Liz Carter of Scripps: The hard work of smart giving

Giving away money can seem like such a delightful thing to do. If somebody is needy, you give them some money, they feel better, and you feel better. The world smiles upon everybody involved. 

But the thing of it is, being magnanimous comes with responsibilities. You want to listen to your heart, but you need to make sure you are giving in the right places, in the right ways, to the right people. It is harder than it looks. 

And sometimes, to do it even better, a charitable organization like the Scripps Howard Foundation decides to make it a little bit harder. 

Liz Carter Movers and Makers by Amy Spasoff Dec 2022
Liz Carter of the Howard Scripps Fund by Amy Spasoff for Movers and Makers

This year, 60 years after its founding, the Scripps Howard Foundation reimagined itself. The foundation remains, but it is now a sister organization to the Scripps Howard Fund. The foundation has always been a private organization. The new fund is a public charity. It is the newly formed fund that will be giving away the vast majority of money. 

And Liz Carter is thrilled about it. Carter is the CEO of the Scripps Howard Fund and the Scripps Howard Foundation. She has been with the foundation since 2015, coming from St. Vincent de Paul, where she served as executive director.

In 15 years at the helm of St. Vincent, Carter increased the budget from $1.5 million to $15 million, and increased the number of people served from 50,000 annually to 120,000.   

She also helped change Ohio laws to permit charitable pharmacies and then created Ohio’s first, the St. Vincent de Paul Charitable Pharmacy. 

Along the way, she learned that giving away money strategically is what makes charity resonate. “You have to be smart about it. You have to be considerate and empathetic, but you need to be smart.”

And Scripps gives away a lot of money. In 2021 more than $6 million. That money, not surprisingly, went largely into three buckets that have been the core pillars of Scripps giving: childhood literacy, journalism, and whatever urgent needs emerge at a particular time.

So last year, approximately $1 million went to childhood literacy, $3.1 million went to journalism and First Amendment causes, and the remaining $2 million went to nonprofits nationwide that were recommended by Scripps television stations and their audiences. 

COVID was the cause of a lot of giving the last few years. And last year wildfire devastation in the West earned a lot of attention. This year, relief in Florida after Hurricane Ida has caused Scripps to help. 

To be considered a public charity by the Internal Revenue Service, at least 33 percent of an organization’s money has to come from public support. That did not used to be the case, but now the Scripps Howard Fund is well over that percentage. Today, only 40 percent of the money given away by Scripps comes from the endowment.

Carter said the change to being a public charity will allow both the fund and the foundation to do better work. “We have a growing pool of donors who live across the country and know their local areas. They are the experts, they know where the needs are.”

Scripps is the country’s fourth-largest local TV broadcaster, with 61 stations in 41 markets, including WCPO  9 in Cincinnati. The people who work at those stations live in those communities. And they hear from viewers who also know the community. This allows for targeted giving to organizations that are sometimes pivotal to the health of a community but may have a low profile. 

“The national organizations that come in after a disaster are very important and do amazing work,” Carter said. “But because of our local knowledge, we are able to help the organizations that have been in a community for a long time and will remain there when everybody else has left. It matters.”

It does make sense that a company in the news and information business would rely on all the people in those local communities to help The Scripps Howard Fund learn what the needs are, and the best way to help. 

As important, the viewers of those local stations are also able to give directly to Scripps, knowing that the money will stay in their local communities and help their friends and neighbors. Even the act of giving can help Scripps decide where money should be given. When a significant amount of people are giving to help others in their area, Scripps can take notice and direct resources accordingly. 

The E.W. Scripps Company is television stations now, but it started as a newspaper company and held a lot of newspapers for more than a century. So literacy is a natural fit. One of the overarching goals of the Scripps Fund and Foundation is to make sure all children have access to books. This school year, Scripps will give away its one millionth book to a child. 

Locally, a lot of those books are distributed with the Queen City Book Bank. Scripps helped this organization get off the ground, and has partnered with it ever since. 

“We would not have gotten here without Scripps,” said Michelle Otten Guenther, the CEO. “Scripps has always been a champion for us. We came to them with only an idea.”

The idea was to work with teachers in Title 1 schools – schools with high poverty rates – and to give each student at the school one book a month. 

“We need to enhance book access,” Guenther said. “There are a lot of communities where there is only one age-appropriate book per 300 children.” 

Has she seen any differences with Scripps since the foundation was joined by the fund? “It has been seamless. They are generous but they give real feedback. They are such generous partners.” 

The Scripps Fund is also in local schools. Students at Lincoln Heights Elementary School, Oyler School, Lincoln Elementary, John G. Carlisle Elementary, John P Parker, Rothenberg Preparatory Academy, and Glenn O. Swing will have book fairs for the children, where students will be able to choose the books they want, all courtesy of Scripps. A child forming their own library, for their own home, is pivotal for keeping a child interested in learning. 

This is the prototype of the new organization. Local knowledge about needs, combined with money from the Scripps Fund and Foundation. Informed giving has the most impact. 

“This change represents an engaged approach to philanthropy that aligns with the company’s commitment to giving back and focus on measurable community impact,” Carter said when announcing the organizational changes.

Of course, Scripps gives a lot of its money to journalism, focusing a lot of its efforts on recruiting young, smart, diverse people to choose journalism as a profession. “Our goal is to attract the very best and brightest, and then to turn them loose,” Carter said. 

An area of concentration this year is fact-checking and accuracy. At a time when people can yell “Fake news” any time they do not like the content of a story, Scripps knows that journalists have to have their facts nailed down. Their processes have to be beyond reproach. That starts when they are young. 

Scripps says that thousands of journalism students, including people from the Howard Centers for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland and Arizona State University, will receive additional training on topics such as fact-checking and verification. 

And yes, that is the same Howard named in the Scripps Howard Fund.

What distinguishes a private foundation from a public charity?

Private foundations, because they are so closely held and typically have fewer sources of income – usually very wealthy individuals or families – are under more scrutiny from the IRS. 

Being a public charity will allow the Scripps Howard Fund to give in more ways to more people. But it will also require that more of the public is involved in giving to the fund. This leads to greater responsibility and accountability. 

The Internal Revenue Service helps to explain the differences between the two types of charities:

“Every section 501(c)(3) organization is classified as either a private foundation or a public charity. Private foundations and public charities are distinguished primarily by the level of public involvement in their activities. 

“Public charities generally receive a greater portion of their financial support from the general public or governmental units, and have greater interaction with the public. A private foundation, on the other hand, is typically controlled by members of a family or by a small group of individuals, and derives much of its support from a small number of sources and from investment income. Because they are less open to public scrutiny, private foundations are subject to various operating restrictions and to excise taxes for failure to comply with those restrictions.”