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Op-ed: Hromadske case exposes inherent weakness of nonprofit media

Andrii Ianitskyi: Ukraine’s civil society TV channel shows the risks of getting org structure wrong

Editor’s note: Launched in the wake of the Euromaidan Revolution in 2013-14, Hromadske TV has been a flagship media project for Ukraine’s civil society. It was critical in covering the revolution and the changes that followed in Ukraine, and has been an important voice on social issues, particularly minority rights. Despite years of donor support counting in the millions of dollars, however, the organization was mired with internal conflicts and failed to deliver the persistent growth many had hoped for. Its Chief Editor, Head of Programme Board (a key governance body) and CEO all left (in essence being technically ousted) over the past two months. The latest to depart, Chief Editor Angelina Kariakina, left on February 1, claiming she “did not leave of her own accord,” a position refuted by current leadership.

Good Old Days

In the summer of 2013, 15 popular Ukrainian journalists founded a new, non-profit media NGO called Hromadske TV.

Ukrainians, long used to an oligarch dominated media landscape, liked the idea. They backed it with over 1.1 million hryvnias (around $132,500 at the time). 

That would cover about 44% of the TV-channel’s then budget in 2013. The remainder came from the embassies of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the United States of America, as well as George Soros’ International Renaissance Foundation. 

Already in December 2013, Hromadske had 7.5 million unique views on YouTube (Ukraine’s total population was around 45 million at that time).

Next year, donations and donors continued to grow. The Government of Canada and the private Norwegian Fritt Ord Foundation joined the donor club. A significant amount came from a charity auction that sold contemporary Ukrainian artists’ paintings.

There seemed to be no end of willing financial backers. Hromadske’s financial statements list such organizations as Internews Network, Internews Europe, EED, European Commission, the German Embassy, GIZ, the German Marshall Fund, the German Center for Liberal Modernism, the Embassy of Switzerland, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, Omidyar Network (later rebranded as Luminate), Ukrainian World Foundation, Free Press, Thomson Foundation, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Journalism Development Network, New Media Development Group and many more.

Hromadske TV logo

Hromadske broadcasted in three languages, airing content via the large state TV-channel and cable operators. Then came satellite broadcasting. Over the first five years, the team of the Hromadske grew from 15 to 170 people.

Something went wrong

In early 2016, the supervisory board of Hromadske accused the former leader of appropriating more than 150,000 euro and $36,000 from the budget (money accumulated on his accounts) This case is still in the courts.

The new CEO found a hole in the budget of $70,000. Perhaps worse, she also found a channel that didn’t control its brands or domain. 

An unhealthy atmosphere reigned. Nearly three years later that CEO left Hromadske. The next one managed to hold on to her post for only a year.

Meanwhile, Hromadske continued to be dependent on large donors. The last available financial report for 2018 said that income from royalties (the only commercial revenue stream) accounted for just 1.2% of all revenues. Private donations brought in a tiny 0.05%.

Today, Hromadske has no CEO, no chief editor, no deputy chief editor for partnerships. They all left one after another. The organization is managed by an interim director. Hromadske is again in crisis. 

At the same time, there is an opportunity for change.

How things (don’t) work

I did not mention names to emphasize that the problem is not in personalities, but processes. In many ways these are linked with inherent weaknesses of nonprofit media.

Today, Hromadske has no CEO, no chief editor, no deputy chief editor for partnerships. They all left one after another. The organization is managed by an interim director. 

As in many other countries, in Ukraine nonprofit media are registered in the form of public organizations. At the same time, a public organization (the equivalent of an NGO) has its own governing bodies, which are quite different from those used to run a TV station.

In Hromadske’s case, the supreme body is the general meeting of NGO members, then comes the Program Council, somewhere nearby lives a Supervisory Board. Only then comes the head of the NGO, finally followed by the CEO of Hromadske. On the TV station’s website, there is no information about the chief editor’s role, the Program Council or Supervisory Board members.

As long as an organization is small and all members of the NGO are also the TV staff running the show, risks of conflict are reduced. The head of the NGO can lead the TV side, key decisions can be made collectively.

What happened in Hromadske is that, over the years, the number of NGO members remained small (and the list was largely fixed), while the TV staff grew much bigger (and saw significant turnover). Moreover, the gulf between the two groups continues to grow.

Some NGO members moved abroad, went into politics, or found new jobs at the offices of competitors. At best, they ceased to be active participants; at worst, they worked to harm the operations of a TV channel they left following some or other conflict.

Other NGO members remain at the TV station as employees, but hold a privileged position compared to other employees because they have a voice in the NGO general meeting. Such employees often make decisions based on personal interests, not those of the organization.

In Hromadske’s case, it could be possible to temporarily freeze membership in the NGO for those working on the media side or for competitors to avoid conflicts of interest. NGO members could then serve as a Supervisory Board. Other solutions could also be explored.

Hromadske’s problem is not unique. Donors often require NGOs to implement corporate governance standards: form Supervisory Boards, to choose the Head of the Board, etc. 

But this does not work if it is done formally to fulfill the conditions of a grant contract, without understanding the essence of what is happening and without taking into account how NGOs are run. 

Failure to properly construct such a system is an architecture destined for conflict.

Andrii Ianitskyi is a Ukrainian journalist, head of the Centre for Excellence in Economic Journalism at Kyiv School of Economics, co-author of “Privat story: The rise and fall of Ukraine’s largest bank” book.

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