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Hands Across the Ocean, Part 1

The title of this post has more to do with thinking wishfully about the possibility of developing working relationships with our European foundation colleagues than any planned series – at least for the moment – on this topic.  But after attending a recent meeting in Brussels, I believe there’s an opportunity for practitioners here and in Europe to begin working together and learning from each other about ways we all can more fully integrate communications into foundation work, to collectively demonstrate the important role communications can play in advancing philanthropy, and similarly reap the rewards of more effective foundation communications practices on both sides of the Atlantic.

Before that can happen, European foundation communicators have to follow through with a plan, just in its infancy, to start talking to each other more routinely as well as to begin regularly sharing information with one another more than they do now about the work they’re doing, challenges they face in doing it, and how they can as a group address common challenges that can make them all more successful.

Up until now, what sharing that takes place among foundation communicators in Europe is very informal and limited to conversations among practitioners within their respective countries. There’s been no effort to document effective practices or create some kind of clearinghouse for collecting and disseminating what’s being learned.

The effort to formalize information sharing among European foundation communicators, however, got a kick start earlier this week from Michael Schwarz, who heads communications for the Stuttgart, Germany-based foundation, Robert Bosch Stiftung, and his colleague, Triona
Keaveney, who serves on the communications staff of the European Foundation Center. The pair organized a meeting of what they dubbed the European Network of Foundation Communications Professionals.

Billed as an exploratory gathering to see if there is a will and desire to create some sort of structure and system to allow foundation communicators to learn from each other about effective practices, the gathering fittingly coincided with the start of Foundation Week. The first of its kind, the European-wide, week-long event was designed to bring more attention to the work being done by and foundations throughout Europe.

To lay the groundwork for the Foundation Communications Professionals meeting, Schwartz and Keaveney have been have been talking up the idea of such a group for the past year. Their desire to push for more information sharing was borne both out of optimism – the recognition that tapping the brain power of lots of smart and experienced people can only help individual foundation communicators in their daily work – as well as the frustrations many foundation communicators who attended the meeting feel about the challenges of doing their jobs effectively because of some questions about their role and value – and exactly what they do – within their organizations.

None of the issues raised at the meeting should surprise foundation communicators in the U.S. – everything from frustrations over being invited into discussions with program colleagues about promoting initiatives after they’ve been designed; the occasional challenge of having to convince colleagues and leadership that not every program or grant merits a news release, or worse yet, a press briefing; whether producing costly annual reports make good communications as well as financial sense; proper role for communications staff in helping advance policy work; and more recently, how to effectively deploy social media.

It didn’t take much conversation, though, for the group to conclude that an alliance of foundation communicators could help advance practice across Europe. Like those of us who have been affiliated with the Communications Network, which has been operating as a meeting place and information clearinghouse for foundation communications professionals in the U.S. and Canada for more than 20 years, our colleagues in Europe also believe that by tapping into the knowledge of their counterparts within their respective countries and throughout the entire European Union, they can break the feelings of isolation many of them feel; bring more attention to the importance of using communications to advance the missions of foundations; elevate their own roles internally; and, as an important byproduct, also work together to enlighten a relatively uninformed  European public about what foundations do.

About that last point, it was ironic to discover that what the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative in the U.S. calls an “awareness deficit” – the general lack of knowledge, mostly among American “influentials,” about what foundations are and what they do – is something also afflicting European foundations.  As the European Foundation Center acknowledged in some of its program materials, this lack of awareness is somewhat more widespread there.

In fact, one of the purposes of Foundation Week was to address what organizers describe as an “absence from the public radar” of foundations, which is attributed to “a tendency among foundations to place an emphasis on their work rather than developing a high profile in the public arena.”

One little-known fact I learned is that there are said to be some 110,000 foundations in Europe that are collectively responsible for spending between $100 billion and $180 billion annually.

It is heartening to see foundations in Europe wanting to address the public’s lack of knowledge of what they do and they impact they have, and clearly any group that is formed to elevate communications practices can only further that goal as well as advance the missions of the individual organizations taking part.

But it’s also exciting to think that if our European friends succeed in creating a network for information sharing and exchange for their own purposes, we here also can benefit. Surely the more exposure we have to different communications practices, done either for similar or different reasons than our own, along with the additional knowledge and different perspectives this offers, plus what lessons and information we contribute, will help expand the kinds of knowledge that communications practitioners everywhere can use.

The individual and collective advantages that provides can surely help everyone get better at their work.

And if that happens, then practice of philanthropy will flourish ever more.

–Bruce Trachtenberg


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