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Dispensing With Myths About Foundations

In our last post, we talked about the general lack of knowledge about philanthropy — and foundations in particular — among “influentials.”  This guest post discusses how the Council of Michigan Foundations is using a novel approach to address this problem and finding ways to engage foundation leadership and trustees in the effort.

Guest Post: Rebecca Noricks, Communications Manager, Council of Michigan Foundations

Here in Michigan, we think it’s high time that people stop thinking of foundations as “ATM” machines – an idea that our friends at the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative (PAI) have been advancing for the past several years.

There is much misunderstanding about what foundations are and what they do, especially among influential Americans – who PAI defines as the 12% of adults engaged as executives or board members in civic and community organizations.

As a regional association of grantmakers, we at the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) realize that part of our job is to encourage and support our members to communicate the value and impact of philanthropy to influentials.  Our members have many dimensions and offer tremendous influence, knowledge, innovation in addition to their grantmaking dollars. It is all these things combined that make foundations well positioned partners in catalyzing solutions to some of the biggest problems our communities face – especially in Michigan where the need is great for so many.

But we also know that influentials in our communities for too long have had little or no knowledge of what foundations can bring to the table and — like others — they’ve tended to viewed foundations as ATMs and not as vital partners.

It was those very questions that inspired CMF and PAI to launch a new pilot project with 14 of our member foundations in May 2009 called Philanthropy 3D-Michigan (3D) with a vision to get influential Americans to understand foundations’ unique value beyond dollars alone and seek them out as partners
to solve community issues.

To achieve this vision, 3D’s goal centers on developing a new communications model for philanthropy, one that we believe has the potential to radically change the traditional foundation communications approach of relying primarily on grant announcement news releases.

Our work is supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers.

So…what makes this model so new, you ask?

In early 2008, my colleague Vicki Rosenberg, CMF’s vice president, education, communications & external relations, and I sat down with the leading foundation communications professionals in Michigan. We brainstormed about how to tackle the issue of reaching influentials when it became clear that the best way could be through the existing relationships each foundation’s trustees already possess.

But, each person in the room acknowledged he or she did not typically engage or rely upon trustees to be a part of their foundation’s communications strategies. However, each of them shared interest and willingness to change this.

So, if each foundation board is full of the PAI-defined “12% types” and their personal and professional networks are exactly the people foundations need to reach – what would happen if we formally equipped trustees across Michigan with common conversational messages about the value of foundations beyond just transactional grantmaking to use in their networks?

It’s an interesting question and so began our Philanthropy 3D-Michigan work.

Background Research – How We Began

Our work began last May when we commissioned the Community Research Institute (CRI) at Grand Valley State University to conduct preliminary research including (1) interviews with the 27 participating foundation trustees, 15 executives and communications officers from the 14 foundations partnering on 3D to understand current practices of how trustees perceive their role in communicating about their foundation’s work and (2) an audit of the messages currently being used by those foundations and CMF in their publications and websites.

According to CRI research, all foundations use some level of strategic messaging, but trustees view their primary role as investing, growing and distributing foundation resources, not necessarily communicating with other non-foundation leaders.

Additionally, most foundations have vision, mission or values statements describing philosophies of partnership, leadership and strategy often followed by program descriptions that tend to be transactional and not aspirational, according to message audits.

The type of foundation they run – community, family, corporate, etc. – also affects a trustee’s role in how and how much they are involved in communications. Most trustees agree they need to increase their communication efforts and many indicated that they would be very willing to do so.

Message Development – Engaging Trustees in the Process

Based on our background research, our partner foundations and their trustees worked with CMF and Boston-based Hattaway Communications last summer in a series of meetings, workshops and focus groups to develop a Philanthropy 3D-Michigan Message Manual. The manual and resulting messages are currently being tested through spring 2010 in the trustees’ networks and in foundation communications.

Our partner Mark Sedway, PAI’s program director says the most exciting thing to him about 3D is how directly engaged foundation trustees have been in developing this new outreach model to communicate with influential audiences.

“This is really exciting,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of appetite for guidance and information throughout the sector in how to encourage and train trustees to be better ambassadors for foundations…so they can reach into and educate other sectors such as business and politics. Trustee engagement is the key to making this all work.”

What Participants Are Saying So Far

Comments from 3D participants are promising:

“The new message manual gives foundation trustees ideas on how to frame the conversations and share the important work our foundations are doing throughout the state,” says Dr. Richard Dolinski, vice chair of the Midland Area Community Foundation.

Ira Strumwasser, CEO of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Michigan, says the engaged trustees “are bringing a new and important dimension to the philanthropic sector’s communication efforts. The trustees are influentials and as such, they often interact both socially and professionally with other influentials in government, business and their communities. It’s a natural link that many (trustees) are now embracing.”

Joseph M. Stewart, chair of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, says he is excited about the role he and other trustees are now playing to make dramatic changes in how foundations will communicate their visions and goals while reaching out and embracing leaders from other fields in the important work of changing Michigan for the better.

“These are tough times for everyone,” notes Stewart. “We as trustees need to engage and be a part of the solution for Michigan and I believe a part of that change is educating others to the important role that foundations play in society today and letting other leaders from other sectors know we want to work with them. Together we can make a difference. Better communication methods and techniques is one way that can be achieved.”

What’s Next? Evaluation and Refinement

While we’re still in the piloting and testing phase right now, post-pilot trustee interviews and message audits later in 2010 will help us understand what worked and how we need to refine the model and messages for use by CMF and our members on an on-going basis.

While our aims are to influence the thinking of influentials in Michigan, our funding partners are also eagerly watching – and like us – are hopeful the results will show this to be a powerful model for changing perceptions about philanthropy among influentials.

Time, of course, will tell what Philanthropy 3D-Michigan achieves. But already it’s clear to foundations in Michigan that there are most certainly more effective ways to communicate the value they offer beyond grants alone.

For more on the 3D project, visit the CMF website.

Photo of Blue screen of bankruptcy by renaissancechambara on used with gratitude under  Creative Commons License.


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