A Quick Word With…


A Quick Word With… is our ongoing series in which people from foundations of all sizes and types tell us about themselves, their work and where they draw their inspiration. This installment features Cassandra Stalzer, Communications Director, Rasmuson Foundation.

Are there challenges in communicating about the Arts?
The biggest challenge is making sure you are on top of your game when it comes to issues of copyright protection and fair use – especially in this era when it’s so easy to hit the “share” button.

Does your foundation create an annual communications plan?
We do have a communications plan, but I wouldn’t say it’s annual. It’s more like an overarching framework that we update with a calendar of tactics. Our framework defines, from a communications perspective, who we are and what we think is important. Because organizationally we value flexibility and the ability to quickly respond to opportunities, any plan we pull together at the beginning of the year might look very different at year’s end. That said, I definitely need to update our communications framework, since the current one really describes how we want to listen and share using social media – and that’s so 2009.

When you were 13 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Educated and employed. I grew up in a coal mining camp in Southern West Virginia, so I didn’t know too much about the options I might have.

A recent communications success you are particularly proud of?
We run the “Pick.Click.Give.” campaign, which encourages Alaskans to divert some of their annual permanent fund dividend to one or more of about 400 nonprofits that appear on a vetted list. This year we will probably see about $2.2 million in pledges made through that campaign, and while that may seem like a small number, it represents about 4.5% of Alaskans choosing to make at least one contribution to a nonprofit. And we know that most donors are supporting a nonprofit for the very first time with their “Pick.Click.Give.” pledge, so we really are creating new philanthropy.

Your hardest to reach target audience?
I think the constituency that we’ve had the most difficulty reaching are artists from recent immigrant communities. It’s a challenge to communicate that artists themselves (yes, you, the person) are eligible for grants (yes, money, to you) so that they can continue to make art for the rest of us to enjoy.

Your undergraduate major?
I enrolled as an electrical engineering student. But on my first day of college, as they were calling freshmen out of the auditorium by major, animal science came up in the alphabet before electrical engineering, and that sounded good, too. So I became an animal science major just by walking out of the room at the right time. Later, the Beat writers convinced me to go into journalism. That’s where I landed.

You’ve posed questions to the Communications Network listserv. Have you been satisfied with the results?
People on the listserv have been very generous in sharing ideas, tips, and experiences. I’ve asked questions ranging from digital archiving to crowd sourcing, and there’s always someone who has been able to help.

About how much of your communications focuses on reaching audiences through new media?
I would guess we spend 60 percent of our effort on new media, and our blog is probably the most effective way of sharing stories and news. The blog is cross-posted on Facebook and Twitter – but otherwise we try to keep those tools distinct in content and voice. We are experimenting more with online advertising – mainly through Facebook, Google search and display, and some display ads on our primary news sites. And we are trying to figure out how to produce more simple video content using the staff resources that we have.

Does Rasmuson evaluate communications?
We use formal market surveys, email surveys, analysis of data like applications submitted, participation rates, media mentions, comments, retweets, etc., as determined by the goals set for the communications efforts. We engaged the Center for Effective Philanthropy last year to survey grantees and were pleased that grantees value our investment in social networks, and that we can do a better job communicating staff transitions when they occur. We also think anecdotal feedback is very important. A communications goal is to make the Foundation more approachable, and that’s very hard to measure. But when someone makes a comment to a staff or board member that points to the quality of our mutual relationship, it can be pretty validating.

Favorite communications tool more foundation folks should be using?
Delicious – bookmarking can be used to support a variety of communications efforts. One of our communications goals is to advocate for the nonprofit sector. We use Delicious to gather mentions of our grantees, then make it available both in its native form and through our Twitter stream. Through bookmarking we create a real-time news ticker-like system about the sector. I’d like to explore how bookmarking can be used in some of our board and internal communications programs as well.

Your favorite underappreciated journalist?
I really admire Amanda Coyne who writes about my new home state of Alaska, and Ken Ward who writes about my old home state of West Virginia.

You attended the 2012 SXSW. What’s the most notable thing you learned that you will apply to your work?
My biggest takeaway was a better understanding of the philosophy of the open web and how significantly our world is already changing. Now I have lots of questions about what it might really mean to network intelligence, how it will change how we do business, how it will change the nonprofits we depend upon to do the hard work of social good.

Your biggest complaint about how your issues get covered in the media?
I think nonprofits are covered as “charities” too often. Not as the economic, social and policy engines that they are.

Has Rasmuson ever publicly talked about a failure in its grantmaking?
Sure. I think the effect of talking about failure is to reinforce philanthropy’s role in innovation. Transparency also contributes to our goal of making the Foundation more approachable.

Last nonfiction book you read?
I’m reading three at the moment: the Steve Jobs biography, Donald Tapscott’s “Macrowikinomics,” and Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble.” I think they mix well together, and for me it’s about change, innovation, and being confident in your ideas.

Last time you learned something important from a communications colleague?
Marie Deatherage from Meyer Memorial Trust and I recently discussed a project that we are considering here. She was very generous in sharing how the Trust experimented in the same area – and we will be borrowing liberally from them.

Another foundation whose communication work you admire?
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Their commitment to building the communications capacity of their grantees is something I greatly value. In some ways, I am a product of their philosophy. I received technical support as a grantee, and it gave me a great professional boost.

One aspect of your personal life that has the greatest impact on your professional life?
Because I grew up in a coal camp, I have a real interest in labor issues, worker’s rights, and environmental justice. It’s a perspective you just carry around with you.

A Quick Word With… is edited by Michael Hamill Remaley, Vice President of Communications & Public Policy, Philanthropy New York, and a frequent Communications Network contributor.

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