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In Addition to Innovation, Journalism Needs Trusted Communities

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IMAGE: Public domain from Pixabay.

A few weeks ago, I received the unexpected news that I’d been awarded a Shuttleworth Flash Grant – one of the Shuttleworth Foundation's “small grants to a collection of social change agents, no strings attached, in support of their work.” They're given to people nominated by existing fellows, and really do come with no strings attached.

I was happy to get it, and naturally it made me ask: what's the most useful way of spending that money?

I looked at their site for inspiration, and found this about their flagship Fellowship programme:

To help us get there, we identify amazing people with innovative ideas, give them a fellowship grant, and multiply the money they put into their own project by a factor of ten or more.

So here's the thing: I don't think we need only innovative ideas or world-changing projects. We also need trust, communities, and skills. We need to strengthen and support existing infrastructure and communities. I worry that we've become far too fixated upon quickly implemented innovation and disruption, and that we're taking a lot of important things for granted—things we rely upon that, unlike “innovative ideas”, take a lot of time and effort to build.

“I believe trusted communities, not individuals, are at the heart of sustaining change”

This Aeon essay details how we have come to value innovation over maintenance, but how maintenance, repair and infrastructure matter far more in many areas of life. I agree with many of the points in the essay, and I also know that there are far too few funding structures for organisations or communities who are addressing those issues.

Within the non-profit world, there are lots of initiatives supporting innovation, such as UNICEF's Innovation Fund, the Global Innovation Fund, and the Knight Innovation Fund. But I can think of very few who fund the maintenance—or the plumbing, as the Aeon essay refers to it.

With all that in mind, and knowing that many organisations and communities I know and respect are operating in incredibly resource-limited situations, I've decided to donate part of my grant.

There are two organisations I'm involved with who have built up trust, and whom others rely on —and, I fear, take somewhat for granted. I know too, that their ‘pitch’ is far less sexy than that of some organisations focused on “innovation”, but I strongly believe their offering is far more crucial.

“Infrastructure, communities and trust take a long, long time to build—and without support, all those gains can all too quickly disappear.”

One of them is the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, an organisation that “applies rigorous science to the analysis of human rights violations around the world.”

The other is Global Voices. At a time when trust in media, at least in the US, is at an all-time low Global Voices is providing trustworthy coverage from all corners of the world. Many media organisations are focusing on “audience engagement” and “community engagement”, but the Global Voices community is the only I've come across who are doing this in a genuinely meaningful way.

With their help and support, over 1,400 people from that audience are authors, translators and editors. Their volunteer authors (myself included!) are engaging in a substantive and useful way by writing about their situations, shaped by their own local knowledge and perspective. All of them also bring their own, personal communities—and together, that constitutes an incredibly powerful, and trusted community reporting on stories that otherwise get far too little coverage.

Also of note is the diversity of stories they cover, and the way they do that. Being a non-profit organisation at heart, they don't write to get clicks on advertisements. They write to share stories from their own local contexts to help others understand parts of the world that, at times, might feel ever so far away. That kind of shared understanding and bridge-building is exactly what we need right now…. Infrastructure, communities and trust takes a long, long time to build—but without support, all those gains can all too quickly disappear.

Relatively speaking, neither of the donations I’m making is particularly large. But I'd love to encourage others—especially those who rely upon communities and organisations like the two above—to think about what deserves our support, and what we take for granted.

Infrastructure, communities and trust take a long, long time to build—and without support, all those gains can all too quickly disappear.

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