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Does the Size of Your Communications Department Matter?

Guest Post: Minna Jung, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Vice Chair, Communications Network

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve worked at three foundations:  the first, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, had a communications team of three people (and I was very fortunate to work for the amazing Joanne Edgar there, one of the founders of this Network).  The second, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has a communications department that averaged about 40 people during my time there, and is well-known in the philanthropic sector because of how Frank Karel, the former vice president of communications at RWJF, built a communications department which was fully integrated with program and evaluation and other organizational functions.   The third, my current job, is at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, where I work on a team of four people.  Including me.

So going from small to big to small again has led a number of people to ask me:  how’s it going?  Can you talk about the differences between a robustly staffed and well-resourced communications department and one that puts more emphasis on DIY?  And of course, I get asked:  which one’s better?

I haven’t really wanted to take on these questions before now.  But two things prompted me to write this piece:  one, there was quite a bit of feedback from last year’s Network conference about how the discussions seemed to be dominated by big, private foundations with lots of communications resources, so these conversations therefore felt less relevant for smaller foundations with smaller teams.  I get that sentiment:  if you’re a one-person communications team at a small local community foundation and you’re kind of expected to do everything yourself, hearing a big foundation moan about the difficulties of managing consultants can come off as a little…I don’t know, insensitive?  Out-to-lunch?   So I do want the Network to be a mirror for large and small communications shops.  And two, I wanted to spend some time in the job I’ve got now before I started down the possibly foolish path of comparisons.  But here are the major points I would observe about big versus small communications departments:

Big communications departments and big communications budgets usually mean that you can take on big communications challenges.  At RWJF, I was able to develop and manage a comm unications operation that was mack-daddy in scale and ambition, and that was just on one of the issues RWJF works on, quality and disparities in health care.  It was fun to be able to think that big.  On some days, it felt like a nightmare to manage, but I was lucky enough to hire armies of talented consultants to help out.  And RWJF offered other resources to grantees having to do with building their communications skills and supporting their efforts to reach out to policy-makers.  On any given day, it felt like a pretty rich array of resources.

On the other hand, small communications teams means DIY on strategy AND execution, and that’s not a bad thing.  Seriously, given the numerous communications firms and consultants I worked with while I was at RWJF, I sometimes wondered if I still had the skills to write a communications plan, message platform, op-ed, etc.  And since coming to Packard, I’ve had to do all that, alongside my very talented team members, and I find myself….enjoying that piece of it.  I’ve always liked the doing as well as the managing, and I think it actually helps the managing if you also remember how to do.

The size of a foundation’s communications department is usually a decent indicator of how committed the organization is to communications, especially as a critical element of social change.   It means that the organization understands the myriad ways a communications team can add value to a foundation’s work—internally, externally, and as a part of the grantmaking/programming.  A small communications team can mean, well, this foundation hasn’t really figured out communications yet.  Or, even worse, it doesn’t care.

On the other hand, small communications teams can be sometimes be nimble and opportunistic in ways that large communications teams can’t.  Because large organizations usually come with a lot more process and policies than small ones do. My team and I have a lot of latitude to come up with ideas and run with them here.  We are not being slotted into a vision of how we must interact with all sorts of different communications functions, because we’re the ones creating that vision.

In big or small communications departments, it’s possible to have the communications team play a central role in organizational and program-related strategies.  But in small communications departments, there is clearly less bandwidth for the team to do everything—internal and external communications for the organization, brand management, web site, media relations, policy-maker outreach, social media, and add program-specific work on top of all that.

But in general, size of the communications department doesn’t matter as much as the organization itself, and what it does.  I could work within a very large or very small communications team quite happily, as long as I liked the organization itself, the people I work with, and I cared passionately about the issues at hand.  And that, to me, is the best thing about being a communications professional in philanthropy—so far with my three foundation jobs, those things have come true.

Minna Jung is communications director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and vice chair of the Communications Network.


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