5 Tips for Strategic Grantmaking

photodune-5426795-strategic-planning--sToday I was fortunate to listen to a terrific webinar on the “Unique Challenges of Strategy for Foundations” provided by the Phil Buchanan and Ellie Buteau  of the Center for Effective Philanthropy as part of the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers webinar series. Here are 5 tips I heard on the webinar that I think are helpful for any foundation – large or small,  global or local, those seeking to become strategic for the first time, and those seeking to sharpen or modify their strategies.

  1. Don’t worry about being unique, focus on being effective. Foundations aren’t competing with each other the way McDonalds and Burger King are. If the foundation down the street or across the country is achieving some amazing results, and if those results could be either enhanced with additional investment or expanded to your community, why not join in.
  2. Don’t be afraid of strategy – CEP’s research has uncovered many myths related to strategy in foundations, including strategy being dispassionate, too “business oriented”, too limiting, and not allowing for course corrections.  In fact, none of this is true. Funders who are most aware of the environment in which they are operating, have a vision for what they want to accomplish, and a road map to get there (plan + logic model) are the most successful and adaptable.
  3. Don’t stress yourself out. Start small. If strategy is a new concept for your foundation, it’s best to not go whole hog and revamp your entire foundation. If you seek to make too many changes, too fast you risk being unsuccessful. I saw this happen with one client, a prestigious and well intentioned family foundation. It sought to move from being a generalist health and human services grantmaker to a strategic grantmaker with the help of a high profile consulting firm.  Several years down the road the trustees determined they were not happy with the direction, and abruptly pulled the plug — leaving staff, grantees, partners, and key initiatives hanging. It was unfortunate and could have been avoided.
  4. Involve your staff, board and relevant stakeholders. It is critical that they “own” the strategy. If they don’t own it, they haven’t bought into it, and they won’t be successful in implementing it. In my experience this is not an area where you should cut corners, speed up the process, or give lip service.  Allow the time it takes to involve people. Surface concerns and listen to their ideas and suggestions.
  5. Start with your goal.  Make sure everyone is clear on what you want to accomplish or the desired state you seek to achieve. Then figure out how to get from here to there. Don’t start from your current state and move incrementally.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy offers some terrific resources on foundation strategy — check them out!

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a philanthropy expert and consultant. If you found this blog post useful, please subscribe. On Twitter? Follow me @Philanthropy411.

© Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2014.

20 Useful Knowledge Tools For Foundations and Nonprofits

Globe and keyboard (Elements of this image furnished by NASA)I continue to be impressed  by the terrific resources, tools and information developed and provided by the Foundation Center. They recently created a hit list of their “Foundation Center Top 20 List of Knowledge Tools” and I wanted to share it here in its entirety with you.

Free Online Databases

1.     Philanthropy News Digest (PND) is a daily online news service dedicated to philanthropy. You can perform keyword searches or browse by subject areas or population groups. By completing a free registration via “My PND,” you can set up targeted news alerts to be delivered to your email address. foundationcenter.org/pnd

  • Requests for Proposals (RFPs): PND publishes RFPs and notices of awards as a free service for grantmaking organizations and nonprofits. foundationcenter.org/pnd/rfp/
  • Jobs: PND’s job board provides listings of current full-time job openings at U.S.-based foundations and nonprofit organizations. Organizations may submit up to ten postings a month at no charge. You can sign up for email alerts by state and job type. foundationcenter.org/pnd/jobs/

2.     IssueLab gathers, indexes, and shares the collective intelligence of the social sector. It provides free access to over 13,600 case studies, evaluations, white papers, and issue briefs addressing the world’s most pressing problems; shares content with libraries, archives, and online communities; and builds custom Knowledge Centers, issuelab.org/content/ custom_knowledge_centers, for funders, networks, and nonprofit organizations. issuelab.org/

 3.     Tools and Resources for Assessing Social Impact (TRASI) is a searchable, expert-reviewed database of over 190 approaches to measuring the impact of social programs and investments. trasi.foundationcenter.org/

 4.     Social Media: Foundation Transparency 2.0 is a database tracking the use of and providing direct links to 18 different types of social media tools used by over 1,600 U.S. foundations. glasspockets.org/inside/

 5.     Eye on the Giving Pledge combines our data with public information to offer an in-depth picture of 114 Giving Pledge participants, their charitable activities, and the potential impact of this effort. http://glasspockets.org/givingpledge/

 6.     Fondos a la Vista is a searchable database of over 22,000 Mexican philanthropies launched in partnership with Alternativas y Capacidades and the Philanthropy and Civil Society Project at ITAM (Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México). fondosalavista.mx/

7.     Nonprofit Collaboration Database is a repository of 650 real-life examples of how nonprofits are working together. foundationcenter.org/gainknowledge/collaboration/

 Subscription Databases

8.     Foundation Directory Online (FDO) is the definitive database for fundraisers with information on more than 3.3 million grants and 100,000 U.S. grantmakers. But it’s also a largely untapped resource for funders. FDO Professional searches nine databases at once – grantmakers, companies, grants, 990s, RFPs, philanthropy news, foundation-sponsored publications, nonprofit literature, and jobs – to quickly compile a comprehensive scan of interest area. The new FDOFree makes it possible to search the raw data on the IRS forms today, alongside additional information that has been cleaned and organized by the Center’s professional staff. fconline.foundationcenter.org/tour.php

 9.     Philanthropy In/Sight is an interactive mapping tool that combines data on over 100,000 funders and over one million grants with Google maps. Updated weekly with data from around the world, Philanthropy In/Sight allows users to understand who is funding what and where. philanthropyinsight.org/

Custom Philanthropy In/Sight: Affinity groups including Animal Grantmakers and the International Human Rights Funders Group have worked with the Foundation Center to create custom, password-protected versions for their members. Funders for LGBTQ Issues has launched a custom Philanthropy In/Sight for members which is publicly accessible, lgbtfunders.org/insight/ The Skillman Foundation, a place-based funder, partnered with us on another custom project. Detroit residents can click on the maps to find information on and links to charities working in their neighborhood, and anyone can overlay this grant data with demographic, socio-economic and other data sets to create compelling visual portraits. skillman.org/Knowledge-Center/Grants-Map

 Research and Practice Tools

10.   Research: The Foundation Center has an active annual calendar of research on national trends in foundation giving. foundationcenter.org/nationaltrends Foundation Stats, recently launched, provides the most comprehensive resource available for quickly generating tables, charts, and a trend view on the size, scope, and giving priorities of the U.S. foundation community. Users can sort by grants or foundation and filter by organization type, location, and population group. data.foundationcenter.org

11.   Special Topics and Regional Research: In collaboration with foundations and philanthropy networks, the Foundation Center also produces targeted research on special topics and regional trends, typically in short, readable advisory formats with graphics. foundationcenter.org/specialtrends and foundationcenter.org/regionaltrends

12.   Custom Searches: The Foundation Center also provides custom searches of its research database to help funders prepare board reports, identify funding partners, research philanthropic assets and giving in their area, investigate new areas of funding activity, and identify potential grantees. foundationcenter.org/customsearches

 13.   GrantCraft:  A joint project of the Foundation Center and the European Foundation Centre, GrantCraft taps the “practical wisdom” of a diverse group of experienced funders primarily through the creation of materials—guides, blogs, surveys, translations, a map of the craft, and more—on grantmaking practice. grantcraft.org/

GrantCraft’s Interactive Tool Finder helps funders find the best collaborative technologies for their needs. The tool catalogs social networking sites, file sharing tools, project management dashboards, and crowdsourcing systems that make it easier to communicate and connect. collaboration.grantcraft.org/

Web Services

14.   Foundation Web Builder Free and Premium: Only 26 percent of U.S. foundations have web sites. The Foundation Center offers free web site design, hosting, content updates, and technical assistance to U.S. foundations. For a nominal annual fee, the Center also offers a premium service – a custom web site with a unique domain name, site usage reports, and functionality such as blog posts and social media links. foundationwebbuilder.org/

15.   Glasspockets encourages best practices and benchmarking in foundation transparency. The Foundation Center reviewed 600 foundation web sites and came up with 23 key elements of online transparency. Participating foundations have profiles on the site with links to these elements, providing insight and sample policies for other funders as well as grantees and the public. glasspockets.org/

16.   The Reporting Commitment aims to develop more timely, accurate, and precise reporting on the flow of philanthropic dollars. Participating foundations agree to make grant information available at least quarterly in a machine-readable, open format and coded to a common geographic standard. glasspockets.org/work/reportingcommitment/index.html

17.   Custom web portals serve as dashboards for donor learning and collaboration and typically include data visualization tools; targeted news feeds, research, and tweets; and special features. Start-up and maintenance costs for these portals are supported by foundations, with the results typically available to the field at no cost. Examples include:

18.   The Foundations for Education Excellence portal provides education funders with a timely common dashboard for U.S. public education reform efforts. It includes interactive maps of education grants, education philanthropy news, summaries of education reports, links to U.S. Department of Education resources, archived webinars, event listings, and education funder tweets. foundationcenter.org/educationexcellence/

19.   WASH Funders was commissioned to support a group of funders focused on global water access, sanitation, and hygiene issues and goes further as a custom portal with advanced data visualization tools, the addition of multi-lateral and bi-lateral aid, case studies, community tools, and recommended readings. washfunders.org

20.   BMA Funders supports those working to promote positive outcomes for black male achievement in the U.S. This portal includes a mapping tool, a timeline of philanthropic milestones, an outcomes toolkit, and a curated collection of research reports and case studies. bmafunders.org

One last note on where this started: data. By participating as eGrant Reporters, funders can help ensure that timely, accurate information is available on their foundation’s giving for the field and for their own use. In exchange, the Center provides free interactive maps back to eReporters with their grants. foundationcenter.org/grantmakers/e-grants

For more information about the Foundation Center and these resources contact: Lisa Philp, V.P. for Strategic Philanthropy, Foundation Center, llp@foundationcenter.org

Don’t Let Policy Get In The Way Of Good Practice

I’m working from my laptop in a Panera restaurant near Cleveland, Ohio, one of my many “offices away from home.” I’m desperately trying to focus on work but am continually distracted by the music piped in above my head, because the station they have turned it to is skipping. What is supposed to be relaxing symphonic sounds are quite irritating and painful to hear. I’ve asked two Panera employees what is wrong and suggested ways to solve the problem. Both agreed that it sounds horrible, explained that they “tried turning it off and on” and nothing happens. When I asked if they could simply turn it off, they said they weren’t able to.  Panera would rather play music that is skipping and irritating its customers than empower their employees to make decisions in the best interest of their customers because it’s their policy to play music.  I’m ready to leave and take my business elsewhere, but they don’t seem to care.

can't stand the noise!

Foundations do this too. I know of one foundation that has a policy that all staff must obtain proposals from three evaluators every time they want to conduct an evaluation. It doesn’t matter if the program officer has already worked with a fabulous evaluator who she knows will be great for this project, always delivers quality work, and is available to start immediately. She must waste her time and the time of two other evaluators in order to meet this policy requirement.

Think about how much staff time this involves: She has to identify and communicate with perhaps 5-10 other evaluators in order to identify 3-4 who are qualified, in hopes that 2 of them (plus the one she actually wants to hire) are interested, available and will submit proposals. She then has to talk with each of them long enough to explain her evaluation needs and answer their questions. Next she has to review their proposals and ultimately tell them that they are not being selected. Is this an example of a foundation being a good steward of its resources, or one that is wasting them? I’m pretty sure that this program officer has plenty of other more important things that she should be doing with her time.  (This doesn’t even take into account the time spent by the evaluators — not knowing they are doomed to fail — to learn about the foundation and project, talk with the program officer, write the proposal, and get their staffing and schedules in place so that they can start right away if chosen.).

Is it possible that by obtaining proposals from two other evaluators the program officer might find one who is even better, faster and cheaper? Sure. But I think organizations – foundations and restaurants alike – should empower their employees to make smart decisions that they feel will make the best use of their time and are in the best interests of their customers, grantees, and partners.  The goals are fine: provide a relaxing atmosphere for customers through music and find the best evaluator. But don’t create and enforce policies that result in poor customer service and waste time.

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a philanthropy expert and consultant. If you found this blog post useful, please subscribe. On Twitter? Follow me @Philanthropy411.

© Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2013.

Why Do People Stereotype Black Men? Ask Your Brain.

This is a guest post by Laura Frohne.  It was originally published on the Open Society Foundations’ blog “Voices” on September 20, 2013.

How do we overcome preconceptions and anxiety about race?

“Part of understanding racial anxiety is simply naming it,” says Alexis McGill Johnson, executive director of the American Values Institute. “We have anxieties in all other parts of our daily lives: anxiety about flying, about driving, or going on job interviews.”

“We create stereotypes, quick references, to help us navigate the world,” she says. “One of those stereotypes is that we equate black men with fear.”

Once you identify your own racial preconceptions, Johnson says, “you can give yourself different guidance in how you want to treat the conversation, by recognizing that no one is in this conversation to call you racist. We’re just in this conversation to have a better dialog.”

Johnson and the American Values Institute work with the Open Society Campaign for Black Male Achievement to create opportunities for black men and boys who are significantly marginalized from U.S. economic, social, and political life.

Watch more of our conversation with Alexis McGill Johnson above.

“At Open Society” is a video series highlighting the people and ideas that are inspiring our work—and changing the world.

Learn More:  United States, Rights & Justice, Black Male Achievement, Discrimination, Rights & Justice in the United States


Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a philanthropy expert and consultant. If you found this blog post useful, please subscribe. On Twitter? Follow me @Philanthropy411.

Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2013.

Be nice. Don’t lie. 10 Ways To Improve Customer Service

I recently travelled from Cleveland to Honolulu to conduct a site visit for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. What I learned en route provided some valuable lessons in customer service, which are applicable to those working in philanthropy (who, in my experience, don’t spend much time thinking about how they can provide excellent customer service).

I purchased my flight with my Mileage Plus Visa Club card, and used airline miles to purchase my husband’s ticket, paying for his fees with the same card. As a result, our tickets were not “linked” since United provides no way for you to do this. I was advised by the United reservation agent I spoke with to call United back and have the flights “linked” so that the airline knows we are travelling together and my travel benefits extend to my husband (e.g., Premier/First Class access through security, priority board, free checked bag, etc.).

You know how the rest of this story goes:  I call United the day before my flight, and am told by a woman who sounds like she is working from a call center several continents away, that yes she has “linked” our accounts, yes my husband now has Premier access, priority boarding, and free luggage. All taken care of, she said. I tried to check us in online, and none of this was true. I was Premier, he was Regular Low Class. My luggage was free, his would cost $25.  I called back. This time I was transferred back and forth three times between United reservations and United Mileage Plus, each of them claiming that the other would need to help me. I finally asked for a supervisor who explained that it was impossible to link our accounts, given the way our tickets were purchased differently (mine on a credit card, his with United miles and the same credit card). I was advised that maybe the United representative at the airport could help me. “You have the computer, just change his ticket to be “Premier,” I politely requested. “I can’t do that,” she replied.

We flew. We landed. We checked in at the Hilton Hawaiian Village amidst sounds of jackhammers and total chaos in the lobby under construction.  At the registration desk four Hilton employees huddled around a single computer while 15 of us waited in line (I didn’t bother with the Hilton Honors line, which was moving even slower). When we finally made it to the front, the Hilton employee-in-training was friendly but poorly trained. She reassured us that our ocean view room has a view of Diamond Head (it did not). And to my dismay, the counter behind all the Hilton registration desk was a disorganized mess of old cardboard boxes, rattan boxes, and mismatched plastic containers – each hand labeled in magic marker — holding all of their supplies and things like “customer mail.” There were piles of papers, messy stacks of brochures, overflowing file folders randomly placed in between bins. This was their “back office,” a complete mess on display for all of their customers to see.

Here are 10 tips for providing excellent customer service that I learned from this experience, which are applicable to any business, nonprofit, and foundation.

  1. Educate all employees and your trustees when you roll out new programs and services.  Two different women I spoke with from the United call center had never heard of my United Mileage Plus Club card or its benefits, and no one could give me its concierge hotline number to call. If your foundation is launching a new grantmaking program or releasing some controversial news, make sure all your employees and board members are aware and have some talking points. They are your ambassadors in the community.
  2. Enable employees to fix problems immediately. No one at United was authorized or apparently had the technology to upgrade my husband’s ticket to premier status, even though everyone acknowledged the problem. This should be an easy technological fix and a priority for a customer who has been a loyal Mileage Plus member for almost 20 years.  Let your employees solve problems with your grantees creatively. Let them know what types of issues require legal approval, and what types do not. They might not always solve them perfectly, but your grantees will appreciate that your staff are partners working with them.
  3. Be honest when you can’t fix a problem. The first United representative reassured me that she had fixed everything, when in reality it was impossible for her to have done this. If a grantee comes to you with a concern, don’t reassure them that the problem will be resolved unless you are positive you can fix it. Instead, reassure them that you hear them, you understand their concerns, and that you will make every attempt to solve it, and that you will update them on your progress. If you can’t fix it, let them know why.
  4. If you offer benefits to your customers, make it easy to use them. As a United Mileage Plus member and Mileage Plus Visa Club cardholder, I should have no problem extending my travel benefits to my travel companion, no matter what combination of miles and credit cards I use to purchase our tickets. But United has chosen to set up its ticketing system so that this is impossible. Similarly, if you offer funding to nonprofits, don’t make them jump through hoops, and don’t give them an unrealistic amount of time to respond to your RFP. You are in the business of making grants, and your grantees are helping you to achieve your mission.
  5. Offer excellent customer service to everyone, equally. Within a period of 3 minutes at United security, I watched the security woman completely ignore a lower-level United employee as he shared his employee badge (she didn’t even look him in the eye), gleefully gush and chat with a group of United pilots who came through, and then glare at husband and I as we approached. My husband’s attempts to cheer her up with “Good morning!  How are you today?” did not help. All the grantees in your portfolio – including the nonprofits that need your support but lack the capacity to prepare beautifully written proposals or lack high-level connections to your foundation – should receive the same level of customer service from your staff. They might not all meet your funding criteria, but they should be treated equally and respectfully.
  6. Be nice and connect as human beings. One glimmer of helpful customer service was the United representative at our boarding gate in Cleveland. We were running late, but she smiled, told us it was no problem, and reassured us that we had plenty of time to head to the restroom first. It was a simple gesture, but I felt like I was talking to a human being who cared. As funders, it is easy to get caught up in funding criteria, grants management systems, and docket deadlines – setting them up meet our needs but not often considering the needs of our grantee partners. It is helpful to put ourselves in the shoes of those we hope will apply for our funds, and see them first as human beings who are trying to make a difference.
  7. Accompany customers toward the solution. Another moment of positive customer service was the United representative at the Premier ticket counter, who immediately understood my linking problem, and literally walked me to the computer check in screen and pressed all the buttons for me to figure out if we could solve any of the problems. She was able to get free luggage for us both, and then kindly confirmed that my Premier status would not extend to my husband. Again, I felt like I was talking to a human being who cared about me as a human being. She couldn’t fix all my problems, but she tried and she cared. You might not be able to fund a particular applicant, but can you go the extra mile to brainstorm other funders that might be a better fit? Could you pick up the phone to make an introduction, or send the grantee an email if you hear about another funding initiative? The nonprofit will know that you care, and that will make a difference.
  8. Look up.  Four Hilton employees huddled around the same computer screen, not bothering to look up at the 15 customers waiting to check into their rooms. Maybe there was a serious computer problem, but it didn’t take four people to fix and they should have at least acknowledged us.  Funders too should look up. Walk away from your computer screen, get out of your office, go visit your grantees. Find out what is happening in your community. Have needs changed? Did the line just get longer?
  9. Don’t show your dirty laundry. Better yet, clean it up.  There is absolutely no reason why customers should see every overflowing
    View Behind Hilton Registration Desk

    View Behind Hilton Registration Desk

    file folder and bin of paper clips behind the hotel registration desk.  I understand an “open air” floor plan, but if that is the case it should look like an impeccably organized display from The Container Store. I’ve walked into few disorganized foundation offices, but I have seen and heard a lot of dirty laundry. Employees who talk openly and negatively about their colleagues or about how poorly run their foundation is. Foundation CEOs who complain about specific board members. I’m all for transparency, but I would prefer to see foundations making changes, starting at the highest leadership levels, to fix organizational problems allowing for a productive and enjoyable working environment for all.

  10. Treat your employees like you want them to treat your customers – Given how chaotic the out-in-the-open “back office” was at the Hilton registration desk, it was not a surprise that none of the 10 employees were aware of which part of their hotel would be experiencing construction that day (we were trying to avoid jackhammer noise). An organized operation would issue daily “construction update” bulletins to every single employee each morning. If your employees experience disorganization in the workplace, it is highly likely that your grantees experience it as well.

Improving your customer service isn’t a momentous challenge and you don’t need to hire consultants to help you. Just ask yourself: “When is the last time I thought about “customer service” at my foundation”? If the answer is “never” or “not lately” hold a brainstorming session at your next staff meeting. Ask yourselves: Who are our customers? What does it mean to provide excellent customer service to them? Are we doing this? What are three things we can immediately do to improve our customer service? Check back in with yourselves in three months and see how you are doing, and what else you can improve, and how your organization can structurally support these improvements. I guarantee your grantees and your employees will appreciate it.

ComNetwork Gumbo

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by  Chris Wolz, President/CEO at Forum One Communications.  Follow Chris on Twitter – @cwolz.

Chris Wolz“So, what’s gumbo?” Nam-ho Park asked when the steaming bowl was put in front of him the night before the conference. I was a little stunned that my colleague, a certified world traveler, was a gumbo newbie!  So I gave him my best explanation of the good things that can go into a gumbo, the importance of okra, how to make a roux, etc. He ate it and really enjoyed it. (We then moved on to the crawfish etouffee, which required another explanation.)

I’ve been thinking about what went into the “gumbo” that was the Communications Network conference this year?  What were the juicy morsels that I’ll remember, and tell others about?

First, the rich roux that bound the whole event together was, as always, the fascinating hallway and dinner table conversations.  The network is a collection of bright and passionate people who (let’s admit) really love to talk!

Next, I’ll remember a lot of what author David Simon had to say, such as his brutally frank comment that:

“Until we build some other kind of America, this (i.e. NGO and foundation work) is just triage.”

He said this after saying how the economy in the US simply did not need the volume of workers it once needed, but we’ve not filled the gap with anything else.  He spoke of the despair that he saw on street corners in Baltimore, where drug hustling was often the most dependable employment.

I also enjoyed Simon’s sentimental comments about his home New Orleans – saying, even if New Orleans were whipped off the map today, it would have already made a huge contribution to the world – the gift of African-American jazz music.  I loved being there – and on Thursday night in about three hours heard three good jazz groups, for the low price of three drinks.

Junot Diaz warmed my heart when he spoke about the importance of writing, and about his passion for teaching writing. He said, “it is in writing that people think their most complex thoughts”, and also that he taught writing at MIT not to find the next Melville, because “everybody should write!”

I also enjoyed his comment about how the older we get, the more “we let our complexities show.” Some of us let ‘em hang out all over the place.

I missed, but heard a lot about Beth Kanter’s session on capacity building and training of nonprofits. I followed the many tweets of her comment that the goal in training should be to be more the “guide on the side” than “sage on a stage.”

There was a lot of talk about the continuing downward spiral of the newspaper industry, which I know is poignant for the many former journalists in the Communications Network. It’s also rather old news. I’d like to hear more talking about the exciting things the Knight Foundation is doing to push innovation in the media and news sectors. I’m a big fan of their work.

A session tagged #BluePrint14 featuring Lucy Bernholz and others got a lot of attention, discussing the likely trends in the NGO and foundation sector in 2014. Lucy is working on pulling together her predictions, as she has in prior years, and I’ll be watching her tweets for the update.

Finally, it was wonderful to be in New Orleans, my first time!  I enjoyed a lot of conversations about the culture and development of the town, post Katrina. I saw and heard a lot of optimism – for example this great work to improve the health of the community – recognized by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in its “Roadmaps to Health” prizes. See this video.

You’ll see how much I referred to tweets by people from the conference. I think one of the best uses of Twitter is to track interesting comments when at a conference, and also to refer to when trying to write a recap 😉  Here’s a link to see the tweets from the conference with the #ComNetwork13 “hashtag”.

What’s your movement?

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by  Akilah Williams, Communications Officer at Crown Family Philanthropies.

Akilah Williams2“Until we resolve or build some other kind of America, this is just triage,” said David Simon of “Treme” and “The Wire.” As the first plenary speaker he gave us a wakeup call and emphasized that we simply need to do more – and we must do it with utter credibility. He encouraged us to look beyond the typical motivation of social change, and realize there is no way to deal with everything. However, we must unveil and validate issues with authenticity.

As a four-time Communication Network conference attendee, this year felt the most provocative. It all came down to communications as a movement. How can we propel this even further? Several speakers inspired me to percolate this a bit.

The movement is altruistic and bigger than us. Will of Quicksilver Foundry, urged us to relinquish control in order to take our messages to scale. We must make our messages less about us and more about other people. He explained why it is a more powerful story when people can tell it their way. He was right; we are not in communications, we are in engagement. Emily of Nike Foundation, followed suit to say in order to do this we need to identify an unassailable vision accompanied by a universal ask. Unassailable…I love it! Jeremy of Purpose, also echoed to explain how peer-derived models give ordinary people the ability to shape structure and are thus successful. However, we can’t get too excited because it requires critical discipline.

The movement gives authenticity with dignity. Maria of Latino USA, warmed my heart and made me laugh with her examples of making invisible stories visible. She encouraged us to show people what could be by showing them they have power, and simply embracing human action. Once we realize we have the power to change a narrative, we can become fearless in conversation. Overcoming fear allows us to ask the questions that lead to untold stories. We must also be authentic so people trust their stories with us.

The movement converts. After starting this session with the most massive rock, paper scissors competition, we were ushered into examples of scaling that works. Jill of Playworks, unashamedly admitted that she became the biggest convert who now values communications to move beyond letting people know about them to achieving their organization’s mission. Eric of Fenton reminded us to beware that communications cannot solve every type of problem; however it can help grantees achieve their goals. We can do this by understanding and developing the critical mass. Someone said it best; people are more likely to get behind a cause if they can experience a solution.

The movement is unapologetic. “It’s natural for people to do stuff and say that’s pretty _ cool,” said Junot, acclaimed author and professor. He explained that the social contract of society demands that we present a less complex version of ourselves and our ideas, but we must disconnect from that ideology. It is our ability to tell a specific message that fosters a human connection…which goes back to the prior themes of authenticity and allowing people to possess a message. He believes in encouraging people to test a message to allow them to create ownership.

The movement bolsters the field. In the transformative communications session, capacity building experts shared examples of their processes. Be it toolkits, training sessions, grants to grantees, grants to consultants or peer-to-peer workshops they are all making headway to elevate communications for their grantees. Eva from Chicago Community Trust discussed ways to utilize networks to provide grantees with access to communications training. Tara from Big Duck discussed their Jewish day school social media academy. Session attendees discussed a foundation collaborative to leverage collective funds to provide grants to and train select grantees. Yes!

The movement is palpable. On the way to the airport, in a cab pervasively taking “back roads” to avoid traffic, I had the pleasure of riding with a fellow attendee, Natasha, who embraces the movement through her work with Micro Documentaries. She told me of stories of how their videos tell authentic and actionable stories.

Through it all I returned to Chicago recharged and optimistically overwhelmed. Now begins the never ending question: what is your movement and how will you get moving?

Making the Invisible, Visible

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by  Maryland M. Grier, Senior Communications Officer at the Connecticut Health Foundation.  Follow Maryland on Twitter – @marylandgrier.

Grier1When plenary speaker Maria Hinojosa said, “make the invisible visible,” in talking about underserved communities, I heard the word, “aha!” in my head. For me, a lifelong priority has been to support folks who are often referred to as ‘the underdog.’ Often, we in foundations identify the exemplary or popular grantees for media interviews, videos, or features, when in fact, we have hidden jewels whose stories will resonate as more human, real stories for reporters as well as their audiences.

Our new strategic focus at the Connecticut Health Foundation (CT Health) is to help more people of color gain access to better health care. (See our pretty cool infographic).  In Connecticut, 65 percent of the people who do not have health coverage are people of color – many invisible to the general public. These are immigrants, working poor, or people whose primary language is not English. Maria’s comment made me realize the importance of humility and a sincerity when listening to ‘invisible’ people – also leaders in their own rights– for their perspectives. I have been inspired to work in partnership with grantees, Navigators and in-person assisters and other partners to ‘make the invisible visible’ so that they too will have a say in the health care system and how it’s working for them.

Communications professionals, especially in philanthropy, tend to like to stay behind-the-scenes, making things happen – or be invisible themselves.  Conferences force ‘invisibles’ to be ‘visible.’ That is… if you want to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from your peers.  For me, that meant I had to do more than sit in a room taking notes.

So, aside from Maria and the other presenters, I actually learned the most from my fellow invisibles – over lunch or dinner, walking to a session, or getting a cab with members of the Network who were very generous and intelligent about various aspects of our work as strategic communicators. What I found most helpful were conversations with peers, questions raised by attendees, and presenter responses.  In light of Maria’s comment, the theme that emerged and resonated for me was ‘storytelling.’ Some of my conversations with peers from other foundations opened my eyes about how else I can use stories or parts of stories.

  • For example, one foundation uses stories to share with board members to give them a real sense of the impact of the investment.
  • Another extrapolates quotes or talking points from stories to use in speeches, videos, reports and other presentations. Just as Maria told the parts of stories during her keynote, I will weave in quotes for use in media interviews or speeches.
  • Another idea shared was to build in time during a board meeting to invite in grantees and clients, not to report on findings from a policy brief, but to share success stories with a human face. It is important to build in time for program to connect the story to the mission and program strategy—building in time for questions and answers.

How have you made the ‘invisible, visible’ in your work as a communicator?

I welcome your comments on the impact of storytelling in accomplishing your mission and goals.

You May Call Us Evangelists

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by  Jorge Cino, Creative Writer & Nonprofit Communications Specialist for the Levi Strauss Foundation.  Follow Jorge on Twitter – @jorgecino.

Cino1From the struggle many nonprofits face in engaging elusive millenials to the complexities of navigating the fragmented media landscape, much (good stuff) has been written by my peers about last week’s 2013 Communications Network Conference.

But the more I reflect on it, the more I return not to the “latest lessons and best practices,” not to the “new tools and resources,” but to a desire to reflect on us, communications folks.

David Simon, creator of the HBO drama The Wire, advised us to “look at the fault lines” and share more of those uncomfortable but illuminating narratives.

Journalist Maria Hinojosa called for us to be reliable resources and educate journalists and bloggers so that they can in turn inform the public on the pressing social issues of our time.

The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta emphasized the importance of maintaining our messages and subject’s integrity, and novelist Junot Diaz urged us to relinquish (partial?) control so that our audiences can own their narratives.

In times of constant change and uncertainty, perhaps the greatest benefit of coming together at a conference like this and hearing from revered “outsiders looking in” is to remind one another of why we love doing what we do, and to renew our commitment to the people and issues we serve.

When designing an innovative or untested communications strategy, are we daring to ask ourselves, “Why not?”

When we finally get a seat at the table with our program peers, are we asking precise (and sometimes tough) questions? How about offering precise (and sometimes tough) answers?

When culling the most impactful stories from our grantees, are we equipping them and our program colleagues with the necessary tools and resources they need to better help us?

Does our passion and enthusiasm to amplify their good work shine through? Are we sharing updates and results along the way with all key stakeholders? Are we modeling transparency and adaptability?

And if not… Why not?

Yes, at the conference I was reminded that us communications folks are, above all, evangelists. And as any good evangelist knows, to inspire others we must first inspire ourselves.

Courts of Law and Public Opinion

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by  Paul VanDeCarr, Managing Director and co-founder of Working Narratives.  Follow along on Twitter – @wnstory.

Paul VanDeCarrCropI learned a few things at the Communications Network conference session on “Impact Litigation as a Tool for Social Change: Perry v. Hollingsworth and the National Conversation about Marriage Equality.”

One, the folks who waged the fight against Proposition 8—in the courts of law and of public opinion—are really smart. Seriously, they’ve got brains to spare. Presenters included Felix Schein, principal of Griffin|Schein, a public interest communications firm; and Adam Umhoefer, executive director of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER).

Two, on a related note, communications was a critical element of their strategy—for more than one reason. “Impact litigation” means taking on legal cases where a win will affect a lot of people, rather than just the litigants; a communications strategy can help boost the chances of a legal win, complement the impact of a win, or buffer the effects of a loss.

But before I get into that, here’s little memory refresher. In 2008, California’s Proposition 8 passed and amended the state Constitution to eliminate marriage rights for same-sex couples. The public interest communications firm of Griffin|Schein didn’t like that one bit, so they conceived of and launched AFER to fight back; Griffin|Schein still houses AFER and manages strategy and media relations. AFER was the sole sponsor of the federal court challenge of Proposition 8, otherwise known as Hollingsworth v. Perry. That case was argued by legal eagles Theodore Olson and David Boies, who pretty much kicked ass all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So why does communications matter when using fighting for justice through the courts? For one thing, it matters for fundraising. Okay, maybe not so much in the case of AFER, which was launched almost entirely with funds from a tiny handful of donors, among them record mogul David Geffen. But for other impact litigation groups, it can be tough to get foundation or other financial support, said Schnein in the conference session, because there’s a sense that it’s a “binary”—you either win the case or you lose. So it’s hard for an ED to go to a foundation and ask for a grant for a case they may very well lose, or after the fact to report, “We spent $1 million on this case and we lost.” But Schein disagrees with that perceived binary; if you run a good a communications effort, he says, you can leverage a legal case to change public opinion, regardless of the court’s decision. That boosts nonprofits’ chances of securing foundation support.

Changing public opinion not only matters for fundraising, of course, but for the cause, too. There was a not insignificant shift in public opinion on marriage equality between the passage of Proposition 8 and this summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling. That was thanks in part to AFER’s work around the case. On its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case was heard in Federal District Court, where the judge ruled that the proceedings could not be televised. However, once the transcript of the hearing was released, AFER enlisted Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (“Milk” and “J. Edgar”) to pen “8”—a play based on original interviews and court transcripts. A one-night-only staged reading of the play in NYC and LA by such stars as Morgan Freeman, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt raised a big pile of cash for AFER, and the script was made available for any community group to do their own staged reading and talkback. Community productions and a YouTube video of the play have been watched over a million times. Who knows if it changed any minds, but it certainly rallied the base.

Technically, judges and justices are supposed to make decisions based only on the legal merits, but in truth they may also be swayed by public opinion, or by the opinion of certain publics, anyway. When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, AFER assembled amicus briefs from big names from across the political spectrum and in government, business and other spheres. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the appeal to the District Court’s decision, effectively returning marriage equality to California; to capitalize on that victory, AFER and Griffin|Schein organized media events in Los Angeles and San Francisco around the resumption of weddings—they celebrated the win and showed TV viewers that this was nothing threatening.

With the Proposition 8 case over with, the two groups are continuing to fight in other states, with an eye to winning full marriage equality for all Americans. The change they make will not be made in the courts of law alone, but in the hearts of people who come to embrace, or at least tolerate, same-sex marriage. Their example offers a role to foundation communications staffers to support impact litigation grantees looking to have a broader impact than just in court decisions.

Paul VanDeCarr is the managing director of Working Narratives, and the author of that organization’s recently released publication, Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers. Write to him at paul@workingnarratives.org.