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Why So Many People Don’t Know What the Heck Foundations Do

Most people don’t know much about foundations. I’ve been working in philanthropy for over 15 years, and when I first started, my parents (Korean immigrants) thought I’d be working directly for sweet, elderly society matrons in Chanel suits, who had oodles of money to give away to libraries, hospitals, and pet societies.

It is true, foundations do give away money. It is still our core defining element. But at many foundations, the act of giving away money has gone far beyond issuing a check to a deserving organization or cause. For example, many foundations invest not just in projects or initiatives related to important causes, like education or health care, but also in the people and the organizations that fuel those causes. I currently work at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and one of the many things I love about this foundation is a dedicated grants program, called Organizational Effectiveness (OE), to help current Packard grantees tackle the “fundamentals.” Meaning, things like fundraising, business planning, leadership development, and yes, strategic communications.

[pullquote1 align=”center” variation=”deepblue”]It is true, foundations do give away money. It is still our core defining element. But at many foundations, the act of giving away money has gone far beyond issuing a check to a deserving organization or cause.[/pullquote1]

In 2013, almost a quarter of OE’s grants supported grantee efforts to build their own communications capacity. And OE’s focus on grantee capacity is by no means unique: dozens of foundations across the country support capacity-building for grantees and some even specialize in communications capacity. When I worked at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I participated in numerous efforts to build grantees’ communications capacity, through training programs, message boot camps, and other forms of assistance that were either part of or extra to the grants they received.

Capacity-building is one of those philanthropy-speak terms that many people toss around without being 100% sure of what it means. But in the nonprofit world, for foundations and their nonprofit partners, it really does represent a critical concept, which is this: as we’re all striving to make progress on causes we care about, we also need to pay attention to the fundamentals, duh. How can your organization be successful if you don’t have a solid leadership team, or a functioning board, or updated IT systems, or a reasonable business plan? And, communications represents one of the biggest organizational fundamentals at all levels: internal, external, organization-wide, issue-specific. A story I told last year in a blog post last year illustrated this point perfectly: communicating is a critical component of the change we all seek to make in the world.

[pullquote1 align=”center” variation=”deepblue”]As we’re all striving to make progress on causes we care about, we also need to pay attention to the fundamentals, duh.[/pullquote1]

So if foundations demonstrably care about grantee communications capacity—and evidence of this caring is to be found in the numerous tools, training programs, and grants we offer to grantees, although I’m sure there’s still so much more to be done—should we also care about our own capacity to communicate? I’ve been mulling over this question because I was struck by how differently foundations approach communications, with many investing hardly anything in either internal or external communications. In the business world, you can tell how much individual companies care about their brand, their audiences, and you can even tell, if you look at their job listings, how much they care about internal communications as well as external communications. But in the foundation world, the impression is that many foundations don’t communicate, and they seem to be fine with that, thank you. Is this really what we’re trying to intentionally signal to everyone else?

[pullquote1 align=”center” variation=”deepblue”]Should we [philanthropy] care about our own capacity to communicate?[/pullquote1]

There are notable exceptions, however, to the foundations-don’t-communicate-as-a-general rule. In the past several years, I’ve seen a handful of foundations:

  • Be clear about what issues they fund, why they care about these issues, and who is eligible and not eligible for this support;
  • Take great strides in sharing more information about what they’ve learned from their grant-making, where more progress needs to be made, and where they’ve fallen short;
  • Engage in tweeting, Facebooking, and Google hanging out with nonprofit organizations or other types of partners engaged in similar issue areas;
  • Convene disparate stakeholders around a specific social problem to see if there’s a way to make progress on solving that problem;
  • Share stories about critical problems (e.g., our children need better education) and solutions in ways that help accelerate action and actual progress on these issues.

This is just a sampling of what I’ve seen foundations do in communications. And guess what? If your organization wants to communicate to good effect, then you’ll need to develop the strategy and the skills to carry that out (no, you can’t just hire a consultant—although they can be super-useful).

Unfortunately, for funders and nonprofits interested in communicating more, and in developing the chops to do more, there’s not a lot of help out there about what level of staffing and budget and effort is required for foundations to do all of these communications things, and there’s also not a lot of evidence as to what’s created the most impact. To return to the business world analogy, you can directly connect a marketing budget with product sales; you can connect your internal communications capacity with employee engagement and satisfaction.

For foundations that really care about particular causes—causes that are super-complex, where progress is a question of years, not months—correlating a communications investment with impact is much less of a straightforward proposition. I serve as the board chair of the Communications Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing best practices among communications professionals at foundations and nonprofits, and we’re trying really hard to crack this nut. We’re in the midst of a research effort to define and gather evidence as to what constitutes effective, integrated communications at foundations and nonprofits, and we hope the results will help clear up the fug a bit.

[pullquote1 align=”center” variation=”deepblue”]Better communications could help foundations actually achieve greater alignment and traction on the complicated problems we seek to solve.[/pullquote1]

So my somewhat obvious conclusion: foundations should continue to invest in grantee capacity, yes, but also in their own. For one thing, every organization—for-profit or nonprofit—needs some basic level of communications capacity in order to simply function in today’s world and “basic” is rapidly changing, given the radical digital transformation we’re experiencing. And given the always-tough competition for resources at any organization, for-profit or nonprofit, you should of course right-size your communications capacity to your mission, your values, and to what you want to achieve in terms of impact.

My belief is that if foundations strengthen our communications capabilities, we’ll become better partners with each other and with all of the partners we work with in the public and private sectors. Better communications could help foundations actually achieve greater alignment and traction on the complicated problems we seek to solve, that no one organization could possibly tackle alone. And bonus points: maybe more people would understand that what we do is about a lot more than money.

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