If you want to know what people think—ask them! And then listen to what they have to say. That’s what the Communication Matters research project is all about.
As communicators, we know how powerful listening is.
The Communications Network and its members have a point of view about the value of communication in creating social change. But what do our colleagues think, whether they’re making decisions from the executive suite, managing a portfolio of grants, or working in the field?
Here’s a taste of what we’re hearing.
From a small regional foundation:
“Our president & CEO gets it. When she was hired, she visited foundations of a similar asset size to find out, ‘If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently?’ The consistent message was, ‘Get communications right from the get-go. Tell your own story lest someone else tell it for you.’”
We’re uncovering great examples of communication being used in strategic ways.
From a medium-sized health care foundation:
“We fund a fair amount of policy analyses and our goal is to have impact by informing and influencing state-level decision making. We couldn’t do that without an aggressive and comprehensive approach to communications. When grantees produce analytic deliverables, we invest a lot of resources in helping them to shape the story, tease out the key take-aways, develop concrete recommendations, and express their work in a way that is both compelling and persuasive.”
And we’re hearing about some of the interesting challenges, twists, and turns that communication work can take.
From a program officer at a large foundation:
“We have found that our use of communication—particularly ‘naming’ the reform—has simultaneously advanced the measurable elements of the reform discussion and annoyed allies who use different language. It raises the larger question of whether everyone working on an issue agrees on what to call things and how to talk about them, which can be either a good discussion or a distraction from program outcome goals.”
Most people don’t know much about foundations. I’ve been working in philanthropy for over 15 years, and when I first started, my parents (Korean immigrants) thought I’d be working directly for sweet, elderly society matrons in Chanel suits, who had oodles of money to give away to libraries, hospitals, and pet societies.
It is true, foundations do give away money. It is still our core defining element. But at many foundations, the act of giving away money has gone far beyond issuing a check to a deserving organization or cause. For example, many foundations invest not just in projects or initiatives related to important causes, like education or health care, but also in the people and the organizations that fuel those causes. I currently work at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and one of the many things I love about this foundation is a dedicated grants program, called Organizational Effectiveness (OE), to help current Packard grantees tackle the “fundamentals.” Meaning, things like fundraising, business planning, leadership development, and yes, strategic communications.
It is true, foundations do give away money. It is still our core defining element. But at many foundations, the act of giving away money has gone far beyond issuing a check to a deserving organization or cause.
In 2013, almost a quarter of OE’s grants supported grantee efforts to build their own communications capacity. And OE’s focus on grantee capacity is by no means unique: dozens of foundations across the country support capacity-building for grantees and some even specialize in communications capacity. When I worked at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I participated in numerous efforts to build grantees’ communications capacity, through training programs, message boot camps, and other forms of assistance that were either part of or extra to the grants they received.
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.