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Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace


It’s hard to work in this field and not be impressed by the passion and commitment of the people who are responsible for using communications to help advance their foundations’ work as well as helping promote greater understanding of what their organizations are trying to accomplish.  That’s also why it continues to be so puzzling — if not confounding, even frustrating — that, despite all this effort, the full story of philanthropy still remains a mystery to so many.

So if it’s not for a lack of trying, what is it?

Some observers say part of the problem stems from the reluctance of foundations to go beyond the numbers — i.e. how many grants, how much and to whom. What’s missing, they say, are stories of impact.  As Jane Wales, Vice President, Philanthropy and Society of the Aspen Institute, recently noted in the Huffington Post, “…It is deep within the culture of most private foundations to shun the spotlight and instead direct attention to the issues that concern them or the grantees they support.”

While I disagree with Wales that most foundations want to shun the spotlight, the argument becomes academic (and somewhat pointless) when faced with survey data that my friend Mark Sedway, Project Director, Philahthropy
Awareness Initiative
, frequently cites. Sedway, who recently sat down with Communications Network contributor Susan Herr for a video chat, says that, among other things: “Philanthropy faces an awareness deficit among the most engaged citizens. Only four in ten can name a foundation. Only one in ten can identify a foundation’s impact on an issue they care about. We’d expect those on the frontlines of community improvement to know something about foundations that exist to support their work. Most do not.”

To help shrink the size of the awareness deficit, Sedway cites six areas of communications and outreach that need improvement:

  • greater urgency about the need
  • better targeting of influentials
  • sharper messages about value
  • stronger stories of impact
  • more ambassadors mobilized
  • better connections made

Among the points on Sedway’s list, increasingly he argues that we need to mobilize more ambassadors, and in particular, foundation leadership and trustees.  Yet, that’s easier said than done. In other words, if you work in communications for a foundation, how do you get your boss to be more vocal — and take more responsibility — for telling your organization’s story? What will it take to light a fire under them?

Do you know? Do you have good examples, or ideas?  If so, let’s start sharing them, or least get a conversation going about what we can do. Send them to info@comnetwork.org, and we’ll post them here and on our website. Or just leave a comment on our blog.

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