I had the pleasure of joining Communications Network board members Minna Jung (Packard Foundation), Alfred Ironside (Ford Foundation) and Joanne Krell (Kellogg Foundation) for a panel discussion titled “Why Strategic Communication Matters to the Causes We Care About” at the Council on Foundations conference in Washington, D.C.
The standing-room-only session highlighted several important lessons about the work we do as communicators, and the responsibility we all bear for championing its strategic value across our organizations.
It also gave me a chance to provide an update on “Communication Matters,” the Communications Network-sponsored research effort to gather evidence about what constitutes effective, integrated communications at foundations and nonprofits.
Our research is now running at a full sprint… We hope to be able to show some exemplary models, relevant tools and clear evidence that can advance the field and help make the case for why Communication Matters.
Remembering The Three R’s
Our evidence gathering and analysis are ongoing, and will be rolled out in earnest at the Network’s annual conference this October. But here’s one early insight we unpacked during the panel’s conversation.
For most organizations, success (or failure) in strategic communications can be directly tied to how well they manage and leverage three primary assets. Let’s call themThe Three R’s:
- Reputation: This is the sum of the earned and perceived credibility an organization holds around a set of issues (think of it as your brand equity and issue expertise).
- Relationships: This is the set of affiliations and associations that give an organization “authority” and increased capacity to advance its agenda or theory of change.
- Resources: These are what an organization invests to achieve its goals and objectives. They include both dollars (grants, PRIs) and human capital (labor, research, thought leadership, and access).
Our research process is now running at a full sprint. We’ve been listening closely to communication practitioners from foundations and nonprofits. We’re hearing from program leaders about how they prioritize and integrate with communications. And soon we will be launching a survey to solicit the views of executive directors and CEOs on these same themes.
When all is said and done, we hope to be able to show some exemplary models, relevant tools and clear evidence that can advance the field and help make the case for why Communication Matters. Stay tuned for more in the weeks ahead.
David Brotherton is a Seattle-based communications consultant. He and Cynthia Scheiderer previously co-authored Come On In, The Water’s Fine, an analysis of the philanthropy sector’s engagement with social media. They expect to share the results of their latest research at the Communications Network conference in Philadelphia. Follow David on Twitter @Wordsmith68.
Eric Brown, Vice Chair of The Communications Network’s Board (and a former Board Chair), is departing his job as Communications Director at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. A version of his farewell post appeared on the Foundation’s Work in Progress blog.
Here’s what I’ve learned about foundation communications in ten years, nine months, and four days:
1. Tactics without strategy are pretty much a waste of time.
I’m about to give away the secret to the nonprofit communications strategy kingdom—start your communications plan with a goal, and make it a good one. There, I said it. Organizations are pretty good about designing strategic plans that have reasonably good goals. They want the utility to remove a dam by 2015, or they want to provide reproductive health services for 25% more women in a particular district in Tanzania by the end of the year. Things like that. When the communications plans come in, though, often the goal is do some kind of tactic. Write an op-ed. Get people to like you on Facebook. If pressed, grantees might say that the goal is to “raise awareness” about an issue. Well, I have high awareness that kale is better for me than bacon, but that doesn’t stop me from eating BLTs. You get my point. Good strategies start with good goals, not good tactics. It seems so obvious, but we all know that it doesn’t always go that way.
Guest Post: Cassandra Stalzer
For the past year, the Rasmuson Foundation has been partnering with the Anchorage Daily News (ADN) on a special project, “State of Intoxication,” a print and video series about the profound effects over-consumption has on the lives of Alaskans.
This was the first high-profile partnership between for-profit news media and philanthropy in Alaska, and as such, it raised a lot of questions and generated a lot of ideas.
Guest Post: Nolan Haims
One of the most important communication books of the last number of years was quietly released in February. It is so far flying rather under the radar, but it has significant and immediate implications nonprofits and foundations.
The book is a tactical one on how to use a piece of software, but it directly addresses a challenge that organizations face on a daily basis: how to effectively and properly create written material for stakeholders using everyone’s default tool: PowerPoint.
(A version of this post appears on the Philanthropy 411 blog.)
Guest Post: Lora Smith
At its very core, policy advocacy is an exercise in strategic communications. To succeed at influencing policy, advocacy organizations need to be able to persuade decision makers why change is in the public’s best interest.
Yet, as a new report from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation shows, many nonprofit advocacy organizations lack sufficient communications capacity to create and deliver messages that are key to successfully influencing policy changes.