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The Time Is Ripe for Foundations to Better Communicate With the Public

(Originally published as an op-ed in the May 7, 2009 edition of the Chronicle of Philanthropy)

America’s foundations are facing some tough choices in the wake of declining assets. Unlike any other time in their history, foundations, which never have had unlimited funds at their disposal, are grappling with how to do as much (or nearly as much) as they once did, but with less.

As foundations look to trim costs and get maximum mileage out of all their assets, conditions are tailor-made for them to make even better use of their increasingly sophisticated communications expertise.

Over the past two decades, foundations have become better and better at communications. Activities that once involved little more than publishing annual reports, grants lists, and the occasional press release have become far more complex and comprehensive. Foundations are stepping up their Web presence; adding social networking; and presenting their work and their issues via YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

Communications professionals who work at or for foundations today have deep knowledge of how to create and deliver messages, how to reinforce a foundation’s image and mission, and how to apply digital technology and social-networking tools to help foundations further their missions.

This growth in communications expertise and enhanced — or strategic — approaches is the result of a desire by foundations to demonstrate the results of their philanthropic efforts, a wish to be more open, and a need to respond to increasing scrutiny from policy makers and journalists who are demanding proof that foundations deliver value to American society. In many ways, communications are now a key element of the work of foundations. That’s because, by and large, foundations are in the business of advancing social change. And change can’t come about through grant making alone. Rather, the kinds of changes that foundations seek to foster also involve demonstrating and sharing new solutions to challenging problems. In addition, they involve encouraging both government and private investments in effective approaches to delivering services. Or helping to create the public will to do things differently — whether and how young people are educated, diseases are attacked, or arts are presented in communities.

Simply put, effective communications techniques have the power to influence thinking, motivate action, and create the desire among key decision makers to take important steps designed to improve our society and world. In today’s turbulent times, when people are actively searching for ways out of the mess we find ourselves in, foundations have much to contribute to a national discussion about the steps we must take — and are taking — to solve the many problems we face.

At a time when foundations are trying to do more with less, these practices can and should help foundations:

  • Create connections between foundations and the people they want to reach. Foundations must be aggressive in reaching out to a range of people who are in positions to build or act on the work they are doing. Foundations must think strategically about whom they need to reach and how. They must employ all the tools at their disposal — like print and online communications, face-to-face meetings and conferences — and must monitor and assess their work to ensure the right people are being reached and messages are being received and responded to.
  • Put the human face on foundation work. Reading stories about people whose lives have been touched through foundation-supported efforts delivers far more impact than poring through dry background papers, academic evaluation summaries, or lengthy grants lists. Foundation work is about improving lives, and the more that others can see examples of that for themselves in print or online, the more they will be motivated to ask additional questions, seek more information, and explore ways they can tap into or build on that work.
  • Extend the work of a foundation beyond its individual grants. Grants are often made to achieve results in a particular place or in specific fields. When communications and program staff members work together to figure out what lessons a foundation has learned that are worth sharing with others, they can advance overall knowledge about the effectiveness of particular approaches, thus increasing the return from the foundation’s grant making.
  • Lead foundations into the brave new world of digital communications. Many foundations are embracing new communication methods — including interactive Web sites, podcasts, blogs, wikis, and social-networking tools. Early evidence suggests that those are extending and enhancing the ability to communicate more effectively with a range of audiences. But the more important finding is that we are just on the cusp of the real promise the technology offers. Now is not the time to be timid but to move aggressively into making the fullest use possible of these new forms of communications to help foster a greater public understanding of the value and impact of philanthropy. By effectively communicating about the work of individual foundations, the awareness that follows not only helps that particular organization but it also creates interest and ready audiences for information from other foundations that are similarly engaged in advancing social change.

So, in an era of shrinking resources, when all of us are being asked to do more with less, most communications professionals, if not all, might actually say their challenge is a little different. Rather than stretching limited resources, their role is to complement the grant making already under way in foundations and amortize those investments by creating connections, showcasing successes, demonstrating solutions, and inspiring others to take similar action.

Of course, some people might argue that communicating actively invites more foundation scrutiny — especially in perilous economic times like these. Maybe so, but the simple fact is that foundations are coming under plenty of scrutiny already. For that reason, it’s better for foundations to describe their work in their own terms rather than to let someone else do it for them. Additionally the benefits that accrue to foundations that use communications strategically far outweigh whatever risks might come from operating more openly and inviting people to pay attention.

Simply put, a thoughtful, well-executed communications plan can help create a sense of optimism about what’s possible. It can bring together more people in common purpose and for the common good. And it can lead to greater results that translate into a better society for all. In other words, communications can help philanthropy deliver on its promise.


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