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110 Degrees in the Shade: Using the Heat of Public Controversy to Power the Mission


  1. Talking points to remove some of the internal fears of public stances on controversial issues, and to position the Communications staff as reliable managers of the action.
  2. A checklist to prepare internal and external stakeholders for high visibility and possible public criticism.
  3. A group exercise that session attendees can use at their organization to weigh how a public stand affects reputation, values, and mission


Doug, from the Pittsburgh Foundation (PF) opens. Welcomes us to the scariest session — this will be politically charged, filled with scary issues. Silence persists for a few seconds until Doug clarifies that he is joking.


He opens with a Lena Waithe quote from the morning: “My job is to be an observer, and to make sense of human behavior.” And that’s what a comms job is, he says, in terms of fortifying leadership at the org, and in terms of addressing issues. He says we are going to talk about three case studies, with group interaction at the end.

The goal is to make the case for why comms involvement in controversial issues ought to be available to all comms team strategies. Comms can be a heat shield against the fire of controversy.

(Our three speakers are on screen dressed up as firefighters: Doug, Kitty, Khalif, all from PF.)

It’s a tough field right now for social change organizations. PF foundation has had some questions for itself. There’s a cacophony going on. How are we demonstrating our value? What counts as authentic evidence?

PF was on a sharp upward trajectory in fundraising for a long time. Then, organizations started expecting more. They had a change in leadership, with leaders who felt that they had to do more. PF shifted, along with other large community foundations, to exercising a moral voice as a community leader, and began spending what Doug calls reputational and social capital.

Nonprofit is the largest employer in PF’s four-county area. They work to change policies or speak out.

People are pairing up to answer three questions:

  • What is your mission?
  • What are your organization’s values?
  • What controversy have you tackled?

Moving right along — an image of white men brandishing Tiki torches in Charlottesville, North Carolina. You know the image. In the aftermath, Doug says, a community foundation provided a forum to rebuff the idea that there were “good people on both sides.”

The community foundation created a five point plan to help people who needed counseling, people who were hurt after the episode, and a series of community meetings for reconciliation. There are lots of reasons why a community foundation might decide to get involved, but the climate has changed and there are times when they can’t avoid getting involved. The climate has changed so that everything seems politically charged right now, and if you’re going to be relevant, you have to engage. The key is getting involved with the heat shield up to avoid accusations of partisanship.


The biggest challenges many of us will encounter are from CEO and Board that we are “not allowed to do this.” Community foundations can spend money directly on lobbying, up to 20% of budget, up to $1 million. You can rent your mailing list at fair market value. Read the Boulder Advocacy piece to learn more about how you can do this and stay within the rules.


The courage level — think about the Cowardly Lion in front of the wizard in The Wizard of Oz. The wizard says, you’re under the unfortunate delusion that simply because you see danger in a situation, you have no courage, but you’re confusing courage with wisdom. And then the lion gets a medal. In Doug’s real life, however, very close to Pittsburgh: The Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO, after the Parkland shooting, instructed his stores to stop selling assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. There was a session for staff and he was asked about the fear factor in making that decision. He said that courage is not the absence of fear, but taking the action you think is necessary.

PF developed a courage meter that they apply to everyone involved in an issue. It goes from terrified, to maybe soon, to almost ready, to let’s do it!

The wizard in many cases will be the CEO, who might not want to take on heated issues. A brave CEO can be an advantage. Comms can help a CEO explain away the heat. PF has a wizard who is comfortable with it, but a lot of them aren’t. Just including an action on controversial issues on a list of proposals creates discussion in the org — you’ll be miles ahead. It’s almost like training leaders to feel comfortable with this, because they know they have a structure behind them to help them.

Employees expect CEOs to speak out when values are at stake.

The first case study:

An editorial caused outrage. “Reason as Racism: An immigration debate get derailed.” Community went bonkers. The CEOs of two foundations were personally upset and decided to respond. Business leaders were primed. The PF comms team discussed how to respond to complaints. PF posted an editorial response to the piece to their own site, plus submitted it to the Post-Gazette.

It was done in one day. The response and social was up within a day. It exploded organically. There were some nasty comments, but overall, the way in which the editorial was constructed and the backup from involved sectors was really important. The controversy made national news. It was important that the PF show community organizations, especially in black communities, that they were onside. Those orgs were grateful to know which groups were standing up and speaking out, and that gratitude has stuck around.

Go after people affected, but not political personalities. CEO personalizes org by speaking out authentically, and personalizes the hurt. Must happen very quickly for it to be at all effective. Waiting makes you look timid or look like you’re waiting for others to leap. Must relate to organization and community standards. Make sure stakeholders get a heads-up.


Another case study.

Two years ago, PA faced a critical state budget crisis. Was significantly impacting the people foundation is usually try to help. PF made 60 videos, spurred community action to get people to contact government — led to tremendous engagement with zero impact.

Legislators felt insulated by gerrymandering. PA is considered one of the most extreme examples of partisan gerrymandering. 50-50 Dem-Rep, but PA GOP has 13 Congressional seats and Dems have 5. Goofy kicking Donald Duck is a district.

Public Interest Law Center (PILC) got involved. In PA, the PA Supreme Court ultimately brought in an expert to redraw the maps. PF’s position was that democracy only works if districts are competitive. If the game is rigged, what’s the point in grantmaking around it? The people they served were at risk from the funding jam. They were concerned about 501c3. They researched how to participate in the national conversation on gerrymandering. Khalif built relationships with many orgs. They were hoping for an independent group to redraw PA’s districts.

They were in touch with PILC and others. PILC said an Amicus brief with media coverage would be helpful. PF submitted and pitched it to one particular reporter. Post-Gazette picked it up, then 15 other outlets, with the headline “An Unusual Move.” The brief was then mentioned in the eventual decision.

But then the phone calls started, many from inside the house. Doug is still in recovery. Board members, major donors, other foundation heads could not grasp why PF was getting involved in such a partisan issue.

If they could do it again, they would have prepped stakeholders. They would have built up evidence showing how and why this aligned with their values and strategic plan.

In the end, the lawsuit was successful, and PF showed that it could step up to the plate beyond just grantmaking.


The third case study. He’s going to talk about earning social capital.

He met the leader of the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, Steven Shelton. TIP prepares people who have been involved with the justice system to work on construction sites. The CEO, Shelton, has been able to create space for people, but the spaces go unfilled, as most of the program’s members don’t have drivers’ licenses. In PA you can get your license suspended pretty easily, for crimes and misdemeanors that don’t involve driving. Being unable to drive meant that graduates of the program couldn’t get to the sites at the edges of the county. Sites tend to require you to have a license anyway.

Khalif met with CEO and his graduates, and felt compelled to bring the issue to the Board. People outside of the community didn’t really grasp how many people were being impacted by the legislation. PF knew it was going to be a bit of a challenge. They were facing a Republican majority state government.

But they were undeterred. They believed in the legislation to reform this issue that they were okay with taking flak from both sides. They lost some support. Rep. Saccone, yes that Saccone, invited Khalif to attend a hearing in favor of the bill — at a Country Club in a well-to-do suburb, with the guy who voted for cuts to human services, at a location that someone without a license couldn’t get to. Optics were awful.

Khalif and team realized that the briefing and press conference was planned by GOP aides who didn’t get the issue or the community affected. PF politely educated them and helped them relocate the briefing to the Trade Institute’s training room. This allowed attendees to talk to people who were being impacted by the issue. They shared stories. Other groups came too. They documented the hearings and created a platform for participation.

When you have a great team with you, you feel prepared to handle the heat. PF organized donor education events, social media and phone calls in support, trained people in Pittsburgh to continue advocacy work. They had four op-eds statewide that nudged the chair of the transportation committee.

The bill is now out of that committee and going to another, with a good outlook.

Takeaways: pick an issue you can win; bring down the heat by ratcheting up awareness; turn some opponents into allies; optics matter.

The work took three years that Khalif will never get back. They knew they had a shot because Saccone had a change of heart and introduced the bill — if he could change his mind, why not others?

Also, do not plan hearings at a country club.

Steve from the Trade Institute — without him and the program, Khalif doesn’t know if this would’ve happened. Graduates with licenses make great money — $70 an hour with benefits. (Much of the room has developed a sudden interest in careers in the trades.) These opportunities allow people to move on with their lives.

Khalif has all the policy numbers, but it’s not impactful without a narrative. Unless you can turn the numbers into a narrative that legislators can appreciate on an emotional level, you’re probably going to need to change that. You need an emotional connection.

The handouts are all in the app.


  1. Our CEO sits on many boards. The CEO says he wants to speak out, but when he looks at the op-eds I write in detail, he realizes that his board positions conflict. I’m managing the CEO but also the other orgs. How should I navigate that?

Doug: I empathize with the person asking the question and CEO, who is usually expected to have these community connections. An op-ed is always an exercise in pain and suffering. The essential element should remain intact. You have to decide going in. The most important thing is to be willing to kill some of your puppies in the process of saving the big issue.

Questioner: I’m okay with killing the puppies. But how can I convince him?

Doug: The main idea is in jeopardy. It’s losing impact and value. The message, if milquetoast, will hurt if delivered, so there’s a price to be paid there and it’s almost worse than not speaking at all.

Kitty: The program team knows who’ll be upset if you stay quiet, so you can use that.

  1. We have risk-averse legal counsel. They will ask, what could happen if we do this? It’s valid, but nobody asks what happens if we don’t do this. Can you shift that thinking?

Doug: It’s a standard part of the menu that we present, what is the price that we pay for not speaking out in a certain way? We do research, we take time, we deliver a menu of options, we take the time to be able to put some specificity to what we’re asking them to understand about the prices paid for speaking, or not speaking, out. Frankly, with lawyers, you can’t let them run — can’t let them be spokespeople. They can supply valid advice on how it gets framed, but there is not a strong history of attorneys being primarily interested in communications.

  1. The Amicus brief — what happened?

Kitty: The brief was cited by the justices in their decision. It’s in the links to our resources. We knew that they generally don’t generate coverage. We were able to use our moral and social capital, 2,200 donors, meant we could do something risky. We had resources. You don’t have to be afraid as if you’re a tiny nonprofit. We have a unique standing in the community. PILC has an amazing communications department, too.

Doug: We helped change the dynamic of election process in PA. We used the reputational capital of our social change org to do that. It really helps to have donors behind you.

Kitty: If you’re not ready to do an Amicus brief, what can you do? Start tiny. We didn’t start with these things.

  1. My organization wants to speak out every day. What is the framework by which we understand when we should stand up? Do you have any instincts on when to do that, instead of fighting all of the fires?

Doug: If the CEO is energized, well, I’m going to be working that. It’s great to have a CEO who has to be pulled back rather than pushed forward. PF has built up confidence throughout the foundation, so they’re coming to us with ideas of moments for standing up. Nonprofits came to us and said, if we speak out about these state funding problems, opponents will come back out and hurt us. That was an example of something we couldn’t say no to.

Kitty: Our worksheet helps with that. How many hours can you dedicate to surprises? Who are your allies?

Khalif: Also, arm your CEO with as much information as possible. I’m in the program department, so I could talk about the climate, the hot button issues in Harrisburg, another layer of information that people have to make decisions.

These notes were captured by The Communications Network and have been reviewed by the presenters. ComNet18 Breakout Session notes were made possible thanks to the generous support of the Kalliopeia Foundation.


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