and the newly-launched Listening Post Jersey Shore with Jersey Shore Hurricane News, to name a few. These initiatives have listening at the core of what they do, and I feel like we’re getting closer to a critical mass of people talking about and working toward this vision for journalism that is more responsive and committed to serving communities.
Eventually — sooner rather than later, I hope — news organizations are going to look to the example of these leaders and make the connection that people will support local journalism when they feel like they are invited to be positive, active, regular participants.
You have a Tumblr called Philanthropy Sketchbook. What do you share there and why?
I spend a lot of time thinking about philanthropy — the positives, the negatives, the ways the sector could be more effective, how I could be a better program director, the funders and thinkers who influence me, etc. So this Tumblr is a side project of mine that helps me capture notes and thoughts about philanthropy that I want to write about. Generally the posts are longer than a tweet but perhaps not as fully developed as something I might write on Medium (which is why Tumblr works well for me).
I also wanted an outlet for sharing ideas and projects that I love whether or not they have anything to do with what Dodge currently funds, because there is so much clever, joyous, smart work happening out there, and I want to celebrate it.
Tell us about a podcast, book or article that either left you feeling enlightened or reframed the way you think about your work or life?
I’m going to cheat and give two answers (and even narrowing it to two is hard).
The luxury and the privilege of philanthropy is its ability to be bold and take risks that (hopefully) result in some massive public good — and yet, philanthropy in many ways is very risk averse, and often too slow to take advantage of urgent opportunities. So I was quite taken with this profile of the Chorus Foundation and its founder Farhad Ebrahimi who seems to combine in a really unique way these qualities of being bold, creative and persuasive without alienating other funders with his approach. I think that takes a pretty extraordinary person, and I feel like I could learn a lot from what the Chorus Foundation is doing. I have revisited this profile several times.
Completely unrelated to philanthropy, I recently read (devoured) Elena Ferrante’s four Neopolitan Novels. She has this incredible gift for capturing complex and subtle human behavior — particularly of women and between women — in a way that really deeply resonated with me. I saw some of myself in these books, and I saw a lot of other people I have known throughout my life, so yes, these books left me feeling very much enlightened about human relationships.