Back in the mid-1990s, Craig Newmark started an email distribution list for friends that in time would revolutionize the classified ad business. As craigslist evolved into a website serving tens of millions of people globally every month, it also became a sizeable source of revenue for its creator. With his windfall, Newmark in 2016 created Craig Newmark Philanthropies, a private foundation that works to advance people and organizations in the areas of trustworthy journalism, voter protection, women in technology, and veterans and military families.
Earlier this month, Craig Newmark Philanthropies awarded $1 million to DonorsChoose.org to help fund STEM classroom projects in schools where more than half of the students are from low-income households. The commitment also included #STEMStories, a social media challenge designed to bring more attention and resources to STEM teachers and their projects.
PND spoke with Newmark about his philanthropy, the #STEMStories campaign, and the future of journalism.
Philanthropy News Digest: Since you created Craig Newmark Philanthropies in 2016, you've provided support to a variety of different causes, including veterans, journalism, voter registration, women in technology, and education. How would you characterize the focus of your philanthropy?
Craig Newmark: Growing up in New Jersey — in high school, U.S. history class in particular — I learned that in America we aspire to stuff like fairness and opportunity and respect for all. With respect to my philanthropy, we try to advance those values. That may sound simplistic, but from my point of view, everything I'm doing is connected to promoting and defending those values.
PND: How does your recent matching gift to DonorsChoose.org fit in with that ambition?
CN: My connection to DonorsChoose goes back about ten years or so when I met Charles Best, who runs the organization. He explained his organization to me as a form of crowdfunding, which I understood even then. He also helped me understand that teachers don't get the respect and support they deserve and have earned.
The matching gift is designed to make it easier for every American to pitch in. I think it makes sense because a lot of people have a few extra dollars they'd be happy to donate to help fund teachers. Something like 94 percent of classroom teachers have to buy some school supplies out of their own pockets. That's not right. This is a way to show them some respect.
PND: What's the significance of the #STEMStories hashtag?
CN: The #STEMStories hashtag is something we hope will connect all of the social media activity going on in support of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education] and STEM teachers. The idea is for teachers and their supporters to help each other through social media by flagging and sharing content around that theme.
I'm an old-school '60s nerd. In fact, I was born a few years after Dr. Seuss invented the word in one of his books [Ed note: If I Ran the Zoo]. And I'm biased toward STEM. That's always been my strength. It's what I'm good at, and I feel there needs to be a lot more emphasis on it in our schools.
One obvious reason is because there are a lot of job opportunities in STEM for everyone, including underserved youth. It's a good source of jobs today and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. For example, right now, there are a lot of opportunities for cybersecurity professionals. So, I'd say that STEM is a good career opportunity area for anyone who's good with computers. And #STEMStories is a way to make more people aware of those opportunities.
PND: Although the tech industry seems to have made progress in advancing equity for women, it's still very much a male-dominated field. What can my computer-savvy pre-teen daughters expect a few years from now if they decide to pursue a career in STEM?
CN: I think lots of people in my industry realize that we need really good, really skilled people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or background. And I think that attitude is spreading through the industry. Problems remain, and progress isn't happening as quickly as it should, which puzzles me. But the people who are not paying attention belong to a shrinking minority.
PND: A large portion of your philanthropy has been related to journalism and press freedom. The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and more than two hundred other newspapers recently published editorials reminding Americans about the importance of a free press. Do you think most Americans still have faith in the press and journalists?
CN: I think many Americans are skeptical of and losing faith in journalism. And the way to resolve that situation, in my opinion, is for news outlets to reassert their trustworthiness. Initiatives like the Trust Project, the International Fact Checkers Network, and similar projects are helping to restore some of that faith.
The larger challenge is that business models for journalism are in a state of flux. Sooner rather than later, we may see conventional advertising be replaced by sponsorships, for example. That means today — and probably for many years to come — philanthropy will have to step up to support good, trustworthy journalism, whether it's philanthropists supporting a few really good outlets, or regular people doing things like renewing their public radio memberships. A vital, trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy, and I think we'll see more and more people pitching in to make sure that journalism and the press in America remain vital and trustworthy.
As I said earlier, the theme of all this is what I learned from Mr. Schulsky in high school history class: In this country, we aspire to be about fairness, opportunity, and respect. The idea behind my philanthropy is that we should practice what we preach. In particular, people like me should put their money where their mouth is.
— Matt Sinclair