A Quick Word With…
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 Christie McElhinney, vice president of communications and public affairs, The Colorado Trust.
A recent communications success you are particularly proud of?
The Colorado Health Access Survey. Staff from our communications, evaluation/research and program areas collaborated to develop this long-term strategy to support our state’s most extensive survey of health coverage, access and utilization, coupled with a robust communications strategy. Already the CHAS is becoming well known, and the data widely used by many.
When you were 13 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Wait, I was once 13? I vacillated between a ballerina and an attorney. I spent many years dancing, became a paralegal and made the obvious transition to philanthropic communications.
What’s something unique about your organization that other foundation staff might not know about?
In 1985 when the PSL Health Care Corporation (Presbyterian-St. Luke’s hospitals) was sold to a for-profit organization, the proceeds of the sale were used to create The Colorado Trust, the first foundation dedicated solely to the health of the people of Colorado. We are fortunate to now have three additional “health conversion foundations” in Colorado.
One of our toughest audiences is us – our staff and trustees. When the issue we address – health – is our passion, area of expertise and daily work, it is sometimes a challenge to communicate effectively with others who feel differently or may not know much about health beyond their own personal health.
What was your undergraduate major? How has it been useful?
Business. I had a minor in Communications which provided me with a solid base for the work I went on to do. It also made me eternally grateful that post-degree I no longer had to do accounting.
Do you create an annual communications plan?
We have long had a strategic communications plan that we review, update and refer to on an ongoing basis. It helps us to focus on the right work and not get sidetracked by an endless stream of opportunities.
Do you evaluate communications efforts?
Yes, we just completed an audit of our strategic communications plan, which we do every few years. Key findings: nearly 90% of our stakeholders find foundations to be a credible, unbiased source of information; it’s important we continue to translate complex issues so that they are easy to understand; and our audiences want “layered” information so they can drill down in what matters most to them – from a catchy subject line in an email, to a paragraph or two description, with a link to a high-level summary and a link to an in-depth report. Most valued is our extensive offering of issue briefs.
What percentage of your communications is new media based?
According to findings of our communications audit, too much. Fewer than 15% of our core audiences view any social media. They told us email rules. Still, a small number of our stakeholders rely solely on social media. We’re now focused on tailoring our efforts to this group of power users and working to grow this group over time.
Your favorite communications tool that you think more foundation folks should be using?
This is a bit dated, but I remain a big fan of the Framework to Inform Public Policy Grantmaking that Julia Coffman developed for the James Irvine Foundation. Under the guise of policy, this framework is chock-full of communications-based strategies.
Biggest complaint about how foundations get covered in the media?
Generally I think we get what we give. When we take the time to nurture relationships with reporters, and provide them with clear, concise information – data, analysis and examples/stories – we often get decent coverage.
The last nonfiction book you read?
This I Believe II: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women. This collection of essays offers an incredible range of views, values, life circumstances and paths chosen. They are humbling and inspiring.
A big event or initiative you’re working on that you think everyone should know about?
We’re beginning a series of events and reports on health equity. Our first event – a community forum and live streaming – made its debut at the end of January. National health disparities expert Paula Braveman, MD, with T.R. Reid facilitating, discussed the barriers to good health faced by racial and ethnic minorities and low-income populations.
What’s a question you have for your Communications Network colleagues?
How can foundations continue to eliminate silos so that program, evaluation and communications can work together collaboratively and most effectively?
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.