Parting Shots

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network and CommA Fall 2010 Conference in Los Angeles with the help of a blog team, which is part of the conference’s 2nd annual Gorilla Engagement Squad.  This is a guest post by Daniel Silverman, Director of Communications, The James Irvine Foundation. Follow Daniel on Twitter: @IrvineFdn

by:  Daniel Silverman

As I leave The Communications Network conference, I am struck by how universal the implications are of the subjects and insights we covered over the last two days. Every session was a “communications” session; there was nothing that made you scratch your head and ask, “Why are they presenting this information at this conference?”

Yet, the implications of so much of what we discussed transcend the typical, or at least traditional, role of communications in philanthropy. This point was made most directly in the discussion many of us had with Sendhil Mullainathan after his presentation. Sendhil essentially suggested that communications needs and insights must drive the very creation of the product. For philanthropy, that would mean that communications insights should drive the fundamental programmatic strategy and grantmaking decisions we are making.

A few thoughts this raises for me:

  • This is a sign of success. The communications function in foundations has evolved from a news release and annual report production factory to a strategic partner to help foundations accomplish their missions. The Communications Network deserves credit for recognizing this evolution (and perhaps helping creating it).
  • The day-to-day responsibilities of communications staff in foundations is not necessarily evolving as quickly as our strategic role is evolving. By that, I mean that we still have to spend a fair amount of time managing websites and editing memos and producing board books and need to figure out how to do that work with the broader mandate in mind. We can’t, and shouldn’t, try to stop doing all the other things, but we need to figure out how to streamline those activities and accomplish them with the broader strategic mandate in mind.
  • We need to continue to deepen our relationships with our program colleagues. It is great that many of us brought program staff with us this week and I add my voice to the Communications Network leadership who are encouraging more of that. More importantly, on a day-to-day basis, we need to work hard to be smart partners to our program colleagues. We need to follow our own communications advice by being good listeners first, before we try to institute, or even recommend, communications-driven changes to our grantmaking strategies.

I always leave these conferences feeling a bit overwhelmed and wondering how I’m going to integrate all of the new insights into my workflow. This time, I feel like we all spent more time talking about how to make all this wisdom actionable, so I leave slightly less overwhelmed and slightly more hopeful that I might actually follow some of this advice, rather than just blogging about it. Thanks to all of you for being part of those conversations. See you in Boston!