Philly journalism institute gets millions in new donations

Institute founder H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest is applauded during the Lenfest Institute Breakfast Wednesday morning May 3, 2017.

New donations totaling more than $21 million have been pledged to the Philadelphia-based journalism institute charged with finding ways to sustain high-quality, public-service reporting here and elsewhere, officials plan to announce Wednesday.

A matching campaign could raise that figure above $100 million.

It’s a big financial boost for the 16-month-old, nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the company that operates the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com.

Institute founder H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, the Philadelphia philanthropist who initially endowed the organization with $20 million, has committed to an additional $40 million matching grant.

 “It has been my sincerest hope that other funders — individuals, corporations, and foundations — would join me in this important effort,” Lenfest said. “Great journalism is more vital to our democracy today than ever before, and never before has it faced such challenges.”

The new money includes $15 million from a new, anonymous donor, and $6.5 million from the combined donations of nearly three dozen prominent foundations, companies, executives, lawyers, and newspaper editors.

Among them are Independence Blue Cross and the Kopelman and Knight Foundations, along with Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, and Geraldine Laybourne, who cofounded the Oxygen network. The terms of a $5 million gift, announced a few months after the institute was founded, were specified, with $3 million coming from David Haas, vice chair of the Wyncote Foundation, and $2 million from the foundation itself.

Jim Friedlich, the Lenfest Institute’s executive director, said the new money would help build the endowment, support investigative journalism, boost digital training, and create two programs that will provide fellowships and smaller grants for people wanting to test innovative proposals.

Some donations came from the board members and publisher of Philadelphia Media Network, owner of the Inquirer and its sister publications. Those donors asked that their money go to projects that could benefit the company relatively soon, Friedlich said.

Some donations will be paid over several years.

“They’ve accomplished something truly meaningful,” said Larry Lieberman, chief operating officer of Charity Navigator, a national evaluator of charities. “It’s not easy. ... Raising money for foundations is a crowded field.”

Charity Navigator tracks 1.6 million charities, and about 80,000 new ones set up shop each year, Lieberman said. That’s a sea of competition.

Lieberman said he believed the Lenfest Institute could raise significant money because it had a compelling story to tell about its mission, at a time when the future of journalism is uncertain and news organizations are often under attack.

“You can walk around saying, ‘Journalism needs more funding,’ ” Lieberman said. “But when a political figure ... threatens those institutions, that’s more motivating. It is the public’s attention and awareness to the issue that drives fund-raising.”

So far, the institute has contributed money toward an investigative-reporting project on children being poisoned by lead paint, to fund digital training for 200 reporters and editors, and to join the Knight Foundation in an effort to transform newsrooms in a dozen major cities.

Friedlich noted that in a treacherous financial landscape, many publishers have asked how they could secure the future of their publications. Lenfest asked how he could secure the future of journalism itself.

“Gerry’s vision was both far-sighted and altruistic,” Friedlich said. “The outcome so far is proof positive that many other people have embraced his vision. He deserves to be credited for his effort. He’s really done something very meaningful here, and the validation is how others have responded.”