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Communicating In Times of Change

Guest Post: Stefan Lanfer

We are in the midst of a period of change at the Barr Foundation. This has gotten me thinking about communications in times of change, knowing how the prospect of change at any foundation can be anxiety producing for its grantees and other partners.

I have also been reflecting on the last time Barr went through a major strategic change and wondering what lessons might be relevant for us today.

News of change at Barr broke last fall, when Daniel Silverman and Brian Eule of The James Irvine Foundation and I worked together to announce that their president and CEO, Jim Canales, would be stepping down to become president and trustee of the Barr Foundation. It was a terrific, bi-coastal Communications Network team effort.

In early conversations with me and my colleagues, Jim has indicated that, when he officially starts this May, he will lead us through a period of reflection about our work-to-date, our core values and views about effective philanthropy, and our priorities and aspirations for Barr’s future growth. In thinking about communications around this process, I have been mulling two different images, crudely rendered by my PowerPoint cartoons below.

The first is what I know we want to communicate, by word and by deed:


The second image is what we don’t want:

sl2I have also been thinking back to the year 2010, when Barr transitioned from having a very broad environmental program to one focused on climate change. Three years later, in our most recent grantee perception survey, Barr’s climate program received some of our most positive ratings on the communications measures.

What did we do right?

We certainly worked hard to get our language as clear as we could on our website, in talking points, and in visuals depicting the new strategy. Yet, in hindsight, I think three things we did helped us speak more clearly than anything else about the trust, respect, and partnership we value so much with our grantees:

  1. We carefully considered impact on every grantee. Program officers looked at every active grantee and segmented them into those they felt confident would continue receiving support, those that might with some transition support, and those that would not. For that last group, program officers evaluated when their grants were up and customized plans for exit grants, to build time to replace Barr funding.
  2. We took the message face to face. After this analysis, program officers held individual meetings with every grantee to talk about the new strategy, invite feedback, and share our plans for them. We wanted grantees to hear the news first from us, not from the Boston Globe. One benefit – when the Globe article did appear, it even included a quote from a grantee who, despite expecting to lose support, expressed understanding and validation of the new direction.
  3. We invited feedback many times and many ways. After those individual meetings, the climate team also convened all of their grantees for conversations about the new strategy, to invite their ideas, to discuss the various roles we saw them playing, and to give them opportunities to connect and leverage each other’s work.

As we enter into this new chapter at the Barr Foundation, we will aim to build upon these lessons. We are also eager to learn from others who have been down this path before. To that end, we hope to tap the wisdom of this network for other lessons learned and pitfalls to avoid when communicating in times of change. We look forward to learning from you.

Stefan Lanfer (@stefanlanfer) is knowledge officer at The Barr Foundation,


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