It’s easy to forget that for a nine-month window between the 9/11 attacks and the summer of 2002, public anxiety about the Middle East didn’t have anything to do with Iraq. In August of 2002, the Bush administration deftly re-framed the national conversation by emphasizing the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his possible possession or acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, and the need to invade Iraq to mitigate that threat. Before that time, however, public anxiety coalesced around fears of an unfamiliar enemy, al-Qaeda, and the possibility that shadowy terrorists might somehow slip a nuclear weapon into a major American city. Often left unstated, these fears were deep.
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.
“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.
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.