I've been away on a trip to Prague for the past few days, board meeting for a nonprofit whose board I chair, the Media Development Loan Fund. MDLF is a nonprofit, mission driven private equity fund; here's the description from our new, cool Facebook page, which you too can join:
Media Development Loan Fund is a mission-driven investment fund for independent news outlets in countries with a history of media oppression. It provides low-cost capital, solutions and know-how to help journalists in emerging democracies build sustainable businesses around professional, responsible, quality journalism.
For many years, MDLF kept a low profile, even though it has emerged over its fifteen years of existence as the leading media assistance organization that works primarily on the financing and business end of things. To be blunt, since the early 1990s there have been a lot of media assistance organizations that provide journalistic help and training, often of very high quality. MDLF is the only one that provides financial investment, and the technical skills that come with making the investment pay off. It has gone from a portfolio of zero to somewhere around $50 million currently. It primarily makes loans, but also makes equity investments - some of which have paid off spectacularly, and allowed MDLF to be doing okay in an environment in which other NGOs and nonprofits are struggling - or anyway struggling a lot more than MDLF.
I've been chair for a very long time - closing on fifteen years - which is not only a really long time, but also frankly too long a time. It's not the best practices for an NGO to have a chair or board that doesn't turn over. But it's not an easy organization for which to find the right combination of board members - you want people with experience in journalism, media management, business and finance and preferably private equity, and nonprofit management and governance. Since the organization not only makes investments into private media companies in often dicey-places in the world at subsidized rates, but also borrows a substantial portion of its funds (rather than receiving them as grants), its finances are way more complicated than the usual grant-receiving, grant-making NGO.
A number of its financing arrangements have been cutting edge. It was, so far as I know, the first international NGO to launch a publicly traded derivative, a swap note on the Zurich stock exchange, handled by a leading Swiss private bank and with a partial guarantee from the Swiss government. It has used innovative financing techniques to structure mechanisms by which it can protect its financial position while still ensuring the editorial independence of its portfolio companies. MDLF was very lucky in managing to sell its stake in a Belgrade TV and radio station - the famous anti-Milosevic B92 station - just ahead of the financial crisis.
But that's the technical side. Supporting B92 over many struggling years was a great thing to do. But supporting Trevor Ncube and the South African Mail & Guardian was also really important (see the video interview with him on the front page currently at MDLF.org), likewise internet news operations in Indonesia, many newspaper and newspaper printing presses in the Russian provinces, in Guatemala, and many other places besides. This is an organization that does good and important work, but it is work whose value is hard to explain to a public that wants to see baby seals, warm puppies, and hungry children - hard to explain that in struggling societies, transparency, accountability, good governance, free transmission of information, functioning information markets - all that matters along with the primary social service goods. But it's hard to explain to people that these apparently secondary functions are crucial to making the other stuff happen, at least if you want the other things to happen as more than merely a Red Cross humanitarian relief operation.
Anyway, I will be stepping down from the chair and the board at the end of the year. Good for the organization to get a rotation of board members, and good for me, in that there are things related to media business, NGOs, governance, nonprofit finance, etc., that I've wanted to write about but haven't felt comfortable doing while the chair of the board of an organization in those fields. But this is a terrific organization, and we had an excellent meeting in Prague. But that's why I've been on lite-blogging status.