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Donors Must Not Stifle Creativity

The Editorial Board

The fact that money influences freedom is not taboo. But what about charitable funding? money that is voluntarily shared to a specific individual or institution to address social, economic, or political causes? Are donors in possession of the power to influence the direction in which this progression towards the betterment of humanity goes?

Non-profit social institutions, specifically those that are designed to promote the independence of thoughts, depend on philanthropy in order to widen their impacts. Funders are interested to support non-profits because they also want to contribute to making a difference – a good difference. However, the outcomes of a good intention are not universal; it varies from extremely positive to extremely negative. The reason for this variation is that some funders try to interlope to the work of non-profits that they support. If this was regarding a business transaction, then it is clear that it would be ethically wrong for the receiver to not give what the fund provider demands or requests. But an intrusion by a party who has deliberately decided to provide a generous amount of money without the demand of reciprocation only to then come back and impose certain restrictions on what the non-profits can or cannot do or say is clearly an issue.

Suppose the funder seeks to improve the independence of thoughts, then they must not, post the funding decision, control the non-profits. Scott et al (2017) studied IRIN (now becomes The New Humanitarian), a non-profit news agency concentrating on disseminating humanitarian stories in the forgotten land. IRIN was initially funded by the United Nations but then the torch went to a private foundation owned by a Malaysian billionaire. The research demonstrated how IRIN used to be the independent media offering in-depth coverage of stories that otherwise will be left untold. The aim is not quantity per se; how many people read their long-form articles is a non-issue for IRIN. They remained honest to their objective – at least during the United Nations support period. When the private foundation replaced the UN’s role as funders, IRIN became corporatized. They produced more articles but in a shorter length. The decline can be considered to be quite significant – from around 1,329 words in 2014 to short pieces of 300-400 words and 800 words in length. The decrease in word count indicated that they are pressured to aim for the ‘market’. After all, it is the current trend in society. The number of people who read might increase but were they really engaged in the material?

There is indeed room for donors to influence knowledge production and exchange through charitable funding, and there are plenty of reasons why this is wrong. If an institution, for instance, wants to support the left-wing ideology while the funder embraces capitalism, no collaboration should manifest in the first place. By assuming that one’s ideology will change with the sums of wealth, society is moving towards fascism, which is not okay.

But what about finding a common ground? The Guardian utilizes this approach when it comes to selecting the philanthropic funders who will back up their work of accessible journalism. Before the contract is signed, they will go through the foundation’s values, aims and goals, and whether they can find common ground. From an ethical point of view, this is not wrong, at first. But it might overturn the non-profit’s goals when what they do instead is to fit their agenda into what the funders support. In other words, softening the revolution.

Funders should set it straight in the early process about the kinds of vision and missions that they want to support. Once they have agreed to offer financial support, it would be unethical to add an extra policy as a way to challenge or control the ideas that are being or will be disseminated. It is a fact that there are philanthropic funders with hidden interests to curb the independence of thoughts – and it is imperative to understand why they shouldn’t. Not only because of impartiality need but rather because writing is a creative process. It requires the freedom to investigate, analyze, and articulate the story. High-quality writing cannot be produced when an outsider continuously regulates what should or should not go into the publication.

Perhaps by creating content that suits the market, it helps the funders establish their identity, it allows them to control the narrative in accordance with their lenses. But this practice negates the whole purpose of the charitable funds. Aren’t writings disseminated by non-profits supposed to tell stories that otherwise will remain untold? Shouldn’t the funders protect the non-profits’ aim to protect individual freedom? If we keep giving up to the world that only cares about normalcy, who, then, will be the protector of the oppressed?

A marketing specialist would disagree with this and insist on producing writings that sell, that has an established readership. But what does readership mean when people are not being supplied with the truth? Should the non-profits and the marketing specialists find a common ground where a piece similar to this one can be put on the market and sold? Well, as Paulo Freire said: “word is not the privilege of some few persons but the right of everyone”, and we should be able to say what we want to say, even if it remains unsellable. Because writers and contributors at non-profits do not merely write for a living. They write for the living.

This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 01 Issue 03 — December 2021

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