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Communication Matters


  • Communication Matters is The Communications Network’s newly-released research project—drawing on the experience of over 500 people, it the most comprehensive research of its kind.
  • The challenge is not getting people to understand the value of communications, but rather is to define effective practices for the nonprofit sector and do them.
  • Effective communications rests on the four pillars of Brand, Culture, Strategy, and Action.

The Communications Network has launched, the result of a year-long research project on effective practices. And they want you to contribute your insight.

Communicators! Your colleagues on the program side or in the executive office appreciate your talents and the value of communications better than you might think. What’s more, they want to learn from you how to create social change.

That’s one of the findings of Communication Matters, a year-long research project undertaken by The Communications Network, to get at the what makes for effective communications and how nonprofits and foundations can do it better.

“This is the most comprehensive research project of its kind,” says David Brotherton, who, along with Cynthia Scheiderer, surveyed, interviewed or did online focus groups with over 500 people from across communications, program, executive, and board roles. “What we found represents the collected wisdom of the nonprofit and philanthropic field.”

Communication Matters Research Results

“What found that the principles of effective communications are remarkably consistent across different kinds of organizations,” says Brotherton. “Big or small. Nonprofits or foundations. Community foundations or historically endowed foundations.”

The framework the research team created in order to encompass their findings describes four “pillars” of effective communications. Within each pillar is a series of attributes, as follows:

  • Brand: Three key assets that shape organizational identity: resources, reputation and relationships.
  • Culture: The qualities that make a group’s work compelling to others—namely that they are transparent, inclusive, respectful, and self-aware.
  • Strategy: Being deliberate and intentional in determining goals, audiences, point of view, messengers, and channels.
  • Action: A continuous process of listening, learning and then sharing content.

“Every organization has these pillars and attributes,” says Brotherton. “It’s just a matter of how well you exhibit them.”

The Communication Matters website describes the overarching model, as well as each of the pillars and attributes. The web page for each attribute expands to include case studies on the attribute in action, quotes from survey respondents and other insight from the research. Also on the website is a complete breakdown of the survey results. A section on “Thinking” provides a space for ongoing discussion about effective communications.

How to Use the Site in Your Organization

“People across job functions genuinely understand the value of communications,” Brotherton emphasizes. “That’s not the problem. The problem—or the opportunity, really—is actually doing more effective communications.”

The online presentation of the research findings was designed, Brotherton says, to promote the “doing.” Some ways he and co-researcher Cynthia Scheiderer imagine it being put to use:

  • Teaching tool to orient newcomers and junior staff to the principles of effective communications in philanthropy.
  • Starting point for a peer-to-peer conversation with program colleagues on how to collaborate.
  • Context for board members who request resources for communications.
  • Tool to assess how well a communications effort will resonate based on the attributes the model identifies.

“If you want to get buy-in on a particular communications project from, say, your CEO,” Brotherton explains, “you’ll see on the website a handful of quotes from other CEOs about how communications helped them. Or a half-dozen case studies of similar projects that worked. It’s evidence at your fingertips.”

“This site will be as relevant as the Network membership want to make of it over time,” Brotherton says. He encourages Network members and others to explore the site—“I think each visitor will find some treasures on there for their own work”—and, if inspired, share their own insights with The Network’s Executive Director Sean Gibbons.

Emily Culbertson - Emily headshotEmily Culbertson advises foundations and nonprofit organizations on developing and executing web strategies, hiring web firms, and managing web projects. She also assists Chicago’s Community Media Workshop in examining the future of local news.




Paul VanDeCarr squarePaul VanDeCarr is the managing director of Working Narratives, an organization using storytelling to advance social justice.


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