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Foundation Funds Bank With Success Stories

It’s Sandria Clark who holds your interest from the very first minute of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation’s video, “Community Works: The NOVA Model of Workforce Development.” It’s not just Clark’s deeply contented smile that hooks you, it’s the joy in her voice. “I’ll tell it from the rooftops” she says, “this is the place to start.”  She’s talking about the employment program that is the nominal topic of the video, and it’s an interesting program demonstrating impressive success, but it’s Clark’s emotions that stay with you.  The video is storytelling done beautifully, evoking empathy that inspires action.  Whether the video will be used to convey MRBF’s mission, to pitch to a corporation, or as a marketing piece that increases a grantee program’s visibility, it will deliver a powerfully emotional message.

“Community Works” is one of several that comprise the foundation’s Story Bank, which MRBF created in 2012 to share grantee successes. The Story Bank’s design and implementation is itself a foundation success story, but of another kind: a first-rate program and communications collaboration.

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MRBF staff had been kicking around ways to tell stories about its grantees for some time – and even before it hired its first communications director, Lora Smith.  It was the program officers who knew they needed a way to dynamically showcase the quantitative and qualitative impact grantee partners were having in their communities. The idea for what would become the MRBF Story Bank initiative, as well as a new focus on integrating communications into the organization’s grantmaking, were part of MRBF’s 2010 mid-course review of a 10-year strategic plan.

To get there MRBF created a new communications officer position.  One message then Executive Director Gayle Williams heard loud and clear as she began thinking about what role that new person should play is that sometimes program staff and communications staff can get stuck in silos and walled off from one another. Therefore, the communications officer position was designed to be fully integrated into the program team. As a member of this team, Smith reads all grant proposals, takes part in all program team meetings and accompanies program officers on some site visits. She also spends one-on-one time with individual program officers to set communications priorities for their work with grantees.

“I’m at the table when our program strategy is being outlined and when grantee funding decisions are made, “ says Smith, “there is a fluidity in the way I work and collaborate with our program officers.”  MRBF’s current Executive Director, David Jackson, concurs. “Effective communications is a big part of our strategy to help move people and places,” he says. “We do not think of communications as an ‘add on’ or as something separate from our core work.  We see it as a strategic tool that accelerates our efforts.”

Smith joined the staff in July of 2011 and set about building MRBF’s strategic communications capacity. Her background in documentary storytelling turned out to be a big help – and so in 2012 the MRBF Story Bank, showcasing “voices of southern opportunity and equity,” was born.

The videos in this integrated communications/program strategy are starting to show promising results.  For example, MRBF’s video featuring Clark and her family was used by their grantee partner NOVA to successfully raise corporate funds and create new partnerships within their local business community.

Another video, Sustaining Hope, is about the ongoing recovery work taking place along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  To extend its reach, Smith worked with grantees featured in the video to develop a media plan around the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, including creating a digital press kit.

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As Smith and her colleagues are learning, some stories take extra care to work as videos. Smith notes that one of the challenges in creating the video entitled “Investing in Opportunity: Southern CDFIs” was: “How do you craft a human story out of something as complicated as a Community Development Financial Institution? Banking isn’t exactly the most relatable story.” Smith and her team decided to focus on simple narratives about two people who benefited from the intiative: one found affordable housing and the other received a business loan. The final product is now used by the grantee partners at conferences and also is tied to a CDFI learning paper.

Gladys Washington, MRBF’s program director, says she is always interested in ways to build grantee capacity beyond grantmaking.  “MRBF’s Story Bank and videos provide our grantee partners with a communications tool they can use to advocate and fundraise, “ she says. “In this way the videos can help bring new funding partners to the table.”

When asked to share insights learned from her experience in communications, as well as her filmmaking background Smith says it’s important to focus on relationships and collaborate. In the pre-production phase of a video, she focuses the majority of her energy and time collaborating with the featured grantee partner. “I want to make sure the video is going to fit with needs they have and that we are working with the very best storyline,” she says. “Identifying dynamic storylines and finding the right people to be featured in a video takes time, but the clearer you are on the front end the more efficiently you can work on location and in post-production.

MRBF’s Story Bank is one of many terrific examples of Communications Network members’ video storytelling efforts.  We’d love to see examples of your favorites in the comments.  Or send us an email telling us about your own communications/program collaboration. We’d like to hear from you!



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