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.”
“Brand management is a mindset…” A conversation with Nathalie Kylander, author of The Brand Idea
Nathalie Laidler-Kylander is a Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government where she teaches courses on leadership and the strategic management of non-profits. She is the co-author of The Brand Idea, which offers a new strategic framework for non-profit branding. A lightly edited transcript of her conversation follows. You can listen to the interview here.
Natalie Kylander: The book is really based on an article we published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about two years ago now, looking at the role of brand in the non-profit sector. This was a research project that was undertaken at the Harvard Kennedy School in conjunction with some funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. The original intent of the research that started back in about 2010-2011 was really to examine the role of brand in the non-profit sector and to explore what differences might exist in terms of managing non-profit brands as it relates to full profit brands. Most of the brand and brand management models that we have really stem from the for-profit sector. One of our objectives was to understand whether those models were still relevant and useful and if not, to stop thinking about proposing alternative brand management frameworks.
The Communications Network: In the non-profit, in the foundation world, people think about branding, they think first about fund raising. From there, it’s a quick jump to the logo and putting it on pens and coffee cups and t-shirts. What did you find in your research about how people do think about brands in the non-profit world and how is that thinking changing?
Natalie Kylander: A lot of people do think about brand as a fund raising tool with the main audience really being donors or partners if you’re more of a donor organization yourself. Predominantly, looking at brands as a tool to increase funding or potentially access to funds. That poses a little bit of a problem because the brand was really communicated and controlled by the communications or the PR or the marketing department in an organization and not necessarily connected as strongly to the mission as it might be. What we’re seeing through this research and what we’re seeing talking to about a hundred people across 70 organizations is that there’s a fundamental shift that’s occurring in terms of how a brand is perceived. The shift that we’re seeing in the field with non-profits is perception or an understanding of brand, much more as a strategic asset that embodies both the mission and the values of the organization. What we’re seeing through this research and what we’re seeing talking to about a hundred people across 70 organizations is that there’s a fundamental shift that’s occurring in terms of how a brand is perceived. The shift that we’re seeing in the field with non-profits is perception or an understanding of brand, much more as a strategic asset that embodies both the mission and the values of the organization. The goal becomes less to fund raise and to PR to promote the organization and much more focus on mission impact, how to use brand to implement the mission. That’s the fundamental shift we’re seeing and obviously, that has a lot of implications for brand management.
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.