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What’s Your Foundation’s “Communications Personality Type”?


Guest Post: Tod Hill

Philanthropic institutions approach communications in wildly varied ways – from quiet and humble, to bold and provocative; from reactive and responsive, to deliberate and strategic.

The unique communications “personality” of our institutions can play a defining role in our work as communications professionals. A foundation’s personality impacts external branding and guides messaging. It informs strategy and tactics. Some personalities can constrain our work, others can inspire.

While foundations’ communications “personalities” are numerous and varied, most institutions can be described 9S3A5472-Tod-Hill-01according to six common profiles. Let’s see if you recognize your institution:

1. Master of Magnanimity

Modest to a fault, a master of magnanimity wishes to deflect attention away from itself and back to its grantees, its colleagues, or the field. It communicates publicly only when absolutely necessary to provide technical or practical information, or serve the broader interests of the field.

2. Legacy Shepherd

The Legacy Shepherd places high value on a founding donor’s vision and actively seeks ways to commemorate the donor’s legacy. Naming opportunities – for a new wing of a hospital or a Fellowship, for example – are important, but its interest in recognition is not wholly ego-driven. The Legacy Shepherd believes that its donor’s vision deserves public expression, acknowledgment and celebration.

3. A-Lister

The A-Lister places a high value on publicity, visibility and attention in order to position itself as a leader within a community or sector. The desire for attention may not only be motivated by philanthropic social climbing; it can be an explicit strategy for furthering the foundation’s mission. That said, the A-Lister likes seeing its name in print and loves any and all photo opportunities.

4. Benevolent Puppeteer

These foundations value communications as crucial to furthering their theory of change, but position themselves in an indirect, facilitative role. They provide grantees with the resources and guidance to execute effective communications strategies, provided that those strategies align with the foundation’s goals.

5. Able Amplifier

The communications focus of an Able Amplifier is to elevate the visibility of leaders, experts, and institutions that are aligned with their mission. It serves as a knowledge broker, trusted endorser of other’s ideas, and investor in the platforms that others need to promulgate their work broadly and effectively.

6. Bully of the Pulpit

Boldly positioning themselves as experts and leaders in a programmatic field, a Bully of the Pulpit utilizes communications as a core strategy. Beyond grants, it creates and broadcasts its own intellectual capital and content. Its programs are well-branded, serving as platforms for field-building. It doesn’t care about promoting itself but cares deeply about promoting its ideas.

What does your foundation’s personality type mean for you, and your day-to-day communications work? You might be excited about social media, but if your institution is a Benevolent Puppeteer, you should probably focus instead on creating capacity building tools to enable grantees to leverage social media more effectively. Before churning out news releases and securing speaking opportunities for your executive leadership, you better figure out whether your institution is an A-Lister, a Legacy Shepherd or a Bully of the Pulpit. If you’re working with a Master of Magnanimity, you already know that you are frustrated.

Institutions can exhibit aspects of more than one personality type, but a foundation’s communications strategy is usually guided by one dominant type. Personalities can also shift and change, usually when the institution’s strategic goals shift. Shepherding an organization through a rapid personality shift can be both invigorating and challenging. Most shifts happen slowly, over time, in incremental ways.

To apply this framework to your own work, pick the personality that you think fits your institution best, and then brainstorm ways that the personality informs branding and positioning, strategy and tactics, and internal planning and decision-making.

Defining, understanding, and embracing your foundation’s personality may be the key to enhancing the effectiveness of your work and might even reduce your stress and help you sleep better at night.


Tod Hill is a Senior Advisor with PR & Company, a communications strategy firm that guides foundations, nonprofits, innovative corporations and others committed to positive social impact. His 28 years experience in the social sector includes senior level positions at Tides Network and Working Assets Long Distance, and consulting engagements with grantmakers, nonprofits and other agents of social change.  

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