Molly Shaw, executive director of Communities in Schools, celebrates a grant from the Knight Foundation at a Queens University commencement address in Charlotte.

‘Flash philanthropy’ experiment uses digital media to engage community

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The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation surprised students at a recent Charlotte graduation ceremony when it asked them to use digital media to decide the recipient of a significant foundation gift.

As Eric Newton, senior advisor to the president of Knight Foundation, delivered a May 3 commencement address at Queens University of Charlotte, he reminded students that they had been polled earlier in the semester about critical issues facing the community. This student feedback identified three issues most important to the Class of 2013 – education, jobs and hunger – and led the foundation to select three outstanding organizations to represent these issues.

Newton then asked the graduates to guide a philanthropic decision by the Knight Foundation. Students watched short videos in which the three charities – Communities In Schools, Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont and Loaves and Fishes – described how they might use a $50,000 donation from the foundation. The graduates had been asked to bring cell phones to the ceremony, and they used them to send a text message to cast their vote for the organization most aligned with their philanthropic priorities.

Video monitors flashed the voting results in real time, showing Communities In Schools as the winner of the $50,000 gift.

“Tonight was groundbreaking for this community and for philanthropy. Flash philanthropy sets a new bar,” said Molly Shaw, executive director of Communities In Schools. “Communities In Schools is thrilled to be a part of such innovative thinking, and we are grateful to Knight Foundation and Queens for making this opportunity possible.”

Knight Foundation continued by awarding $25,000 each to Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont and Loaves and Fishes.

“Doesn’t it feel good to give?” Newton asked.  “Tonight, my hope is that students walk away with a clearer understanding of the incredible power of digital media,” said Newton. “We have the ability, at our fingertips, to make an instant difference in the lives of those in need, and it is our responsibility as noble citizens to do just that.”

More than half of all Charlotte residents, Newton said, do not know how to do what the graduates just did: send a text message. They have never read online newspapers or magazines, interacted with the government over the internet or posted comments on community issues. Newton encouraged students to raise the digital media literacy rate by simply teaching another person how to use a phone, tablet or computer.

“In a world where media is becoming more portable, personal and participatory, the Knight School of Communication at Queens is working hard to end the digital divide that is creating a second-class citizenship for those who don’t have these skills,” said Eric Freedman, dean of the Knight School.

Today, the Knight School prepares students to be consumers and creators of digital communication as a means to become engaged citizens, advocates and leaders in the communities they serve.  This focus on digital literacy was made possible in September 2010 when the Knight Foundation gave a $5.75 million gift to name the Knight School of Communication and support its leadership in the emerging field of digital media literacy. The foundation’s gift has supported new faculty positions, Knight Scholarships and most recently, the launch of Digital Charlotte, an exciting initiative that promotes digital and media literacy by serving as a resource guide, educational space and connected learning laboratory for the greater Charlotte area.

Lisa Nowak is director of communications for Queens. Photograph of Communities In Schools Executive Director Molly Shaw (arm raised) by Tonya Van Valkenburg. Video news story by Tim Dixon, Jen Johnson and Doug Sewell. Candidate videos of Communities In Schools, Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont and Loaves and Fishes by Evoke Creative Group.