He did not save the news business. But he gave it his best shot.
Chris Daggett, who made sustainability of local journalism a priority during his eight years at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, on Thursday announced he will be stepping down as president and CEO of the Morristown nonprofit on Sept. 1, 2018.
“I’m concerned about the decline of local news. Without it, people don’t get engaged with democracy,” said Daggett, 68.
He said he is leaving to pursue new opportunities in community-building. In a strategic plan released last month, Dodge trustees committed to continuing his journalism initiatives for at least three more years.
During Daggett’s tenure, the Dodge Foundation rebounded from the recession and awarded more than $90 million in grants to hundreds of nonprofits, with an emphasis on the arts, education and the environment. The biennial Dodge Poetry Festival has thrived as the nation’s largest poetry festival. Working with the Community Foundation of New Jersey, Dodge raised more than $7 million for Hurricane Sandy relief.
But Daggett may be remembered most for his Informed Communities program.
He came to appreciate a robust press while serving as commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection and regional administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and saw its decline during his Independent bid for governor in 2009.
Vexed by the nationwide cratering of the news industry — New Jersey news organizations alone have shed more than 1,600 jobs since 2001–Daggett supported efforts to find viable business models for local news. Those efforts were recognized with nearly $5 million in funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund.
Dodge was instrumental in creation of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, and of consortiums there such as the New Jersey News Commons and the Local News Lab.
Disclosure: MorristownGreen.com has participated in these ventures and is grateful for the support and encouragement of the Dodge Foundation.
Daggett is a visionary, said Stefanie Murray, director of the Center for Cooperative Media, which has grown to more than 250 media partners .
“He gets it. He’s a champion for local media and local journalism,” Murray said.
Media commentator Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and a Dodge trustee, called Daggett “a tireless advocate for local news and an informed public.”
The Democracy Fund is working to spread Dodge’s New Jersey community news experiments nationwide, said Jarvis, who expects Daggett will resurface, post-Dodge, to continue supporting “the important work he began.”
Daggett said he’s hopeful the public will rally behind the press and other institutions, from politics to business to religion, now under assault.
“We have a president, unfortunately, that is calling into question and making people lose faith–not that he did it alone, this is not something that Donald Trump started– but we have a huge loss of trust and belief in the institutions in our society,” he said.
Major newspapers that kept citizens informed now are fighting to survive.
“When the big boys are struggling, what happens to the rest of the people involved in this industry? We don’t have a good answer for that yet,” acknowledged Daggett, who said he worries about vital coverage being lost if local journalists burn out.
‘THERE’S NOT ENOUGH MONEY FOR THAT’
While Daggett may not have solved the riddle of media finances, he said he is leaving the Dodge ship in better fiscal shape than when he came aboard.
The economic meltdown of the late 2000s had knocked a $300 million endowment down to about $235 million, and then, for a time, annual payouts to grantees were exceeding Dodge investment income, Daggett said.
This threatened the goal of the late Geraldine R. Dodge, who intended for the Foundation to operate in perpetuity when she established it in 1974.
“To exist in perpetuity you need to be disciplined,” Daggett said.
So total yearly payouts were scaled back to the 5 percent minimum required by law. Financial markets improved, and the investment portfolio responded, Daggett said.
Dodge reported total assets of more than $272 million in 2016, the most recent year for which records were available. Daggett said the endowment finally has topped its pre-recession level of $300 million.
The Foundation now is focusing more intently on growing its “corpus,” or financial base, he said.
“We can’t be just making enough money to cover our payout. The needs don’t decrease, they continue to increase. So we need to grow corpus at the same time we’re giving out money so we can keep pace with the demands of the nonprofit sector,” he said.
The new five-year strategic plan also notes New Jersey’s shifting demographics and widening economic disparities, and calls for greater attention to social equity.
That may entail rethinking the grant-making process, Daggett said, to help organizations that do good work yet aren’t able to meet Dodge’s requirements for certified audits or recruit deep-pocketed trustees.
“It’s raising the awareness of all the little ways we put barriers in front of people without means, or who are different than us, who are not white. That occurs. Yet at the same time, you have to do that as you acknowledge that there are plenty of white people who also are struggling mightily,” Daggett said.
Easing audit requirements for grants would be welcomed by nonprofits such as First Night Morris, which has not had much luck securing Dodge support during its 26-year history, said former First Night Morris Chairman Michael Schmidt.
“An audit could cost you a couple thousand bucks. When your budget is only $160,000, every dollar counts,” Schmidt said.
At a time when government is cutting back on programs, philanthropies are feeling increasing pressure to fill the void. But Daggett said that’s impossible. “There’s not enough money for that,” he said.
It’s frustrating, he said. More than ever, nonprofits should consider merging, to maximize their fundraising and their impact, he said.
“The last thing New Jersey needs is another nonprofit organization. Instead of saying, ‘What kind of an organization can I start to do things I want to do?’ the first question ought to be, ‘Who’s doing the stuff I’m doing already, and how might I be able to help them and increase their impact?'”
And foundations should make things simpler for grant applicants, with common-sense steps such as standardized forms.
“We always ask grantees to collaborate. We don’t do a great job of collaborating ourselves,” Daggett said.
Yet he was quick to note he is continually amazed and “energized” by the can-do attitude of the state’s many nonprofits, particularly in the arts community.
“They are just incredible about making 10 cents into a dollar. Somehow they stretch it, they figure out how to make it work,” Daggett said.
He often kids people that if he were to run for office again, and win, “I would have the nonprofit people lead the government,” because of their deftness at economizing.
Daggett said his age may weigh against another political foray, though he does not rule it out. The state “sorely needs strong leaders,” and he is open to mentoring the next generation of candidates.
The time is right to pass the torch at Dodge, he added. The strategic plan is teed up, “and it needs to have somebody who will embrace that vision, and move it forward.”
He’ll be leaving a job that paid him $363,600 a year, according to Dodge’s IRS filings.
Board chairman Christopher “Kim” Elliman said Dodge is grateful for Daggett’s contributions, which included “fostering an ecosystem for local news,” helping the Shore rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, and for increasing the focus on training STEM teachers [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] for New Jersey’s schools.
“Chris worked tirelessly to make New Jersey a better place to live and work, from the urban north to the rural south of the state, recognizing the broad diversity of New Jersey and crafting a more equitable society,” Elliman said in a statement.
Daggett said he is eager to seek new opportunities to make a difference.
“We’re always one step removed in the foundation world from the actual work. We enable everyone to do work, and it’s wonderful what we are able to do with the money we have. But at the same time, I’ve always been somebody who likes to get my hands dirty. So I want to have an opportunity to really do that again,” he said.
He cited Sustainable Jersey’s broad approach to building healthy communities–promoting economic development, education and the arts–as the sort of challenge he finds appealing.
“I’m not going away,” Daggett said. “It’s just a matter of picking out how I can contribute something.”
REACTION TO CHRIS DAGGETT’S RETIREMENT FROM THE DODGE FOUNDATION
The Dodge Foundation touches many organizations in Morristown and across the state. Here’s what people are saying about CEO Chris Daggett, who has announced his retirement:
“He’s been a great leader and a great colleague. He brought such an optimistic spirit to the work. He will really be missed.” — Hans Dekker, executive director of the Community Foundation of New Jersey, which worked closely with the Dodge Foundation raising money for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.
“He was very invigorating to work around.” — Tom Werder, executive director of Morris Arts, which has offices in the eco-friendly Dodge headquarters at 14 Maple Ave. Werder said Morris Arts and other arts organizations appreciate the Foundation’s support, and have managed to do well despite a dip in Dodge funding when the Foundation adjusted to market conditions.
“He’s someone that stood up to the powers that be [in his environmental career]. It’s getting time for the next generation of leaders. I don’t think [Dodge] can find someone as good as Chris. But maybe, someone different.” — Jeff Tittle, executive director, New Jersey Sierra Club.
“We’re very much going to be sad to see him go. But when one door closes, another one opens. We’ll be very excited to see who follows in his footsteps.” — Julia Somers, executive director, New Jersey Highlands Coalition.
“You could talk to him about anything. His door was always open. He was a great steward for the Dodge Foundation, especially through some very hard economic times, both locally and nationally.” — Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty.
“The Dodge foundation has been an essential partner in the Neighborhood House’s mission for decades and we are deeply grateful for Chris’s leadership and especially his continued focus on improving the Morristown community.” — Patrice Picard, CEO of Cornerstone Family Programs and the Morristown Neighborhood House.
“He will always hold a special place in the theatre’s rich history. The Dodge Foundation’s generous and longstanding support of MPAC has enabled us to remain at the heart of Morristown’s revitalization for 24 years, and serve as an economic engine for the community. We sincerely thank Chris for playing such an important role in building and sustaining this magnificent cultural asset that will continue to be enjoyed by so many generations to come.” — Allison Larena, CEO, Mayo Performing Arts Center.
“He’s a big believer in the freedom of the press. He respects the institution of the press and the role it plays in a democracy.” — Stefanie Murray, director, Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.
“I remember talking with him when he took the job to head Dodge eight years ago. He clearly saw a need to support news in New Jersey. We talked about the entire news ecosystem — newspapers, broadcast, public media, blogs, news startups, universities, and other organizations. Soon into his time at Dodge, Chris convened an important meeting in Newark bringing all these players together to determine their needs and to urge them to work together at this critical time. Ultimately, that led to the creation of the local media consortium at Montclair State, which Dodge helped start to support all the members of the ecosystem with training, consultation, and collaboration. From there, Chris made media and informed communities a new and critical priority for Dodge, putting Molly de Aguiar in charge and leveraging Dodge’s money and effort with support from the Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund. A leader at Democracy Fund recognized the work of Dodge on local media as what he called the New Jersey Model and it is now trying to spread that work nationwide. So Chris has had a huge impact, not only on local media in New Jersey but also nationally. Yes, it is a loss for local news media and informed communities and for Dodge that he is retiring, but I am confident that he will find ways to continue to support the important work he began.” — Jeff Jarvis, CUNY journalism professor and Dodge trustee.
“The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and, more importantly, the people of New Jersey have benefited from Chris’ dedication to the state, its arts, environment and education. Chris’ signature achievements were in orchestrating the philanthropic commitment to fostering an ecosystem for local news, for the response and rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy, and for the increased focus on training STEM teachers for New Jersey’s schools. Chris worked tirelessly to make New Jersey a better place to live and work, from the urban north to the rural south of the state, recognizing the broad diversity of New Jersey and crafting a more equitable society. We are grateful for his eight-plus years and for all that he has and will continue to do for this state.” — Christopher “Kim” Elliman, chairman, Dodge Foundation board.