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.
Every foundation communicator at one time or another is given the task of turning academic prose, research findings or something impenetrable into a more accessible form for more general consumption and wide distribution. As I look back on my past foundation days, I cannot personally think of a challenge that would have been more daunting than being handed the assignment of creating a compelling narrative to introduce the budget of the United States of America, and especially the budget that the Obama administration introduced this week. Well, hats off to the team that prepared the introductory narratives.
Just a couple days after bemoaning the difficulty foundations have in getting media coverage, I’ve just listened to a replay of an excellent piece on NPR this morning — The Art of Doling Out Stimulus Dollars — that features interviews with representatives of the Gates and Pittsburgh Foundations, and other philanthropy observers, about what lessons grantmakers can provide the government when it comes to giving out lots of money effectively.
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?
Anyone who deals in the fine art of creating and delivering messages, especially messages tied to deeper ideas and meaty issues that require thoughtful debate and consideration, will benefit from reading an op-ed in today’s New York Times by Stephen L. Carter, novelist and Yale law professor, about the controversy resulting from remarks about race that Attorney General Eric Holder made last week.
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