A Quick Word With… is our ongoing series in which Communications Network members from a range of organizations tell us about themselves, their work and where they draw their inspiration. This installment features Denis Chicola, director of communications, Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.
What is a recent communications success you are particularly proud of?
We just gave $1 million dollar grant to UC Berkeley in support of scholarships for undocumented students. The grant has gotten a lot of media play across the country, and it stirred up a lively debate on an issue that is important to the Fund.
When you were 13 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I entered a Franciscan seminary at 13 to study to be a priest. It only took me nine years to realize that wasn’t the path for me.
What’s something unique about the Haas, Jr. Fund that other foundation staff might not know about?
The Haas, Jr. Fund was the first foundation in the country to embrace marriage equality as a priority. It helped create Freedom to Marry and the Civil Marriage Collaborative and has played a leadership role in numerous other initiatives to advance equal marriage rights in California and across the country.
Whether the issue is immigrant rights or gay and lesbian equality, it’s hard to break out of the bubble of people who are already on our side. And social media doesn’t really make it any easier because most of it is happening in that same bubble. We want to change hearts and minds on these issues, and so we’re always wrestling with the question of how you reach people who don’t necessarily agree with you. That can be tough.
What percentage of your communications is new media based?
What was your undergraduate major?
English. I expected to work as a college professor. But after working as a teaching assistant, I decided a life in academia wasn’t for me. I ended up getting a master’s degree in journalism.
Does Haas create an annual communications plan?
Always … and with the best of intentions.
Your favorite communications tool that you think more foundation folks should be using?
We’ve started to use Trello to track different projects and to keep staff and consultants on the same page about where everything stands.
Biggest complaint about how foundations get covered in the media?
There’s too much focus on the amount of money being given rather than the impact of the work.
The last nonfiction book you read?
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. It opens a window to the importance of understanding how people take in information so we can design and deliver more effective messaging in all of our communications.
Another foundation whose communication work you admire?
It’s not a foundation, but as we have been thinking about where we want to go with our communications, we have been spending a lot of time on the website of charity: water. They do a great job telling their story and explaining why their work is important — and here’s the kicker: lots of great pictures and video and infographics, not a lot of text.
A big event or initiative you’ve got coming up that you think everyone should know about?
We are one of six foundations collaborating on a citizenship initiative to support legal permanent residents in becoming citizens. It’s called the New Americans Campaign, and it’s bringing together legal-service providers, faith-based groups, businesses and others to obliterate the many barriers that stand between legal permanent residents and citizenship.
The last time you learned something important from a communications colleague?
Mark Fest, former VP of Communications at Knight, is heading up the communications work for the New Americans Campaign. He introduced us to the simple but effective tool called “The Message House” for keeping everyone on the same page. It’s worth checking out.
Can you recommend a contemporary film or documentary that you think tells a compelling, persuasive story?
If you want a real treat, see The Intouchables, a film that was based on the book You Saved My Life. It tells the extraordinary true story of an Algerian con-man and his friendship with a disabled French aristocrat. It is a great reminder to quiet our judgments about people and situations. The film is a pleasure in the ways it both inspires and moves you to laughter.
What’s your poison: Pinterest, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or ?
Would you judge me if I said Pinterest?
What’s a question you have for your Communications Network colleagues?
How can foundations push the envelope and communicate in ways that bring in new allies and partners and converts to the causes we support?
A Quick Word With… was created by Michael Hamill Remaley, vice president of communications & public policy, Philanthropy New York and a frequent Communications Network contributor. This interview was conducted and edited by Courtney Williamson, community manager, The Communications Network.