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Making the Case for Making the Case


I had the privilege last week of leading a session at the Council on Foundations annual conference on the topic When Program and Communications are Integrated, Good Things Happen for Foundations. It was heartening to see that our session attracted  communications professionals as well as those who hold program and executive management positions at foundations. Those individuals responsible for grantmaking or overall foundation management were as engaged in the discussion and as supportive of the ideas being bandied about as their communications colleagues.

Credit for making a convincing case that grantmaking alone won’t get the job done and that communications can play a key role too in advancing a foundation’s goals goes to the session’s two presenters: Julio Marcial, a program director at the California Wellness Foundation, and Marc Fest, vice president of communications, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

During his presentation, Marcial described how a modest, five-figure investment seeded a successful campaign, spearheaded by the United Coalition East Prevention Project, to pressure Los Angeles city and school officials to come to the aid of nearly 1,000 children and youth living on the streets or in temporary shelter.  Foundation support enabled Franklin Arburtha, 14-years-old at the time, to bring attention to a video, We’re Not Bad Kids (later excerpted on CNN and the Today Show), that he shot to document what life was like for young people who call LA’s skid row their home. In addition, Arburtha and 10 of his friends, with help from a Loyola Marymount University researcher, conducted a survey that further revealed the plight of these neglected youth. In the face of public outcry and extensive media coverage that followed the release of the video and survey, the Los Angeles city council and school district hired additional counselors to work with the homeless youth, beefed up security at local playgrounds to prevent them from falling prey to drug dealers and sexual predators, and took other steps to protect their welfare.

Marc Fest talked about how actively engaging people outside foundations–what he called “tapping the global brain”–can help inform, further, and strengthen the work that grantmakers do. He discussed how Knight Foundation’s use of social media-creating and managing online communities, encouraging and assisting staff to blog, and maintaining a presence on Twitter-helps connect the foundation with people who have ideas worth funding, keeps program staff informed of developments in their field, builds allies and supporters for the foundation’s work, and creates ready audiences for what it is learning.

As an example of how Knight taps into external networks, he told how the foundation used Twitter to solicit input for upcoming testimony that Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibarguen was planning for a Congressional hearing on the future of news. The foundation “tweeted”:

@knightfdn Pres Alberto @ibarguen: ‘I’ve been asked to testify before a Senate committee on #futureofnews. What would you say?’

To close the loop, that Tweet was followed one more after the hearing:

@knightfdn: Read @ibarguen‘s speech and comment: http://is.gd/xiJG

It’s nice to see good things happen for foundations from the convergence of communications and program efforts. But then, again, the real beneficiaries aren’t the foundations, are they? It’s the people and causes they’re supporting.

–Bruce Trachtenberg

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