ComNet15: CEO Roundtable
Watch the video, listen to the podcast of the keynote, read the transcript, or take a look at the illustrated notes. This session was produced in partnership with Stanford Social Innovation Review and moderated by SSIR’s Managing Editor, Eric Nee.
- Judy Belk, California Wellness Foundation
- Dr. Sandra Hernandez, California Healthcare Foundation
- Matt James, Next Generation
- Patrick McCarthy, The Annie E. Casey Foundation
- Grant Oliphant, The Heinz Endowments
Illustrated Notes by Zsofi Lang
Tanya Barrientos: Thank you for coming back inside, from being out in the beautiful sunshine. I’m Tanya Barrientos. I’m the Director of Executive Communications at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I’m also a member of the board of The Communications Network. I think we’re in for a really terrific session this afternoon because as all of us know, it’s so important for CEOs of our organizations to understand and embrace the power of strategic communications. Those who do, know that communication matters.
That’s one of the reasons we actually introduced a new element to the conference this year. It’s called the CEO Track. It allows CEOs to come together privately and talk to their peers about issues, their experiences, and discuss the strategic communications in their own organizations. Over the past day and a half, we’ve had the privilege of hosting 11 CEOs here at the conference this year. I’d like to take just a moment to recognize each of them by name. Judy Belk of the California Wellness Foundation, Jim Canales of the Barr Foundation, Gene Cochrane of The Duke Endowment, Dr. Sandra Hernandez from the California HealthCare Foundation, Don Howard of The James Irvine Foundation, Matt James of Next Generation, Nancy Jamison from San Diego Grantmakers, Patrick McCarthy of The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kathlyn Mead of The San Diego Foundation, Dr. Chad Nelsen of Surfrider, and Grant Oliphant of the Heinz Endowments.
I’d also like to thank Professor George Lakoff from the University of California at Berkeley and Dan McGinn of McGinn and Company, who have really helped to make the CEO Track a success this year. Now, I’d like to bring to the stage the panelists and also Eric Nee, who is the managing editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and he’s going to lead our discussion. I want to say that we’re also very grateful to SSIR for being a media sponsor for this conference. Eric, if you and the panelists will come onstage, I’ll leave it to you to introduce the panelists. Thank you.
Eric Nee: Thank you very much, Tanya, for that great introduction. Before we get started, I just wanted to mention briefly this magazine that you probably picked up when you registered for the conference called Change Agent. The reason I mentioned it is because it has five articles in there that were published on SSIR’s website that we co-produced with The Communications Network. Interestingly, the articles were all written by CEOs of organizations engaged in social change, either foundations or NGOs.
The topics of those articles are very similar to the ones that we’re going to discuss today. I would encourage you to go read those. In fact, one of the authors of those five articles is with us on the panel today, Matt James. We’re going to have today a fairly broad discussion from the CEO perspective about communications, both what it is in their organizations, how they practice it, how it’s changed over the years, and in particular, looking at social media and the impact that’s had on the way communications has been practiced.
The way we were going to structure the discussion is the first 40 minutes or so will be a moderated discussion that I’ll lead, and then we’ll open it up to questions from the audience. As you’re listening to people talk and you hear something that really sparks your interest, please write it down and be ready to ask a question. We’re going to have mics going throughout the audience, but please wait for the mic to arrive to you to ask your question. When you ask it, it would be great if you could identify yourself before you ask a question.
The panelists that we have with us today, to my left, Judy Belk, the CEO of the California Wellness Foundation; Grant Oliphant, the President of the Heinz Endowments; Dr. Sandra Hernandez, the CEO of the California HealthCare Foundation; Matt James, the President and Co-founder of Next Generation; and last but not least, Patrick McCarthy, the President and CEO of The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
I’d like to start off the conversation at a pretty broad level and then dive down. Let me just bring up this issue again; the first article in this was written by Judith Rodin, the CEO of The Rockefeller Foundation. It’s an interesting article I thought because what she does is sort of recast communications. She talks about it as influence and how The Rockefeller Foundation wields influence through all of its capabilities — through its brand, through its reputation, through its knowledge, through its networks — and uses that to actively try to change public conversation and, just as importantly, change public policy. That’s sort of how she framed it. What I’d like to hear from our panelists is how you think about communications, both the word of communications but also as a leader of an organization involved in social change, how do you understand what that is? Let me start with Judy.
Judy Belk: Thank you. First of all, it’s great to be here. Hello, all of you. I have to say that I’m so impressed with the transformation of The Communications Network. I do remember years ago when the focus was how to write a press release. There weren’t as many of us here, and so I just want to applaud you and also thank all of you for your contributions to just the philanthropic sector in general, so great. I’m a little different in that when I think about communications, for me, communications is as basic as the air you breathe because I don’t think you can do squat without communicating.
When I think about what my role is at the foundation, it’s communication. I mean, guys, I’m communicating so much that by Friday night, I don’t know if you’ve heard the term that you know you’re getting old when the phone rings on Saturday night and you hope it’s not for you, that’s kind of how I feel. I don’t want to talk to anybody because communication for me starts the moment that I walk into the office.
The first thing I do is get a cup of tea, and I make a walk through the office. That’s where I really find out what’s really happening in the organization. I’ve only been in this job 18 months, and the first time I did it, I got feedback saying, “Hey, the CEO is walking around, what do you think her agenda is.” That’s the most basic, all the way to a week ago, being invited to the editorial board of the CBS local San Francisco [station]. It’s communication, and then the other reason why it just is so much a part of how I view the world is that I was a communications professional before I was a philanthropic professional. I majored in communications in undergraduate, and the two things that I knew I wanted to do were to tell stories and serve.
I didn’t even know philanthropy was there. I’ve worked in the public sector; I’ve worked in the corporate sector — all where I had responsibilities for communication. My motto is 99 percent of the world’s problems can be solved by better communication. I just have a different viewpoint. It’s hard for me to separate communication over here and everything that I do over here. It is just so integral. I have to say I really thank my lucky stars every day that I had the experience that many of you had in supporting executives and doing communication because I think I’m a better CEO as a result of that.
Eric Nee: Grant actually started as I think the Director of Communications at Heinz, and now you’re the CEO, similar trajectory.
Grant Oliphant: So what Judy said. I am totally jazzed to see the growth of the network too. A few of us were joking in the hall about the days when we would’ve felt lucky to have 100 people here. I’m sorry that all of you didn’t fit on the bus to downtown, but I’m glad you’re here for this session. I actually want to sort of shamelessly use this moment to pitch you on something because having come out of communications, I view everything I do through that lens. If you’re like I was and still am, there’s a part of you that is a technocrat working in a very technocratic field, where you’re focusing on things like brand and identity, and you’re looking at how to make your work conform with logic models. How many of you have done that?
This is a field that gets very technocratic very quickly, but there’s another part of you that is a poet and an artist and a storyteller, and what I really want to urge you to do is be that in the work that you do.
-Grant Oliphant, The Heinz Endowments
This is a field that gets very technocratic very quickly, but there’s another part of you that is a poet and an artist and a storyteller, and what I really want to urge you to do is be that in the work that you do. You’re going to hate taking this note, set of notes, back to your CEO, but there are three things that foundations do. In my own opinion, there are only three things that foundations do when we’re using our power well. One of them is to bear witness so we look at the world, we see what’s happening, and we reflect that back. That is the process that, by the way, does not begin with talking; it begins with listening, which is where good communications really starts. The work that foundations in philanthropy do when we’re doing our job well is to do that, is to bear witness to what’s happening in the world — the good, bad and the ugly, the stuff that we wish wasn’t happening, and the inspiration that keeps us going.
The second thing that we do is awaken empathy. Very little of what we were able to do will ever change the world unless we get other people to change it for us. That begins with them actually seeing themselves and the people and situations that we’re talking about. Climate change is not about some fool standing in the floor of the Senate holding a snowball — sorry if that’s political — but it is about people whose country will disappear, whose homes will disappear, whose livelihoods will disappear, and if we can awaken empathy for them in others, then we stand a chance of affecting the issue.
The third thing we do is evoke action. We get others and ourselves to figure out how to move on an issue and take it on. I think these are the central challenges of our time, that middle one around awakening empathy is actually probably to my mind the central challenge of our era. It’s how to get each other to see our essential humanity in people who are not like us, who we don’t think are like us but who are exactly like us at some deep level.
Everything we do at our foundation is ultimately about these three things. We call it by various issue names. We focus on things like fracking in the Marcellus Formation, and what we’re trying to do is get people to see what’s really happening, whose lives are affected, why they should be empathetic about it, and what they can do in response to it. Issue after issue, this is what foundations do. If you can name one of those three things that can happen without good communications, you’re better than I am at identifying it because I’ve never been able to figure out how we can successfully do what we do without it being about communications.
Eric Nee: So Sandra, you come at this a bit differently. You’re a medical doctor and, no offense, but they’re not often known for being the best communicators or empathetic people.
Sandra Hernandez: They’re not exactly cutting edge in change either as the foundation will attest.
Eric Nee: What’s your perspective on this?
Sandra Hernandez: Really didn’t come from a communications background at all. When you come out of direct patient care, you really come up through an academic training, very scientific, very research-oriented, very data-driven set of systems. What you try to do when you get out and start practicing medicine is have that and some form of bedside manner. That is the ability to understand subjectively, in a person’s own voice and their own circumstances, what matters to them. Then you really try to collect a lot of information, physical exams and laboratories, and the best science and medicine, and with them, develop a plan.
It’s the way physicians were trained to be, and if you’re lucky, when you get out, you actually have a bedside manner; you have the ability to listen both to what people are saying and what matters to them and what matters to their family and then establish a meaningful relationship, a respectful relationship, and then really try to mobilize all the capabilities that you have — technical, scientific, pharmaceutical — to do the right thing by them over a long period of time.
I was trained as a primary care physician, so continuity and the long view have always been sort of part of my formal training and I think are pretty well embedded in my professional DNA. I still remember the moment when it was clear to me I wanted to do something more than practice primary care medicine, and part of that is just seeing how inadvertent policies create all sorts of unintended consequences. My path into philanthropy was very much that. Well actually, my path into public health first was very much about that.
This was death and dying, and morbidity, and new science, and all happening in very rapid fire. I think one of the things you recognize pretty quickly is that if you step back and really think about what it is you’re trying to achieve, education matters, poverty matters, geography matters. There are so many more things beyond getting everybody immunized.
From public health, in some ways, my professional life went broader. I do think that always has been because I think of my training with an orientation to OK, you can have all the best information and data, who cares? Who uses it? How does it get in the hands of places where people will do something and take an action that is different than they would have taken if they hadn’t? The one just very short example that immediately comes to mind around this was when we decided in spite of the fact that it was illegal to distribute needles during the early part of the AIDS epidemic, we had very good science that it worked; it was being done in Europe. It had been documented outside of the public sphere, but I was really clear that we weren’t simply going to start distributing needles in communities that had high rates of injection drug use if we didn’t have a lot of people really understanding in the first person, with all the public health data that we had, why that action actually made sense.
That was my first real sensibility about how important communicating what and why one would do something, which at the time seemed absolutely outrageous, if not pernicious. I think you end up, by virtue of those things, understanding what the power of both data and information and communication capabilities mean to be able to engage with the community to do something that in that case, frankly, saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
I think I learned it on the job, to the extent that I know it at all would be the short story, but I think it’s also important that the California HealthCare Foundation — this is an organization 17 years old — who very early on understood the power and importance of communication of data, of strategy, that actually thinks about how you use data in order to help inform all kinds of decision-makers to act differently. There is an end to the means, and thinking about who needs to act differently and who those leaders are and what they need to be able to do, that I think is very central to how CHCF thinks about it in our world today.
Eric Nee: Matt, you spent a lot of years at Kaiser, and now you’ve gone off and started a new organization that as you described to me is all about communications. How would you describe this elephant?
Matt James: Let me just back up a little bit and say just a moment about first of all The Communications Network and really what has happened here. It really is remarkable. I was on the early board when Frank Karel pulled this thing together. There was actually a session I think called, “Oh no, a reporter called, what do we do?” It’s amazing how far this group has come, and the leadership really deserves a lot of credit for that. They really do.
Let me just sort of secondly say, you’ve got an amazing group of communicators up here. I watched Judy at her coming-out party, if you will, up in San Francisco, where she spoke to grantees and to others connected to the foundation. I was standing next to Drew Altman, my old boss at Kaiser. We both looked at each other and said, “Wow, that’s how you do it.” It really is amazing the way you communicate and how that worked so well for your institution. I think Grant actually said quite eloquently what foundations can do, and the tools that they have to do that are sort of the following.
They have money, which is mostly what the nonprofits want; they want the money to be able to do what they want to do. They also have people. They have a network inside their organizations that are incredibly strong and powerful and really knowledgeable about what they do. That sometimes gets discounted because they don’t actually use that network as much as they can. I think effective foundations are using them. They also have a voice, and this is one of the things that is I think hardest for a lot of foundations to figure out is, what is their voice? How much are they out there talking for the issues that they care about? How much are they putting their brand out there?
There’s no one right solution to that. I think it really comes down to each organization, what the board is like, what the staff is like, and most importantly, what the CEO is like, and is that CEO, he or she, driving that through the organization. That’s an individual set of decisions that need to be made. But basically, I would make the case and have done so for years; like Grant, I started off as a communications director, so if you aspire to ever run something, there are models here to do this.
Audience: Don’t do it.
Matt James: Don’t do it; yeah, we’ll talk to you later. At cocktail hour, we’ll talk about that, but I would say there’s sort of four things that I always try to think about in terms of communications. One is communications is no sport for the short winded, and you need to stick with issues if you’re really trying to make social change; you need to stick with it for a long time. Sandra raised HIV. We were involved early in HIV, as you know, at Kaiser Family Foundation, Mark Smith and many others. We were also involved in the early attempts in health reform back in the early ’90s. We figured out the messages we wanted to make, and we said them over and over and over and over.
Ronald Reagan actually had a great saying. He said, “When you’re really getting bored with your message, that’s when you know you’re starting to have an impact.” You need to do that. You need to stick with basic things, and sometimes foundations don’t do this. They don’t stick well enough with an issue. I would also make the case like you just did, Sandra, that facts matter a lot. We heard from Soledad O’Brien today — and she was great — about how you need to tell stories. Facts and words matter, and how you use them matters a lot. I’ll give you a small story about my daughter Isabelle who had me coming to talk to her high school about, gosh, I guess about 10 years ago. This isn’t exactly how she introduced me, but this is what I remember. She said, “This is my dad. He’s worked for years on the uninsured. He’s worked for years on HIV. In that time, both problems have gotten worse. Here’s my dad.”
I remember standing in front of the class thinking, “Oh gosh, OK, my life has been wasted.” But in fact, we have health reform; we’ve made incredible progress in HIV. If you stick with issues long enough, you do start to make a difference. I think that’s just important to bring forward. The facts matter there. I think you can argue that we’re making the case now on climate change. We’re turning the corner because the facts have been … we’re no longer arguing about the science … 54 percent of Republicans now say that it is man-made, in a poll that just came out, so we’re making a difference there too, but it’s sticking with it and getting your facts right.
I guess, the last point I would make is as a foundation, you need to know what you want to communicate and who you want to communicate it to, and know that your messages are heard differently by different audiences. When we talk about income inequality, my father … I was raised in a household with a liberal mother and a conservative father. It was like a sitcom. My father, when he hears basically income inequality, he hears income redistribution; he hears different things than the rest of us do, so you need to think about your messages, who you’re trying to communicate with. Sometimes, I think foundations don’t necessarily think about that enough. They are communicating the way they want to to their tribe, if you will, the people that they are familiar and they’re comfortable with, but that doesn’t necessarily move the issue.
Eric Nee: Patrick, Matt said a couple things: Facts matter; got to stick to it. You’ve been at Annie E. Casey for 20+ years, and a lot of what you do is gather facts and information and get them out there. Talk about what you’ve been doing and how you view communications at your foundation.
Patrick McCarthy: Sure. I think I would build on them. This is like a seminar. I think it’s bad form for a panelist to be jotting notes; otherwise I would be, so this is just a terrific collection of [people] … so take out your pens because I just gave you permission.
I actually think, in addition to what’s been said, we need to broaden even more what we think about when we talk about communications. I’m going to use an example: The Annie E. Casey Foundation has recently put a stake in the ground and said that we are now at the place in our history where we should close every single youth prison in this country as an example of a failed policy. That’s a simple straightforward message in some ways with lots of complexity and controversy and difficulty underneath it.
If we think about this as a communications issue, then we have to start thinking about how do you influence lots and lots of folks and to think differently than we thought before. You’ve got to start with the idea that you’re not going to get this done unless you have a whole network, a fairly diverse network of organizations and people who are going to get together with you. Using that as an example, what I think is important to do as an organization is to frame a problem in a way that people can understand and feel like they have to do something about it or frame an opportunity in that way.
You’ve got to give a sense that there is something to move toward. If you’re going to do that, facts matter a lot and stories matter a lot. I recently gave a TED talk, and in that process, I layered it with lots and lots of facts and lots and lots of stories because thanks to our wonderful communications team, they told me I had to. The point of that is you need to tell stories; you need to engage the data. You also need to draw from the evidence about what works. I spent a lot of time giving examples of bad outcomes from incarceration of young people, lots and lots of examples, but I also had to give examples of here’s what works.
The trigger, I think, is because we have a network across the country of KIDS COUNT organizations that we funded for 20 years; when we take on an issue like this, we spend months ahead of time working with them because they’re in states, and they’re going to be our sort of retail outlet. They’re going to be the megaphone that we use to push this forward. If we’re going to do that kind of work, we can’t just have the communications team see it as their job. We’ve got a policy advocacy team so we moved communications and policy advocacy together.
We moved KIDS COUNT in with the communications. We moved our leadership development in with communications. We do a lot of partnership work. We fund big organizations that have affiliates, like Boys and Girls Clubs and The Y, the United Way, and Catholic Charities etc., Goodwill. We fund the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislators. We moved them into the same department so now we have our communications folks and our data folks and our policy advocacy folks and our partnership folks. We moved leadership development, external leadership development, into that.
When I think about communications and trying to achieve influence from the standpoint of what we can contribute to the conversation, I think how do you bring all of that together in a strategic and planful way, in a synergistic way, so you really, really grow the network? The last thing I’ll say on that is I think it’s an important job for foundations. I think it’s implicit in what others have said, but it’s an important job for foundations to sort of provide and hold the microphone for folks who are not usually heard from. It is both our responsibility to be clear about what we have to say, and it’s also, from my point of view, our responsibility to think about whose voices are not being heard.
In this example, it’s the young people themselves, and it’s their families. No one hears from the families of youth who are incarcerated. That’s historically been true. It’s now changing. There are groups forming. We’re supporting it. Other folks are supporting it, and up until now, there have not been … we don’t think about kids in the juvenile justice system in a sympathetic way, so we are building a network of young leaders who have been incarcerated, including a few of them who are still incarcerated, who are part of not only our advisory group but, as we move forward, will be part of the message bearers. This is what happened to me — much better they tell their story than I tell their story.
Eric Nee: I wanted to pick up on your point about how do you do it, and I thought your description of what you’ve done, integrating these various parts of your foundation together, is really interesting and important. I’d be curious to hear from some of these other organizations, how you’ve done that, has it worked? I noticed Sandra that I was just totaling up how many people were in your external engagement group, and it’s as large as in program.
Sandra Hernandez: Right, so we did very similar things to what Patrick did. I think the idea being that the foundation had long had embedded within program very capable communications officers that really did strategize always with the program teams as they did their work; that had pre-existed. It was really a strategic partnership and thinking about the work and the change you’re trying to see have happen in the work, and how communication media, infographics, video distributions, community meetings, webinars, how all of those things, those tools, could be used in furtherance of the programmatic goals.
We’ve done a lot of very important work in health policy, had an office in Sacramento, and the policy work, and if you think about again who you’re trying to engage in the policy conversation — whether it’s regulators or legislators or administrators — the idea being that these are all part of thinking about how we engage folks, and they are in fact an audience for a lot of our work.
We took all of that policy office and put it together with our communications team; all of our publishing is there. Soon probably our CRM will be there as well. We haven’t yet done leaderships, a very interesting idea. We of course have a clinical leaders program, and have had for many years, and do think about them very much as leaders within institutions that are doing the work that needs to be done within them for change. It is early in this organization, and by the way, the other piece that we’re trying to do: We’ve done a lot of work on freeing data.
In other words, the foundation had historically done a tremendous amount of research and analytic work, which of course we would then curate. I know this because I’ve been a long-term subscriber before I came to the foundation, of a lot of the work that the foundation had curated and pulled together. I think, with great leadership from within the organization, this notion of while we’re trying to get data to be opened up in the public sphere and public health, we should also be making everything, every analysis that we do … the data should be available so that people can query and ask their own questions and analyze their own things, whether it’s a researcher, an advocate, a consumer. And so thinking about how we continue to maintain rigor in data but make the data available for people is another part of what we’re trying to do in the context of this engagement strategy, more broadly.
That has borne some very early and very exciting fruit in Sacramento and the health department; we’re expecting it to happen in Medi-Cal. I think we’re beginning to think a lot more about how we both continue to curate very high-quality, rigorous information but curate it in a way that you can open it up and actually analyze it yourself, and so that opening of data, which I think is also so powerful for engagement of everybody … I mean, we can think about who we’re specifically trying to reach when we write a report, but the possibilities for who might ask what question and what might come from that I think has an amplification that is powerful and that we are hoping to unleash.
Judy Belk: I think a lot about how we can really touch and educate the beneficiaries of where our grants are supposed to hit. One of the reasons that I was so attracted to this job was, almost 20 years ago, California Wellness embraced public health research, which says that violence is indeed a public health issue. I know the idea that anyone would debate that now seems a little crazy, but it was really quite extraordinary that a foundation, and Gary Yates, who was the CEO at the time, gets a lot of credit.
That’s an important part of our legacy, and we used public education campaigns to really promote that. I mean today, it’s not the distinction I’m proud of, but we are the largest funder of gun violence prevention in the state of California. I’d much rather use those dollars somewhere else. Sometimes just plain symbolism is pretty powerful. About a week ago, I was asked to give an award to a young woman who produced a film about violence in her community, really a PSA. During that time, also, awards were given to others who were working in the fight against gun violence.
What the Violence Prevention Council did was, in cooperation with the Los Angeles police department, they had taken guns that had been confiscated throughout Los Angeles and melted them down and had given it to an artist to develop an angel out of that melted metal. It was symbolism that really said it all. Early in my career when I was at Levi Strauss, and we were concerned during the time that Sandra was providing leadership at the public health department, we were really one of the first corporate funders looking at the fight against AIDS.
We were trying, and I saw I didn’t have as much money as I had here. I mean, I had some of the best marketing people I thought in the industry, and I asked if they could develop a public service announcement. They did. They developed a public service announcement they ran in Europe targeting young people, which said, “Condoms, what to wear when you’re not wearing Levi’s.” We were able to prove that when it was shown in film houses in Europe, sales of condoms increased.
Then the other thing is using the power of the CEO. We gave … we asked Bob Haas to stand out in front of Levi’s headquarters and give out condoms. Bob Haas is very shy, but he did it, and it was really quite powerful. I’m always really thinking of how we can use anything. We recently just funded a production of Anna Deavere Smith, an artist who really has done a tremendous job in showing how art can be used for social change, her production at the Berkeley Rep really looking at the whole issue of how to break the school-to-prison pipeline.
I would say we reached a lot of folks in underwriting that would have never read the report that we did about all of the statistics. I think we all have to look at a variety of different ways and touching the audience, and you guys know more than anyone else how you can creatively do that: How can you use our voices as CEOs? How do we use boards? How do we work with grantees?
Eric Nee: I’m going to open it up to audience Q&A here in about five minutes, so get ready. Before we do that, I do want to touch on the impact of the digital age on what we’re doing. I like your term freeing the data. Historically, foundations have … communications tended to be more one-way than a two-way interaction. I mean, there are foundations that say, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” The nature of a lot of social media is to a conversation. I’m curious — it’s kind of a big question — but to what extent have you personally begun to be involved in social media, or if not personally, organization and opening the door, and what changes has that caused in the way you think about communications and also internally in how you operate when people can talk to you as easily as you can talk to them?
Grant Oliphant: If I can take that first. I remember when I was first starting out in this work, sitting in a much smaller room than this but being part of a panel where we were talking about the merits of communications, and having a CEO who was on the panel with me say with great soberness to the assembled group of 20 of us, I think, that the spouting whale gets harpooned. I had the audacity to point out that the spouting whale also breathes, but we’re way past that debate.
Social media is one of the reasons that we’re way past that debate, so whether you’re terrified by it or excited by it, it’s part of the world now. It is, of necessity, part of how we communicate. I think it’s reinventing the ways in which we think about communications in some exciting, really exciting ways. We have an initiative that actually was started under my friend Doug Root who was there at the inception of this program, and it’s a program to look at air quality in our region. We suffer from some of the worst air quality in the country that tends to concentrate in poor neighborhoods and river valleys. It’s a serious environmental justice issue as well as public health issue. We could editorialize about that till we’re blue in the face.
We tried that. We tried public messaging through traditional media. And John Ellis from my team and I, as we continue this work … one of the things that has changed this work is that we democratized the process of talking about it. What you see now is through technology that the foundation has funded, we’ve created something called the brief cam that allows citizens actually to monitor the air quality in the areas where they live and to put that up on the web, and the data becomes readily available to everybody else so it’s going way beyond tweeting. It’s going to the extent of citizens becoming catalogers of their own experience.
We see that as well with something we call breathe monitor, which is a little inexpensive device to let them track what air quality is in the community. Suddenly, we’ve taken the power equation and inverted it because what they had to do in the past was depend on government to tell them what was happening. Now suddenly you have thousands and tens of thousands of people who are telling us and telling government what’s happening. Suddenly, government begins to behave differently. To me, that’s one of the great unexplored frontiers of this work, but it goes way beyond what we typically think of as social media.
Matt James: Let me just make one quick point about social media and nonprofits and foundations. This is a true story. I was actually talking with a communications director who had gone in to talk to their boss about — and this is a conservative foundation — about getting active on Twitter and the response was, “What should I be twittering about?” That sort of, there was no real game plan, there was no nothing, but they just knew they needed to be there.
Where it is the most effective obviously is when you have people like Kate Gordon, who used to work for me at Next Generation, who could jump in real time in an issue and contribute something because of the following that she had and because of the respect in the community she had, it could turn a story that was happening in real time. That’s what Twitter can do. Similarly Larry Levitt at the Kaiser Family Foundation, who is so respected when it comes to health policy and employee health benefits in particular, is a relied upon source. There are Twitter strategies around these individuals to be able to make a difference with social media, but all too often, I think organizations are jumping into social media without really thinking through “What are we trying to do?” “How are we trying to make change?”
Judy Belk: Actually, I think that this is an area we can learn a lot from our grantees. I think they’re a lot more sophisticated and knowledgeable about it. Technology, communication, is really transforming movement-building. We recently had someone come in to talk to the board about just the violence in the communities. A board member said, “What do you think is really going to change it?” He said, “Body cams in law enforcement,” which has changed tremendously an issue that has spurred the Black Lives Matter movement. If you look at what An Inconvenient Truth has done in terms of just the knowledge about climate change or waiting for Superman, it just goes on and on. I think that in many ways, we’re a little behind, and this is where I think it would do us well to really talk to many of our grantees and community partners, and we can learn from them because I think it’s been a powerful movement building too.
Eric Nee: With that, I’d like to open it up to questions from the audience. I’m shading my eyes here since I cannot see. Does anyone have any questions right here in the middle?
Audience: For organizations that aren’t fortunate enough to have former communication people in the head of the organization, I’m wondering on some advice you might give your colleagues, and what I’m particularly interested in is the recognition of communication as being valuable, but when you get into what that actually means, shying away from it because of preconceptions about communication or fear of technology or whatever. So I would just love to hear some comments on ways for your fellow CEOs to get on board.
Eric Nee: Go ahead.
Sandra Hernandez: Let me make one observation that anytime you’re using the public resources of a philanthropic entity, the governing board wants to know what’s the value it’s going to get from any investment, whether it’s a large initiative, whether it’s staffing, whatever it is. I do think it’s important for the field to get familiar with and comfortable with the notion that there is a way to measure the value of communication and social media and the investment that an organization makes in that. I think if you simply say it’s a supportive function, or it’s a peripheral function, or it sits off at the CEO’s office, there’s a way in which that silos it, and it doesn’t get the organizational relevance and synergy that it should get. I think it’s really important.
There’s actually an article not too long ago in SSIR about thinking about how you measure the impact of communications. I think we need to get much more acumen about thinking about that in order to justify the kind of investments that we should be making, and that would make it much easier to convince an otherwise unconvinced CEO the importance of that kind of investment. The California Healthcare Foundation has probably 18 to 20 percent of its resources invested all in the range of activities that we’ve talked about today, so I do think it’s important to think about how you justify it as an important component of what it is you’re trying to do overall in your mission.
Judy Belk: I think there are two ways. One is internal accountability. I view communications much as I view, for example, financial management. Yes, I have a CFO because we need that direct expertise, but I expect everyone in the organization, every department, had to be responsible and accountable for their budget. Communication is a resource, and there’s two ways that you can integrate it. One is integrate it into your strategy, so that it’s not something over here, but as we’ve done in Cal Wellness, communications is integrated in terms of our grant-making strategy and everything you do.
The other thing you do is that you hold people accountable in terms of their performance review. Again, communication, an in-house communication team, is there to be a resource to help you, but you are also responsible. I view it just as accountability around promoting diversity and performance with HR. I mean, yes, we have an HR department, but I expect every manager and everyone in the organization to be held accountable, and then we need to be sure that folks have the resources.
Matt James: Just a couple of quick thoughts. Just as a company can’t sell a product without advertising and marketing and public relations, or a politician can’t sell an idea without communicating it to the broad [audience], that’s the same thing we’re talking about here. Communications, to me, needs to be part and parcel of a programming. Communications people are going to give you all something to take back and ask for a raise or a promotion or something.
Communications people need to be on equal level with the program managers who are inside the organizations if you want to be successful as a communications organization. Again, I’ll go back to one thing I said: every organization is a little bit different and has different reasons that they’re communicating. Some are trying to work more with their grantees and have their grantees be more effective in communication. That’s a totally valid and a different strategy than what we did at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Eric Nee: Go ahead.
Audience: Yeah, my name is Eric Kasum. I’m with the Imagine Institute. It’s a think tank on the West Coast. In the corporate world, you have venture capital so you have Steve Jobs — he’s a guy in the garage; he has a good idea. We wouldn’t have Apple without venture capital, but it seems to me that in the foundation, they’re looking for an organized group that’s been around for a long time, and it’s existed for a while. Is there such a thing as venture capital in this? If so, where is it?
Sandra Hernandez: Let me address that. The answer is yes. California HealthCare Foundation has had, for more than half a dozen years, a fund that is specifically looking for new market entrants to solve problems, whether it’s around access or consumer engagement or data analytics. It’s a program-related investment program. The foundation decided to really look for companies that were very early in their stage of development as a mechanism by which we could do two things: one was heavily influence the direction of that company’s either service or tool to aim specifically at low-income programs like Medi-Cal, or other programs that benefit the public more broadly, community health centers, FQHCs, whereas they might build a company and aim it at the for-profit side of healthcare.
We felt if we did an early investment in these companies and these teams, provided governance and early working capital to those companies, that they could in fact sometimes come in and accelerate the kinds of changes that we’re trying to see happen within the sectors that we’re working. We think it’s a very important tool. We have a board member who herself is a health VC. We put together an advisory group of VCs who are in the health space and explain to them what our mission is; how we’re trying to make an influence in the kinds of programs we’re looking for; what kind of services we’re looking at.
When they’re out there doing their work, they identify companies for us, and then we have a very thorough due diligence process. We probably got about three and half million dollars in revolving dollars today invested in early-stage companies. Board just approved a million-dollar investment, yesterday actually, into another company that’s going to come in and do population health for people with five and six chronic diseases working with a Medi-Cal insurance plan both in Southern California and Northern California.
We think it’s really important to look at where that sector can be beneficial, where they can be disruptive and where we could potentially scale it on behalf of the underserved. We’re very much in that space, and I think it is a really important tool. It is complex about how you organize it. I think the advantage that we have is we have so many VCs in the Bay Area where we exist that are mission-minded in spite of the fact that they are investing in companies for other rewards. They have a great sense of the market, and it benefits us tremendously with a relatively small staff to be able to have that kind of leverage and capability.
Patrick McCarthy: There’s two ways to take that question. There’s the “What are the PRI?” and the true venture capital being invested in breakthrough disruptive ideas, and I think that’s one side of the coin. The other side is “Are our foundations comfortable enough in providing grants to what are essentially start-up, nonprofits, who are working in the field not on the PRI side now but actually on the grants?”
We periodically will hire an outside group who will call congressional staff members and say on a particular issue, “Who are the five organizations that you’re most likely to contact when this issue comes before your committee?” If the folks we’re funding are in that top five, we think we’re making smart choices, right?
At the same time though, in the last few years, there are at least five examples I can think of new organizations that started that took over a space or a niche that had not yet been there, at least we had not invested in it. We made a bet on the people, which I think is sort of the VC mantra. We knew the individual or group of individuals who are spinning off from having done something else, and even though we have our kind of blue-chip that we have deliberately, and with pride, invested in year after year after year after year because they are the best at it; they’re influential; they’re always at a simmer. If an issue comes up, we can bring it to a boil. We have also invested in some new organizations because they bring a different diversity or a different voice or a different perspective, and we’ve made some good bets and some bad bets, but that’s the other side of the being willing to take a venture risk as a philanthropist.
Eric Nee: Do we have another question now? Yes?
Audience: Yeah. Thanks very much, very interesting. My name is James. I work for UNICEF in Kenya. This question may not be appropriate to everyone in the room, but I traveled furthest so just indulge me for 30 seconds. So big-picture problems in the world — Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, migration — while I understand Mr. Trump has a solution to most of these things, for the rest of us, they’re difficult, and there’s a lot of fatigue out there.
We heard this morning — I thought it was really well captured — the idea that you tell a story of one and you gain people, and if you tell the statistic of thousands, you lose them, but at the same time, there’s a geographical proximity that really engages people, so Nick Kristof writes on Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying campaign and gets a huge following. He writes on war crimes in South Sudan, not so much. I’m interested if any of you have ideas on how to address this kind of compassion fatigue among the public, among the media and so on. Thank you.
Grant Oliphant: This is such a profound question, and if you go to the second of my notion of the three things that foundations do well when we use our power well, awakening empathy is a process that is never ending. I don’t think you get to tell the story of one once. We have to keep repeatedly telling it. Keep repeating in a way that you find new stories, new ways to tell it. I’m very, very taken by the work that the Haas foundation did on marriage equality. If you think about how they reframed that issue at a point when everybody thought that that fight was going to be lost, at least for the foreseeable future, when they reframed it around love, suddenly we began to see movement on that issue.
Why is that important? Because what happened in that moment was people who couldn’t see themselves in the gay marriage debate could see themselves in a love frame. It’s easy to dismiss that as sort of a feel-good way of looking at a problem, and not everything can be framed in such a basic universal human principle as love, or maybe it can. I think part of what we’re battling right now on almost every front in the social-issue, social-change world is fatigue, and there’s a tendency to feel this is the worst and most challenging of all possible times in human history.
If you go back and study human history, some pretty bad stuff has happened before. Maybe what we can learn is that we have to go back to first principles. Part of my answer that I would’ve given to the gentleman around the question of innovation is — and I’m a huge believer in risk capital and investing in innovation and finding new ways of doing things — it’s also important to go back to first principles, like what we’re trying to do is remind people that there are other real human beings who are not unlike them so that we don’t fall into the trap of being cynical about them, or seeing them as unlike ourselves, and so that we can begin to imagine ways of solving problems that will solve problems they’re facing but also help us.
Judy Belk: I think the only thing I would say is probably, in retrospect, that it probably would’ve been helpful also to have on the panel a funder who has an active role in the global role. In fact, this is the first job I’ve had where I haven’t had some global responsibility.
Once you experience the interconnectedness of what I call borderless issues, whether it’s poverty or whether it’s health issues, it’s really hard to look at it really differently. I still think that one of the great competencies of communication folks is also having a global perspective. One of the questions I always ask when I’m hiring is “Do you have a passport?” because one, a perfect example in California as other states, we’ve been dealing with a flood of unaccompanied minors.
Dealing with their needs as they came off the border is one thing, but I think understanding why parents would put their young children through such trauma really is an understanding of where these young people were coming from and understanding what’s happening. I think we could, those of us who are promoting public health can, learn a lot from what’s happening in Cuba. It doesn’t matter if we think we have our act together in terms of air quality, if the border is set, we share on it. I guess it would just put a pitch into, even though we give primarily only in health, that we have to also increase our understanding about how this world we are in is getting smaller and smaller, and a lot of it has to do with communication and being able to see images around the world.
Matt James: Because I can actually see how much time we have, I’ll give you the shortest possible answer in this. I did about 10 years of work on global HIV-AIDS with the Kaiser Family Foundation, so we did a lot of that kind of work. I’ll tell you the one thing I walked away with, because we have problems in this world and then you go see what’s going on in Africa in places like this, and you realize, it’s so much deeper, and it’s so much harder, but aspirational messages do work. People want hope. People want to know that there are solutions. They don’t want to just hear about problems. We spend a lot of time because we worry about these problems , talking about how big and how deep they are, but if you can give people, through communications, hope and opportunity, and they can feel that there really is a solution they can do particularly at the local level, I believe it can make a big difference.
Eric Nee: Yeah, and I would just add to that. There is a real wide interest in this around the world. Forty percent of the people who come to read articles at our website are from outside the US, India, Brazil, China, Korea. We’re seeing a huge interest from people around the world in these very same topics we’re talking about. It’s not just sort of the US reaching out; it also goes both ways, which I find really encouraging. With that, we’re at the end of our time, and I want to be respectful of people’s break time so …
Judy Belk: Can I just say one more thing? I just want to put out that we are looking, at Cal Wellness, for a vice president of public affairs.
One of the criteria is, can you follow instructions? Do not send me your resume. The job will, if you’re interested or you know someone, the job will be posted on our website either tomorrow or Monday. The job will be based in either San Francisco or LA, and I heard that the boss is just amazing.