The Intricate Dance Between Foundations and Nonprofits

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Guest Post: Joanne Edgar

The last session of the Network’s meeting in Seattle was a lively and serious discussion about who we are as an organization and what we stand for. I heard a degree of angst about the new mission, which opens our doors more widely than ever before to our nonprofit colleagues.

I am an “elder” in this ever-growing organization. I have served on both sides of the philanthropic highway, spending a decade as communication director at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and now working as a communication consultant for both nonprofits and foundations.

When I first joined the Network 23 years ago, we were a small and intimate group of foundation colleagues eager for connection and in search of knowledge to help us do our job better. We griped about skimpy communication budgets and lack of understanding from our program peers, who we believed could use our input if they only knew they needed it. We shared the best and brightest ideas about thoughtful, targeted communication efforts in an increasingly complex field. Even then, we included nonprofits in our meetings to showcase what foundations could do when they funded communication.

Over the years, our sophistication grew along with our membership. The Network became a nonprofit and we beat the drums for including communication every step of the way as an essential ingredient of effective philanthropy. We brought program and executive staff to our meetings. We welcomed nonprofits to tell their stories of communication activities that advanced foundation goals.

Soon nonprofits came as attendees, as well as presenters. It was understood that our meetings were for learning and relationship-building, not for pitching. I realize, of course, that this is a fuzzy distinction, but I believe fear of pitching is also a false fear. We should welcome communication expertise wherever we can get it. Our goal is a wider conversation, not an insular one.

Nonprofit organizations are a foundation’s constituents. Without them, foundations could not do their jobs. Thus, the more we learn about each other’s work, the better we will be able to do our jobs together. The most successful communication officers, in fact, seek out nonprofits to learn from, even those that are not grantees.

If you believe, as I do, that smart communication is fundamental to foundation success, then we all need the best minds in the room to guide us on our way. My life as a communication professional, both inside and outside the foundation world, has always been intimately connected to nonprofits. I embrace the Network’s expanded mission and look forward to the continuing dance of wisdom across philanthropic and nonprofit boundaries.

Joanne Edgar, who served as a co-president of the Communications Network from 1997-1999, helps foundations and nonprofits tell stories of social change.


  1. David IronsDavid Irons10-18-2012

    Hoping the ComNetwork board will seed this new direction with invitations to a few daring and innovative leaders in nonprofit communications to join the Network.

  2. Jeff StangerJeff Stanger10-18-2012

    Great post Joanne (and good to meet you in Seattle). As a non-foundation member of the network, I’m glad I’ll officially be welcome! Kidding aside, I agree with your observations. I’ve always felt that foundation and nonprofit communicators walk under the same umbrella (aren’t foundations nonprofits themselves?) — as *social sector* professionals dedicated to improving the world. Of course, some nonprofits rely on the financial resources that foundations possess in order to do good work — which raises the potential for a bit of awkwardness I suppose — but ultimately we’re all in the same business.

    In my travels, though not as extensive as others’ to be sure, I’ve found nonprofit and foundation communications professionals struggling with many of the same issues — siloed job functions; outdated organizational structures and resource allocations; lack of integration of disciplines; the need for new skills and psychology as the communication landscape is reshaped by technology and the failure of commercial media. I think the combined group would have quite a lot to talk about to overcome these obstacles. I look forward to being a part of those conversations.

    The importance of communications to affecting positive change has never been greater. As such, the importance of the Network as never been greater. The fundamental changes we’re witnessing today present a challenge none of us has ever had to deal with, no matter how long you’ve been in the business. To adapt effectively, we’d best work together as fellow social sector communicators with the same objective.

    I wish all success to the Network as it moves into this new exciting and important phase of its development.

  3. Rebecca ArnoRebecca Arno10-21-2012

    Joanne, thank you so much for this post, for your many years of service to the Network, and for your perspective. Your thoughts align closely with those expressed in our research prior to developing the new mission.

    It is now time to determine how we maintain the integrity of the Network’s deeply appreciated focus, while thoughtfully expanding our community of practice.

    I believe this is possible, and I’m glad you do, too.

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