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Communicating for Impact Means You Can’t Stay In the Background

Foundations routinely do a very good job publishing reports, monographs, bulletins and the like that provide thoughtful overviews of their work and how they approach it. Mostly, though, these publications focus on or are limited to discussions of program activities. The recently published 13th volume of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation anthology series, To Improve Health and Health Care, certainly scores on that point.  But for communications practitioners, this volume of the anthology contains a must-read chapter written by Fred Mann, RWJF assistant vice president for communications, and  David Morse, vice president for communications.

In their nearly 20-page essay, Mann and Morse outline the foundation’s approach to strategic communications, and notably discuss how it has changed considerably over the past several years.  The foundation’s original model, was created by Frank Karel, who served as communications chief for the foundation two different times, and who described it as “activities creating information and effecting the exchange of information tailored to foster relationships and actions crucial to advancing the Foundation’s mission and goals.” As part of that approach, the foundation typically stayed in the background and communicated its work through its grantees.

“The days of the low Foundation profile—of hiding our light under a bushel—are gone for us because they have to be gone,” Mann and Morse write. “We can best aid in the accomplishment of our targeted, policy-change goals through speaking out directly and collaboratively, not staying in the background anymore. We are far from mastering this new on-stage role. Sometimes we are not aggressive enough in getting our messages out. Sometimes our internal processes slow us down and we miss opportunities to have an impact. Sometimes we still get tangled up with grantees who are not quite singing the same song we are. But in general we think our updating of the communications model takes us in the right direction—a direction of which Frank Karel would approve. It’s a model that fits the needs and the goals of the modern Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—even if it doesn’t always fit with quiet foundation culture and our inherent modesty and wonkiness.”

While this change to how the foundation approaches communications didn’t occur formally until 2003, after Risa Lavizzo-Mourey assumed the presidency of RWJF, the authors note the groundwork was laid even earlier by then-president Steven Schroeder who believed “that speaking indirectly through many grantees who themselves have different objectives made it more difficult for the foundation to ‘influence the policy process’ and that ’we pay a price in the potential attenuation of policy leverage.’”

 The current approach to communications is aligned with RWJF’s Impact Framework, “which organizes the foundation’s philanthropic investments through a set of diversified portfolios, much like those of mutual funds, to meet short-term, medium-term and long-term goals.” The authors say that because of the Impact Framework, foundation communications now “emphasize the Foundation’s speaking collaboratively with our grantees and other colleagues in addressing the issues that are the pillars of the framework—like the need for health coverage for all Americans and rolling back the tide of childhood obesity.”

They add that, “communications dollars that used to be included in grants so that grantees could independently promote their work and publicize their findings and their accomplishments are now largely held back and are spent at the Foundation level. Instead of grantees issuing statements and releasing white papers that could step on the toes of other grantees working in the same field, messaging and timing of communications is now coordinated centrally by the Robert Wood Johnson communications staff.”

Mann and Morse also say that “moving from a principal mindset of being basically a grantmaker to seeking impact and influence in health and health care hasn’t been without challenges, and it hasn’t happened overnight.”

Notably, the communications staff at RWJF aren’t the only ones affected by these changes.  Mann and Morse write that “program staff members now understand that their role extends beyond just grantmaking. They have increasingly turned to using the Web site and related electronic media to drive toward meeting team objectives and promoting the learning derived from our philanthropic investments.”

As mentioned, the full essay is a must-read. The authors write candidly about the changes that have occurred at the foundation on the communications front as well as lessons learned that are applicable to any foundation that sees communications as integral to its day-to-day work


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