We wouldn’t be at this conference if we didn’t think foundations have value. I’m not talking about money (though, if you haven’t read it, Craig McGarvey’s 2001 Scrivner Award speech is a must-read on the topic). I’m talking about the roles foundations play in our communities across the country. And yet, when (and if) foundations talk about their work, the predominant frame they use is pretty dull. They talk about the transactional—X dollars to Y organization for Z issue. The image that comes to mind here is a cash machine.
And it’s reflected back to us in the data. A recent survey of Americans holding leadership roles at organizations involved in community and social issues showed that only 15 percent could name an example of a way a foundation has benefited their community. Only 19 percent had seen anything in the news about how foundations are responding to the economic downturn. And a 2006 study of how the news media covered foundations found that 99 percent of the 38,000 articles tracked were about dollars not impact. Foundations are not communicating their value to critical audiences and it shows.
Monday’s session “Beyond Cash Machine: Communicating the Value of Foundations,” hosted by the Communications Network and the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative, took up the challenge of how can foundations take action. The three panelists—Lisa Dropkin, Rich Neimand, and Vicki Rosenberg—and moderator Daniel Silverman all had distinct vantage points to offer from researcher to communications strategist to regional association leader to foundation communications professional. The overwhelming solution they offered? The best way to communicate value is through direct conversation with influential leaders, especially those in the policy arena and news media.
So, what do you say in these conversations? This is where some real concrete ideas for action kicked in. Dropkin, of Edge Research, shared that her interviews with 50 state policy-makers revealed the foundation role that most resonated was that of partner. Her advice was for a foundation to take every opportunity to communicate its partnership potential and tell a story about how it has worked with the public sector. Neimand, of the Neimand Collaborative, emphasized that foundations can best communicate value by talking about how they are people—not institutions—who are working for the public good. Foundations also show their value, he said, when they talk about their strategic giving. This helps distinguish philanthropy from charity.
The messenger is also crucial in this work. The Philanthropy 3D project in Michigan, which is a partnership between the Council of Michigan Foundations and 14 member foundations, has worked over the past year to develop a new and adaptable communications model for Michigan foundations. What makes this particularly new? The foundations are engaging their trustees as ambassadors and equipping them for direct conversations with their informal and formal networks. Rosenberg, of the Council of Michigan Foundations, shared how this and the power of foundations coming together to communicate are key takeaways from her work.
Silverman, of the James Irvine Foundation, closed with an important and I think uplifting point for all foundations and that’s that they don’t have to start from scratch when it comes to better communicating value. You can improve your existing communications vehicles before creating new ones. And as Dropkin emphasized, this work does not have to be relegated to your communications department—but can and should be a part of all functions from executive to program to communications.
Foundations have the opportunity today—some would say imperative—to communicate a new narrative that goes beyond the cash machine. This session was a good start in getting us there.
Courtney Spalding-Mayer is the project coordinator for the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative. You can reach her at email@example.com.