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Ich Bin Ein Communicator?

A special Philanthropy411 blogging team covered last week’s Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference in New Orleans. This is a guest post by Bill Wright, Vice President, Outreach and Advocacy at America’s Promise Alliance.  Follow along on twitter – @americaspromise or @APA_wright.

How many people at your organization and your grantees would feel justified in saying, “I’m a communicator”?

The last two years of the Fall conference has made me think about that question a number of times.  While I have no idea what the answer is, what’s encouraging is that more and more people are aiming to make that statement.

One session that approached expanding communication capacity last year was a great breakout called “Can Foundations Train Their Grantees to Be Effective Communicators?” Leading it were two people from the Hewlett Foundation, communications director Eric Brown and performing arts program officer Julie Fry.  As Eric pointed out in his introduction, the foundation had for years provided its grantees communications strategy training.  The problem: it didn’t know if this program did any good.

After an evaluation demonstrated how to improve the training, the foundation developed a simple set of tools that generated illuminating data its program officers can use to monitor and evaluate their grantees’ communications strategies. In the session, Eric and Julie offered a case study of how a program officer, a grantee and a methodology came together to integrate communications into program evaluation.bwright

At the end of this year’s conference, another breakout examined how to make more people strong communicators. “Transformative Capacity Building Models: Strengthening Grantee Communications Skills Beyond Funding” featured a first-rate lineup: Michael Hoffman of See3; , author and trainer Beth Kanter; Eva Penar from The Chicago Community Trust; and Farra Trompeter of Big Duck. They discussed a range of techniques for building communications capacity, including management assistance programs, peer-learning cohorts, train-the-trainers and grant-supported training.

One particularly valuable part of this session was how it considered how to make sure these efforts pay lasting benefits. For example, Farra noted that the person who gets training might leave the organization, so they have insisted on having two people from grantees attend, so that the knowledge survives any single departure. Michael pointed out one great way to offset the reluctance of program staff to participate in communications training: align the training with ongoing program initiatives.

But it wasn’t just these two sessions were encouraging signs of a commitment to extending communications skill past the communications department. Other breakouts shows multiple examples of how communications staff are working to connect, early and often, with program officers and grantees.

The many sessions that centered on social media made a similar point about how everyone can be a communicator.  Because of the ease of contributing to the dialogue online, especially through Twitter, the opportunities for program staff to support outreach efforts have never been greater. And like so many things, once program staff get involved – both posting and reading responses – they’re much more likely to appreciate the importance of communications.

There’s still lots of room for improvement, both for how program officers communicate and how communications staff work with program officers.  But it’s exciting to see that both groups are converging, moving towards having all people in an organization able to communicate the power of its work.

In case you’re wondering, John F. Kennedy did not say, in fact, that he was a jelly donut in 1963 when he used a variation of that construction in Berlin: Ich bin ein Berliner.  Since he was speaking figuratively, he was grammatically correct.


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