Category Archives: Communications Network

Announcing the Blog Team for the Communications Network Annual Conference

I’m thrilled to announce the Communications Network/Philanthropy411 Blog Team for the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference!  We’ll be blogging from New Orleans starting with the pre-conference sessions on Wednesday, October 2nd.  Follow along with the conference hashtag:  #comnetwork13 and follow @Com_Network and @Philanthropy411 for tweets about the conference and blog posts.

Here is your  Communications Network/Philanthropy411 Blog Team:

adcock1 Cynthia Dodd Adcock
Vice President, Communications and Marketing
Independent Sector
Albert William Albert
Chief Program Officer
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy
 Banse1 Liz Banse
Vice President
Resource Media
 Brady Dan Brady
Communications Manager
Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers
 Cino1 Jorge Cino
Creative Writer & Nonprofit Communications Specialist
 Kate_emanuel1 Kate Emanuel
Senior Vice President, Nonprofit and Government Relations
Ad Council
 Grier1 Maryland M. Grier
Senior Communications Officer
Connecticut Health Foundation
 Held1 Lucas Held
Director of Communications
The Wallace Foundation
 Environmental portraits of the Skillman Foundation's staff at 100 Talon Centre Drive Detroit, MI 48207. Krista Jahnke
Communications Officer
The Skillman Foundation
@kristajahnke; @skillmanfound
 Erin_Kelly1 Erin M. Kelly, MA
Social Media Manager
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Nicole Lampe Nicole Lampe
Head of Digital Team
Resource Media
 Rick_Landesberg1 Rick Landesberg
Landesberg Design
 LoriMcClung1 Lori McClung
Advocacy & Communication Solutions
 Bud_Meyer1 Bud Meyer
Mother Fracker
 Eliz_Miller1 Elizabeth R. Miller
Communications Associate
Knight Foundation
 Kris 1 jpg Kris Putnam-Walkerly
Putnam Community Investment Consulting
 Remaley_Michael Hamill Michael Hamill Remaley
Vice President of Communications & Public Policy
Philanthropy New York
@mahremaley; @PhilanthropyNY; @ppcnyc
 Paul VanDeCarrCrop Paul VanDeCarr
Managing Director and co-founder
Working Narratives
 Liz Wainger1 Liz Wainger
The Wainger Group
 Weir1 Avalee Weir
Communications Manager
The Ian Potter Foundation
@AvWeir; @IanPotterFdn
 Norris_West1 Norris West
Director, Strategic Communications
The Annie E. Casey Foundation
 Akilah Williams2 Akilah Williams
Communications Officer
Crown Family Philanthropies
Chris Wolz2 Chris Wolz
Forum One Communications
 bill_wright2 Bill Wright
Vice President, Outreach and Advocacy
America’s Promise Alliance
@americaspromise; @APA_wright

15 Tips for Effective Communications Planning

I’ve helped dozens of foundations to develop and launch new grantmaking initiatives. One of the lessons I’ve learned is the importance of communications planning – early and often. As one colleague advised me, “Communications begins the moment you open your mouth and start talking about the idea of your initiative.”  Yet communications planning often gets overlooked.

To help one of our clients prepare for communications planning for a new initiative, I conducted brief research to identify recommended components of a communications plan, and approaches to communications planning. I wanted to share some of the key findings with you, in hopes that it helps you with communications planning for your philanthropic initiatives and programs.

A Strategic Communications Plan Should Have Internal And External Components

An internal communications plan is for everyone who has ever been involved in the planning of your initiative. This includes people such as all of your foundation staff and board members who have been involved conceptualizing and developing the initiative, planning team members, advisory council members, the community members who have ever participated in planning meetings, and other involved stakeholders.  Internal communications strategies for those most closely involved in current planning efforts, such as an e-newsletter to keep all the planning team members appraised of what each other is doing, will be very different from strategies to connect with broader stakeholders who don’t yet know about your efforts, such as policymakers, media, and community members.

The external communications plan is for anyone who hasn’t been involved, but who needs to be.  This might be the people who will benefit from your initiative, business, schools, policymakers, other funders who have not yet committed funds, community providers who have not yet been involved, the media, etc.  It also includes those who might be opposed to your efforts.

13 Components of a Communications Plan

A strategic communications plan should include the following:

1. Measurable goals and strategies – The communications plan should include clear and measurable goals and strategies. These goals should be as specific as possible. Avoid generic goals such as “raise awareness”, and make sure communications goals are realistic and can be accomplished with the human and financial resources available.

2. Target audiences

  • You will want to have agreement about who are the key internal and external audiences, what they key messages are for each audience, and what you want each audience to do as a result of hearing those messages.
  • Be as specific as possible about what you want to accomplish with each audience, and how communications can help. For example, communications with state policymakers will differ if you are trying to create policy change, or if you are trying to get a new line item in the state budget.
  • Think about audiences in two groups: those who will support your effort, and those who will be against it. Be sure to have strategies that address those who will be barriers to success (e.g., to see if you can turn some of them into supporters, or “frame the debate” to prevent their negative messages from taking hold)
  • Delineate the different sectors of audience (public, private, nonprofit, etc) as well as the different levels (local, regional, state)
  • News media is both an audience and a vehicle, so you should be clear on the role of media for each.
  • The “general public” is not a target audience.  You need to be more specific.

3. Identification of the message “frame” – The plan should describe how the initiative should be framed (e.g., “education will lead neighborhood residents to economic opportunity”). It should also identify what people’s current frame is (e.g., “schools in this neighborhood are horrible and students are getting a terrible education”), how you can communicate with them within their current frame, and how you will move them to the new frame.

4. Key messages and persuasive strategies – As mentioned above, while there might be one overarching message, different audiences will need different key messages. You will also want to identify the readiness of each audience to hear and act upon these messages, their core concerns so that you can ensure your messages are meaningful to them, and the messenger to share your message.  Additionally, there are different types of persuasion, and the plan should address how each persuasive strategy will be used to gain support. For example, rational persuasion uses technical data and logical arguments, while emotional persuasion uses values and emotion, such as photographs of happy children, to convey messages.

5. Opportunities and barriers for reaching key audiences – The plan should identify different strategies for and opportunities to reach key audiences with your messages. It should also identify barriers and how those barriers can be overcome.

6. Communications activitiesFor each goal and strategy, there will be a series of communications activities, or tactics, identified. Each activity/tactic should have a clear timeline, communications vehicles, people assigned to them, and a budget.

7. Communications vehiclesWithin each goal, strategy and tactic there will be different communications vehicles to use to carry your message to your audience.  This includes face-to-face meetings, telephone calls, e-newsletters, blogs, grassroots mobilization, policy reports, op-eds, community meetings, etc.

8. Crisis communicationsThe communications plan should include how to manage and communicate about any crises that might arise.

9. Implementation planThe communications plan should be accompanied by an implementation plan. This should be a very clear road map that lays out specific timelines, deadlines, activities, who is responsible, etc.

10. Monitoring and evaluationYou will want to track and measure success, so each communication goal and strategy should be measurable and evaluated. That way you can also make adjustments if certain strategies and tactics aren’t working.

11. Timing considerationsA realistic time horizon for a strategic communications plan is three years.  However, the communications plan should include immediate-, short-, and long-term goals and strategies. The implementation plan should help in determining how to prioritize and roll out the different communication components, strategies and tactics. Since your initiative will have immediate communications needs, you should identify what needs to happen immediately and what are some “low-hanging fruit” tactics that could be implemented to meet those needs, even before a full communications plan is developed. Some ideas include:

  • Initial materials
    • Fact sheet – This would be a simple document outlining the aim of your initiative, the timeframe, and who is involved.
    • PowerPoint deck that describes your initiative and conveys key messages. This can be used for both larger presentations, and also to “talk through” the initiative during one-on-one meetings. There might be slightly different versions of this for different audiences.
    • Talking points to ensure internal stakeholder leaders are conveying the same, clear messages.
  • E-newsletters or email updates to key stakeholders (brief)
  • Conducting a series of individual meetings with key stakeholders who have not yet been engaged to inform them about and begin to involve them in your initiative.
  • Identifying “ambassadors” who can help tell the story about your imitative. This can be helpful when many one-on-one meetings or group presentations are needed (so one person is not burdened with conducting them all).

12. Staffing – If a foundation has internal communications staff, it is very helpful for them to begin participating early in planning conversations. This enables them to understand the initiative so that they know how to communicate about it, and also ensures that planning happens with a communications lens. You might need to retain a communications consultant.  It will be helpful to have one person/firm responsible for creating a communications plan, and that this could be in-house staff or a consultant.  Whoever creates the plan should be someone with experience conducting strategic communications planning, preferably with complex, community-based initiatives.

One communications consultant is unlikely be have the skills, experience and capacity to meet all of your communications needs. The foundation could hire a consultant to develop the plan, and that consultant will likely be able to implement some parts of the plan but not all of them. That consultant should be able to help the foundation identify other vendors to help with specific pieces, such as media relations, advertising, community outreach, etc. That consultant could even serve as a coordinator/implementation manager of all the communications-related work.  Someone needs to be identified to manage the implementation of  the communications plan. You can find communications consultants who specialize in philanthropy and nonprofits through the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers and the Communications Network.

13. BudgetThere should be a detailed communications budget developed as part of the plan. This way, choices can be made regarding where to focus limited resources.  Like anything, communications can get very expensive, and the plan needs to match the resources available.

If you found this blog post useful, please subscribe. On Twitter? Follow me @Philanthropy411.

Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.

Latest Ideas About Philanthropy Communication

Philanthropy411 recently covered the Communications Network 2010 Fall Conference with the help of a blog team. Altogether there were 41 conference attendees who tweeted, blogged and conducted on the spot video interviews about the latest developments and challenges in effective foundation communications. Below is a list of all blog posts published for this event, and you can check out highlights from the video interviews here. A great is example is this video of Daniel Silverman, Director of Communications at one of our favorite clients, The James Irvine Foundation, discussing what he learned about “crowdsourcing” at the conference.

1.  Announcing the Communications Network Conference Blog Team!
By Kris Putnam-Walkerly, President of Putnam Community Investment Consulting; Twitter: @philanthropy411

2. Translating the Philanthropy and Social Capital Market Sectors – a ComNet010 and SOCAP10 Cross-post
By Adin Miller, owner of Adin Miller Consulting.  Twitter:   @adincmiller

3.  Flying into a Paradox
By Lucas Held, Director of Communications at the Wallace Foundation;  Twitter:  @WallaceFdn

4. I Got out of Bed for This: Leaving Home for LA
By Sylvia Burgos Toftness,Communications Lead at the Northwest Area Foundation;  Twitter:  @NWAFound

5.  The Comm Network’s Gone Hollywood, Should Foundations?
By Adam Coyne, Vice President, Director of Public Affairs at Mathematica Policy Research;  Twitter:  @adamcoyne

6.  The Search for Wisdom
By Larry Blumenthal, Web and Social Media Strategist at Open Road Advisors; Twitter: @lblumenthal

7.  Can Surowiecki Help Us Make Wiser Grantmaking Decisions?
By Daniel Silverman, Director of Communications, The James Irvine Foundation; Twitter: @IrvineFdn

8.  Can Philanthropy Truly Embrace the Wisdom of Crowds?
By Adin Miller, owner of Adin Miller Consulting;  Twitter:   @adincmiller

9.  Tell Me a Story
By Lucas Held, Director of Communications at the Wallace Foundation; Twitter:  @WallaceFdn

10. How Do We Know What We Know – and Do We?
By Sylvia Burgos Toftness,Communications Lead at the Northwest Area Foundation;  Twitter:  @NWAFound

11. Parting Shots
By Daniel Silverman, Director of Communications, The James Irvine Foundation; Twitter: @IrvineFdn

12. Upsetting the Foundation Apple Cart
By Larry Blumenthal, Web and Social Media Strategist at Open Road Advisors; Twitter: @lblumenthal

13.  Reconnecting with my Relaxed Self
By Cindy Schulz, Director of Public Affairs and Strategy at The Cleveland Foundation.

14. We’ll Always be Beginners
By Lucas Held, Director of Communications at the Wallace Foundation; Twitter:  @WallaceFdn

15. From the Social Media Toolbag: ComNet010 on Twitter
By Adin Miller, owner of Adin Miller Consulting;  Twitter:   @adincmiller

16. Meetings Making you Dumber? Try This… By Stefan Lanfer, Associate for Strategy & Knowledge at The Barr Foundation;  Twitter:  @stefanlanfer

17. Disruptive Philanthropy – How Can Foundation Communicators Help Spur “Adjacent Possibilities”?
By Allyson Burns, Director of Communications at The Case Foundation;  Twitter:  @allieb37

18. A Year for “Firsts”
By Rebecca Arno, VP, Communications at The Denver Foundation;  Twitter:  @tdfcommunity

19. First Impressions
By Dan Brady, Communications Manager at the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers;  Twitter:  @givingforum

20. Wisdom of Crowds – Succeeding in Practice?
By Chris Wolz, President and CEO of ForumOne;  Twitter:  @cwolz

21. Stories and Change
By Joan Mazzolini, Communications Officer at the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland.

22.  Applied Crowdsourcing
By Dan Brady, Communications Manager at the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers;  Twitter:  @givingforum

If you found this blog post useful, please subscribe. On Twitter? Follow me @Philanthropy411.

Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.

Stories and Change

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 Joan Mazzolini, Communications Officer at the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland.

by:  Joan Mazzolini

As a newbie to both foundation communications and the Communications Network, I traveled to L.A. not sure what to expect.

Like fellow blogger Dan Brady, I too was “flying solo,” arriving thinking I would know (by e-mail) just one other person attending the conference.  (The one person was a colleague from a sister foundation to my own organization, the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland.)

It turned out there was a few more people I knew. And as a recovering journalist, I found many others of my breed have infiltrated foundations. I also found truly nice, friendly, interesting and smart people in the too short conference.

Unfortunately I had to leave right after the last speaker, Prof. Sendhil Mullainathan. However, his concept of “psychic resources,” stuck with me. While we want to tell our stories and those of the groups we fund who are helping people and hopefully improving lives, I think it’s easy to forget how one small adverse event – needing $500 in car repairs – can impact people living on the edge.

Recent data shows that the gap or income disparity between the richest and the poorest Americans is now greater than in any other time in U.S. history. That’s something to remember and consider.

As is Steve Lopez’s moving talk on his connection with Nathanial Ayers and the power that the printed word still has even with videos of kittens doing anything increasingly capturing our attention and taking up some of our mental space. The printed word changed Ayers’ life (and Lopez’s too)  and the foundation later established because of that is having lasting effects on others with mental illness.

While more than one cell phone rang during Lucy Bernholz’s talk, her point that most people are doing everything but talking on the phone – checking the web, checking Facebook, texting friends (and doing some actual work too) brings us back to one of Mullainathan’s points of our limited attention span and how easily it is diverted.

The theme of the conference — connections between each other but also connecting to our audiences — encourages us to tell the very best stories we can so that we have the same kind of impact on the world as “The Soloist.”

Wisdom of Crowds – Succeeding in Practice?

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 Chris Wolz, President and CEO of ForumOne.  Follow Chris on Twitter:  @cwolz.

By:  Chris Wolz

Adin Miller, a friend and all-around smart guy, wrote a blog post reflecting on James Surowieki’s talk about the “Wisdom of Crowds” at the Communications Network and CommA Fall 2010 Conference.  Adin’s right that there are challenges to putting the wisdom of crowds to good use for foundations, but I’m optimistic – seeing good models of this today which can be applied by foundations for their work. Hey – foundations used to be nervous about social networking, too!

Surowieki’s talk, drawing on his 2005 book, was about the surprising value of crowd-based judgments, from guessing the numbers of jelly beans in a jar, to mapping Martian craters, to open contests like the DARPA Grand Challenge for driverless vehicles.

Surowieki also writes about several key criteria needed to develop “wise” crowds, namely: diversity of opinion, independence of opinions, decentralization (i.e. people able to drawn on own knowledge), and aggregation (i.e. a mechanism for turning private judgments into a collective decision.)

Adin and others from the conference expressed concern that tapping the wisdom of crowds (online) will be difficult for foundations because:

  • Achieving a diversity of opinion is not easy to accomplish online;
  • The self-reinforcing nature of online discourse can lead to lack of independence;
  • It will be a big challenge for most funders to be “willing to let the crowd challenge the power structure it represents”; and
  • Philanthropic institutions might embrace “input from crowds” but then reject the wisdom if it did not conform to the opinions of their leadership.

I agree with Adin that accomplishing a valuable discourse online can be challenging – but all the more reason to start experimenting now. And in terms of whether foundations will actually accept input from crowds, I think there are areas where the input is needed, and can be highly constructive, making adoption non-controversial.

I see plenty of examples of where foundations could today tap the wisdom and insights from “crowds” online in valuable ways. Here are some examples, and my thoughts on implications for foundations:

Crowdsourcing Generation of Data and Ideas:

AID Data is starting a new project to mesh “official data” on development aid from donors with “observational data from people on the ground”.

Ashoka’s Changemakers uses an online “open source” approach to build communities of people interested in finding solutions to challenging global problems.

David Roodman of the Center for Global Development is writing a book about microfinance a chapter at a time on his blog and the feedback he gets is shaping his book.

The Federal government has recently launched to enlist the public in helping to solve difficult problems.

Foundation application? Use online tools to gather data from across sectors. Use blogs and interactive features to collect input on research and writing in-progress. Use competitions and contests to generate new ideas from new audiences.

Predictive Markets:

The Iowa Electronic Markets uses an online wagering model to predict, accurately, political elections.

DARPA’s Future Markets Applied to Prediction (FutureMAP) program tested whether prediction markets could help identify strategic intelligence.

Foundation application? Use a predictive market to tap a global audience of experts to develop projections for likely problems – such as where the next pandemic will occur.

Crowd-funding New Ideas:

Funding platforms for artists, musicians, and inventors: Kickstarter and IndiGoGo

Crowd-based funding for projects – such as Global Giving and Donor’s Choose.

Foundation application? Providing online infrastructure to aid grantee organizations in decentralized fundraising. Also – foundations could  use such fundraising as an information-gathering tool – to judge public interest and faith in different approaches.

Private Sector:

There are some examples of these crowdsourcing approaches being adopted in the private sector, such as by NetFlix, GE, Dell and Starbucks.

It may take some time for foundations to find the high-value use of crowdsourcing, but there are some good models to start from, so let the experimentation begin!

First Impressions

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 Dan Brady, Communications Manager at the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers.  Follow on Twitter:  @givingforum.

By:  Dan Brady

When I landed in LA, I met an old friend for lunch who told me that I should take particular care to watch the sunsets during my time on the West Coast. He described the way the sun lowered itself from the sky and lit up pockets of clouds here, then another group over there, then another, until the entire sky flooded with orange then faded to rose, then a deep purple-blue. From the roof of the Grammy Museum on the first night of the conference, I saw exactly what he meant.

It was his image of cloud pockets lighting up like synapses that struck me, and, in the end, encapsulates my feelings about ComNet010. In session after session, there were so many bright spots lit up with new ideas, new connections, new friends, that as I write this from LAX waiting for my plane back to DC, my mind is flooded with warm and exciting light.

This was my first time attending any Communications Network event. I came in with some trepidation. I knew a few people via email or Twitter, but mostly I was flying solo. Who would I hang out with? What would I learn? After all, my organization, The Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, is not a funder (the assumed audience of the conference), but a philanthropy infrastructure group. Would the content relate to my work? Would I find the kind of kindred spirits and adversarial thinkers I was looking for?

My fears quickly abated. Somehow—perhaps by some ingenious unseen hand of Bruce’s—a bunch of us first-timers found each other early and formed quick friendships (shout out to Elizabeth Campos, First 5 Fresno County; Danielle Yates, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations; and Katrina Yee, Rockefeller Brothers Fund!). Not only that, but several ComNet board members (notably Vicki Rosenberg, Council of Michigan Foundations, and Alfred Ironside, the Ford Foundation) checked in with me regularly to make sure I was having a good time.

As the conference went on, a theme of connection became clear. Not only connecting to my peers in the field, but also connecting audiences to stories, donors to causes, stakeholders to information, and society more deeply to itself. But now, we re-enter the everyday world, I’d love to hear how we can continue these connections and conversations. A bunch of us DC folks are planning a post-conference meet up to ensure that we keep in touch and press further into the ideas we encountered in LA. What is everyone else doing? Surely there are other ways to harness the power of this crowd?

A Year for “Firsts”

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 Rebecca Arno, VP, Communications at The Denver Foundation.  Follow her Foundation on Twitter:  @tdfcommunity.

By:  Rebecca Arno

2010 was a year for firsts…the first time Communications Network and CommA, the association of community foundation communications professionals, held a joint conference.  The conference planners tried, for the first time, a structure that relied on plenary speakers and follow-up conversations.  And another first – for the Communications Network at any rate – we had a speaker talk about the role of living donors in the work of philanthropy.

This makes sense, since 2010 is also the year that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates issued their “Giving Pledge” to encourage wealthy Americans to give away significant portions of their assets.  And of course, those of us in community foundations work with living donors all the time.  Yet even the most well-endowed of private foundations will be hard-pressed to accomplish their goals without connecting to the vast resources – more than $200 billion – contributed each year by living donors.

Tracy Gary has been talking about how to motivate donors to give more and give wisely for years – she has started more than a dozen nonprofits and helped raise over $750 million for charitable purposes, including through the Women Moving Millions Program.  She talked about what life is really like for a donor who might become a partner in addressing a community need – they are deluged by information and overwhelmed by the needs they see and hear about.   Her advice – engage these donors and create real community for them, then empower them to build their own communities on behalf of your cause.

Tracy’s plenary speech was followed by a roundtable discussion for community foundations about building endowment.   While she shared additional ideas – including giving donors talking points and encouraging them to be partners in recruiting others – the majority of suggestions came from people in the circle.  The Hampton Roads Community Foundation is launching a bequest initiative; the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation is taking advantage of the Endow Iowa tax credit; and the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis has seen success with their Give $365 campaign.

While it may have been a year for firsts, this discussion brought back the long-known and deeply-held value of groups like the Communications Network and CommA: so much of the wisdom comes from the people in the room and the connections we make.  I’ve already seen this echoed in other blog posts…and look for it to continue and grow in the years to come, in both organizations.

Disruptive Philanthropy – How Can Foundation Communicators Help Spur “Adjacent Possibilities”?

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 Allyson Burns, Director of Communications at The Case Foundation.  Follow Allie on Twitter:  @allieb37.

by: Allyson Burns

Reflecting on my experience at this past week’s Communications Network conference, which featured incredible speakers and really insightful conversations, one of the things that continues to strike me is Lucy Bernholz’s discussion of “adjacent possibilities,” during which she encouraged the philanthropy sector to adjust to new and changing models of addressing social challenges.  With the rise of B Corporations and other new organizational models like those of Ushahidi and Crisis Commons, what role can we communicators take to encourage the traditional philanthropy sector to embrace and work more closely with these new forms of enterprise to make a bigger impact?

Lucy set up the need for adjacent possibilities with a slide that clearly demonstrated how no one sector (public, private, foundations or nonprofits) is equipped to address major social challenges – which, in and of itself isn’t a surprise.  However – and I say this as someone who is still a relative newcomer to the philanthropy space –  I’m often struck by how challenging it has been for our sector to figure out how we can harness both new and old models to solve big challenges.  While Foundations should proudly take credit for doing incredible work, it seems that we often tend to stay within our own silo.  Part of this is due to fundamental structure barriers that are somewhat out of our control (highlighted by the Ushahidi example) but I think it may also be because we’re afraid of losing some of the control that current models allow us to have.

As Daniel Silverman of the James Irvine Foundation pointed out in his reflections on the conference, “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.”  So what can we as communicators do to encourage our leadership to think disruptively?  How can we push our space to open up and work together with these new enterprise models – be they B corporations/social enterprises, new forms of nonprofits, etc., in spite of the barriers we face?

Facilitating the use of crowdsourcing, another hot topic at the conference, is one possibility.  As this post by Adin Miller and as other fellow CommNet bloggers and tweeters pointed out, truly leveraging the wisdom of the crowds may be a challenge when it comes to finding diverse crowds and making sure we actually leverage the wisdom they provide.  But I think we have to start trying.  By employing the listening tools that effective crowdsourcing requires, we’ll learn about and be able to elevate new approaches and thinking to our leadership.  Crowdsourcing is something that continues to be top of mind for us at the Case Foundation – we began experimenting in 2007 with our Make It Your Own Awards, one of the first public grantmaking programs. Did we get it exactly right? Certainly not – but we’re proud of what we accomplished and that the effort spurred additional experimentation with this model, and we’ve continued to share what we learned and have made a commitment to cultivating additional conversation about crowdsourced models to create more powerful programs that tap into collective wisdom of the crowds.

In addition, we as foundation communicators have a unique platform to highlight and facilitate conversations around issues that we care about.  Taking the case of Ushahidi, which couldn’t get traditional foundation funding because it was not a 501(c)(3), or any other “out of the mold” model, we can search for other ways to help these organizations – by spreading the word about their work or identifying partnership opportunities through our various networks.

I’d love to see foundations take the lead in embracing disruptive philanthropy, and push the sector to evolve.  How do we as communicators do that? I know that I don’t have all of the answers, but it’s a conversation I’d love to see get started.

Meetings Making you Dumber? Try This…

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 Stefan Lanfer, Associate for Strategy & Knowledge at The Barr Foundation.   Follow Stefan on Twitter:  @stefanlanfer.

by:  Stefan Lanfer

One of the most piercing insights, and the most practical advice I heard at last week’s Communications Network  Conference arrived in the opening plenary.  We heard from Jim Surowiecki, author of Wisdom of Crowds, which has sat for a long time on my to-read list –  even though it’s one of those books, like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, or Chris Anderson’s Long Tail, where you get the hypothesis essentially just reading the title (OK, for Long Tail, it helps to have the chart too).  In short, Surowiecki argues that large, diverse groups consistently outperform the smartest guy or girl in the room.  They even do better than groups of “experts.” The only trick is figuring out ways to aggregate individual input, and to determine a true group insight – like taking the average of our 100 guesses at  the number of jelly beans in the big glass jar that started at conference registration, and then followed us to the opening night reception, where Eric Brown harassed just enough of us into participating for the experiment to validate Surowiecki’s point.

Why does diversity win?  Homogeneous groups tend to make the same kinds of mistakes.  They can’t see their own blind spots.  All kinds of diversity are valuable – racial, socio-economic, generational, experience, and more.  Most important, however, is cognitive diversity.  This is the ability to frame problems in completely different ways, to bring independence of thought to a problem.  In contrast, homogeneous groups often take cues off of each other – especially where there is a strong leader defining the problem and setting the tone.  Just picture the “brainstorming” meeting where the CEO or Executive Director kicks things off by talking for 10 minutes, and the awkward silence that follows when he or she invites the team to unload all its ideas.  Really, he says, all ideas are good ideas.  Let’s hear ‘em!  There were no calls of “Amen!” from the crowd, but a quite a few nodding heads, when Surowiecki asked, “How many of us have sat in meetings and, thirty minutes in, have said to ourselves, ‘I am now stupider than I was thirty minutes ago?’”

When Suroweicki added that the “best group decisions emerge out of conflict, not from easy consensus,” I jumped in line at the microphone to ask a question.  It struck me that, many of us in philanthropy – and maybe in the social sector generally – are part of these teams that, despite bringing lots of kinds of diversity, we still have these shared missions, values, sense of purpose (and sometimes, lets admit it, ideologies too) that make it hard to generate true diversity of thought.  With all of the intelligence, and experience, and insights, and let’s not forget passion about our work, it seems like we should be able to sit in a room together and hash it out – to dispassionately consider the evidence and the options.  And then the bright insight just emerges in beautiful, easy consensus, right?

So, I asked Suroweicki – how do those of us on relatively small teams bring diversity of thinking into the room?  He offered three specific tactics:

1.  Use devil’s advocates – assign someone (or maybe better if it’s several) on the team to stake out and defend different views. Makes sense, though Surowiecki also pointed out how easily this tactic is undermined (as in, “OK, OK, let’s let Bob tell us why we shouldn’t go down this path – and then let’s discuss how Bob’s reservations are too trivial to worry about, and let’s agree to do what we’ve already decided we want to do.”)

2.  Have junior folks speak first – rather than opening a brainstorming session by letting the leadership set the stage and tone (and setting the boundaries of free thinking – even if inadvertently), insist that the most junior team members inject their ideas first.

3.  Don’t even try brainstorming together – at the start of your “brainstorming” meeting, send people back to their offices to brainstorm on their own.  Then, once you’ve had a chance to synthesize, come back together, and talk about what came up.

A fourth I would add, which came up in different ways later in the conference – find ways to LISTEN! to those beyond your team, outside your building.  Lucy Bernholz challenged us to use social media not merely to talk louder, but to really ask and really listen to those with different ideas.  The same could be said more broadly of any of us trying to use communications as a lever for change.  This doesn’t happen if we think of communications merely as the imparting of knowledge – with us behind a megaphone pointing out at the world.  No, it only happens when we think of communications and remember its kinship to words like “communion” and  “community.”

Photo Credit by Creative Commons Attribution License:
Crowded” by Howie Le

We’ll Always be Beginners

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 Lucas Held, Director of Communications at the Wallace Foundation.  Follow the foundation on Twitter:  @WallaceFdn

by:  Lucas Held

Technology expert Lucy Bernholz began her plenary talk Friday morning with a dare: She invited the 200 people before her to turn on the cell phones, offering to buy a cup of coffee for anyone whose phone rang.

“We don’t talk on them,” she explained, but use them to text or surf.

Well, not quite.

In fact, over the next hour, at least three cell phones rang, including her own. “I’m going to kill her,” she joked, adding, “it was my dogwalker.”

For some of us, those phone rings signaled the prevalence of old ways along with the new.

Yes, the world is changing fast. Bernholz’s blog, Philanthropy2173, is a fascinating guide to emerging trends that is always future-oriented. And the bumper-sticker description of her talk that she offered was: “Technology and markets are transforming the way we produce, finance and distribute public goods.”

But as the call from her dogwalker illustrated, much is staying the same.

And that challenges communication folks to join the networked world of social media – while not forgetting everything else that, depending on your audience, can still be important: speaking engagements that harness the power of face-to-face communications; conferences, like the Network’s; reports in all their various forms; partnerships with organizations that can help share important insights with members; developing websites that connect people to information they need; search engine optimization efforts to help people find what’s on them; advertising, and reaching out to news reporters, wherever they work.

What are we going to give up?

It’s tough to say.

But one answer Bernholz offered was to think less about extending our reach by drawing people to us, and more by joining those outside of us. Her example was the TED conference that was once closed but now permits others to build their own versions, called TEDx conferences. TED forecast 200 such events in the first year, but they are up to 600, she reported.

Given her emphasis on conversation, I asked Bernholz whether she thought foundations like Wallace that have created an information-rich website with useful knowledge should “blow them up.”

“If you have built an information-rich website, pat yourself on the back. And don’t blow it up.”

Keep it, she said, but also put your materials elsewhere where people can find it, like

“You don’t have to take your stuff off your website,” she said. “You have to be part of other places.”

That’s a challenge to current thinking. And so too was the suggestion by Sendhill Mullainathan that if our goal is changing behaviors, we need to think much more about psychological barriers to change. A Harvard economist, he’s gone beyond the current fad of research on economic incentives as motivators to behavior, and is focusing on barriers like: limited attention span; lack of self-control; forgetfulness; and distractions.

If people aren’t taking their pills, maybe GlowCaps ( are the answer (and, by implication, not a communication campaign aimed at consumers.) We’ve long known that a major problem in medicine is patients who don’t take their pills. GlowCaps act like an alarm clock – beeping and flashing if a person hasn’t opened a bottle to take their daily dose.

And if people have a hard time changing their minds, he argued, why not communicate in ways that don’t ask them to challenge their current beliefs?

Although BMW automobiles are quite crash-worthy, consumers didn’t think of them that way. The breakthrough came with a new ad that shows a driver accelerating suddenly to get out of the way of a load that falls off the back of a rickety truck.

In other words, he said, BMW redefined safety to mean “swerving safety,” not crash-worthiness, in order to accommodate, not try to overcome, the existing mental model of BMW. And it succeeded. People did start seeing BMWs as safe. This may not be a totally new insight; good branding experts pay attention to what the market gives an organization “permission” to be.

Others, like Susan Bales of the Framework Institute might argue for the benefit of working to “reframe” issues by replacing one mental model with another. But both could probably agree with Mullainathan that often the problem may not be lack of communication, but that “we have the wrong model of what people think.”

And speaking of mental models, I used this space two days ago to muse on a few paradoxes. I’m not sure they have been resolved, but I’m leaving this excellent conference (kudos to Bruce Trachtenberg and colleagues) with a few observations:

  • The tenor of the conversation has changed. Network conferences eight years ago were filled with angst that communications “got no respect” in foundations. Not this time. Maybe that’s because, as Bernholz told us, “Data are the platform for change. And that puts you right at the heart of the revolution.” That’s an opportunity and a challenge for communications to step up to the plate.
  • The rise of social media raises uncomfortable questions about whether the new media will be a two-way street. As Bernholz asked, “Are you going to listen to different people, or just use it to talk louder?”
  • We’re going to feel like we’re playing catch-up for a while. As Bernholz said, “at the rate technology is changing, we’ll always be beginners.”
  • And, finally, I was reminded in a conversation Thursday with Jane Praeger, owner of Ovid Inc., that the biggest challenge may still be developing a sound strategy. That was a point echoed by Mark Chattaway, of Baird’s CMC, when he noted that: “for me the biggest challenge for people is to understand what their goals are. And the chairman wanting to be on CNN is not a strategy.”

In other words, communications planning that asks who the audience is, what’s the goal, and what channels make sense, still in fashion. And perhaps more than ever in the fog of uncertainty surrounding this emerging new world.