In his New York Times column today, Nicholas D. Kristof offers some thoughts that should chill the hearts of any of us whose work involves trying to make convincing, cogent, and well-fashioned arguments that are meant to persuade people to think or behave differently. As he writes, “…there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.”
Reading a recent Urban Institute report by Francie Ostrower about donors that opt to limit the life of their foundations rather than establish them in perpetuity, I was surprised — as apparently the report’s author was — by ”how infrequently limited life foundations linked their longevity plans to their overall philanthropic mission, strategy, and impact.” That observation called to mind two things. One, that for many foundations the oft-repeated quote “Nothing focuses the mind like imminent death” didn’t apply. And the second was an exercise we once used to kick off a strategic planning session at a foundation I worked at in which everyone present had to answer the question: What if the foundation ceased to exist tomorrow? Who would miss us?
The recent public releases of two entirely different studies and recommendations of how to do philanthropy more effectively stand in interesting contrast with one another, especially if one of the goals was to get people talking about the ideas each contain.
In recent years, a number of foundations have taken a refreshingly open approach to admitting when things go wrong. Talking about foundation failure was even a session at the Network’s 2007 fall conference in Chicago. Now, in its debut issue, the new peer-reviewed journal about philanthropy, Foundation Review, contains an insightful analysis of why publicly “sharing and reflecting upon mistakes” is essential to philanthropic practice and foundation transparency.
Poll-tested messages are great. Focus groups rock. There is security in knowing exactly which buttons to push to get the desired outcome. But the world has changed. Today — especially due to the rise of social media — we have to base our change and advocacy campaigns on a new paradigm. It’s no more top down/command and control. Instead, the key is giving people what they want and need to be our best messengers, and encourage them to “just do it.”
So, what’s a communicator to do?
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