Communication Matters

An ongoing project in which the Network tries to crack the code of what we mean by “effective communications”

By Minna Jung
The Communications Network Board Chair


In this brief paper, we share what we’ve learned from a series of conversations held over the past year with people who work at or with foundations and nonprofit organizations. The conversations focused on communications: how people and organizations communicate with each other and external audiences, how they invest in communications, how they even define the word “communications.” We want to remind you why we initiated these conversations, what we learned from them, and what we think this means for the Communications Network, moving forward.

First, some background: The Communications Network is a nonprofit organization with over 500 members that’s been around for a few decades. The organization offers webinars, an annual conference, and other content to help people who work at foundations and nonprofits communicate effectively.

For most of its existence, the Network has provided a platform for people who care about communications and who work at mission-driven organizations dedicated social causes. The platform sometimes takes different forms; sometimes it’s a conference with great speakers and sessions, sometimes it’s a webinar, sometimes it’s a listserv, sometimes it’s a one-on-one meeting between a communications professional and a communications newbie. Sometimes the Network provides refreshments, in the form of promising, exciting ideas and practices we’ve found through our channels. On this platform, people can connect, share, and, we hope, go back to their respective organizations better equipped to do their work. As one Network member stated: “I come to Network meetings to teach and to learn about how to communicate well so my organization can have greater impact on the issues we fund.”

With the Network’s longstanding raison d’etre in mind, three things happened in recent years that prompted us to do something sort of like what we’ve been doing all along, but in a more organized way – and this project, Communication Matters, is one of the things that that resulted. The three things were:

  • In 2012, the Network’s Board engaged in a strategic planning process focused on the Network’s future. It led us to make a pair of important decisions. First, the Network would expand membership beyond foundations. And second, we would produce content to help everyone working on social causes “make the case” that effective communication matters when it comes to making meaningful progress on issues we care about.
  • Implementing the strategic plan was then paused for a bit as the Network went through a leadership transition. In mid-2014, we hired Sean Gibbons as our new executive director.
  • Despite pausing on the strategic planning front, the Network’s Board agreed to move forward with Communication Matters, to help us better understand what foundations and nonprofits believe about how communications supports (or doesn’t support) their goals.

In the spring of 2013, the Network hired two consultants to lead this project, David Brotherton of Brotherton Strategies and Cynthia Scheiderer of Scheiderer Partners. With the guidance of the Network Board and more recently, the Network’s new executive director, David and Cynthia developed and led us through a multi-phased data collection effort. It is important to note that while their work was research-focused, we elected not to comply with many established norms typically applied to qualitative or quantitative research. This project was ultimately about listening to as many voices and perspectives as we could, from all across the giving sector. So what we did involved scanning the field of published literature; plumbing a multitude of sources, like case studies and internal communication planning documents; and talking to a lot of our colleagues (not just communicatiors) working at foundations and nonprofits.

How is Communication Matters Different?

You may already be asking the question: Isn’t this like a number of other projects over the years that have examined foundation communications and came up with recommendations on how to do it better?

The short answer is: no, it’s not. The longer answer is: yes, we’ve all come across similar research efforts in our jobs, and the Network has even put out a few under our own steam, like a survey of foundations and social media practices and a twice-done survey of foundations’ communications practices. We’re aware of numerous studies and tools developed to help foundations and nonprofits think about branding, message development, social media, and in one case, to help foundations communicate more effectively about what foundations actually do.

This project is none of those things. This project was developed so that the Communications Network could continue to chip away at a question that has dogged so many of us working at foundations and nonprofit organizations: What is effective communications? And, if we can pin down what we mean by that, why aren’t more of us doing it?

So, what did we learn? Well, a great deal. And, it’s hard to tell what’s most useful to share now, and what’s most useful in terms of future conversation fodder for the Network’s audiences. To wrap up this phase of Communication Matters, we are going to focus on sharing what we learned in ways we think serve the immediate pragmatic needs of people who care about communicating on behalf of social causes, and want to do it better. But we are going to keep on noodling away as to how the lessons learned from this study can help the Network be a better resource to more people who care about contributing to real progress in the world.

Communications Network Goals and Hypotheses

Here is how we stated the original goals of the project, with the almost-verbatim wording from the Request for Proposals that went out to hire consultants for the project:

  • To help us better understand what foundations and nonprofits believe about how communications supports (or doesn’t support) their goals.
  • To better understand which foundations and nonprofits are using communications well, and how they’re doing it, so we can use those cases as examples for others to emulate.
  • To know the best ways to get foundations and nonprofits to use communications most effectively to achieve their goals.

Before we delve into any of the insights that emerged from the project, however, it is useful to unpack some of the hypotheses underlying each of our three goals. Though we didn’t make these hypotheses particularly explicit at the outset of the project, they were shaped by many of the comments that emerged in our early outreach and conversations – comments which echoed opinions long shared by Network members over the years and mirrored attitudes we’ve observed in our colleagues working at foundations and nonprofits. We cannot say with absolute certainty that these attitudes reflect or capture all of the cultural norms and prevailing practices in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector. But we do know they exist in the minds of many of our peers and colleagues.

Goal: To better understand what foundations and nonprofits believe about how communications supports (or doesn’t support) their goals.

Hypothesis: Many people at foundations and nonprofits must not believe that communications is important to the work they do, as evidenced by how many foundations and nonprofit organizations do not invest significantly in communications. (A.K.A., The “Tiny Communications Team, Tiny Budget” theory)

Goal: To better understand which foundations and nonprofits are using communications well, and how they’re doing it, so we can use those cases as examples for others to emulate.

Hypothesis: Some foundations and nonprofits are doing really exciting things in communications, either by using their own voice and profile or through partners and grantees. By sharing examples of these efforts (with evidence of impact, where it exists), other organizations may be motivated to do more, or better, with respect to communications investments. (A.K.A. The “Research-Based Peer Pressure” theory)

Goal: To know the best ways to get foundations and nonprofits to use communications most effectively to achieve their goals.

Hypothesis: We have heard that many non-communications staff at foundations and nonprofits behave as if communications strategies and tactics are not mission-critical to what they do. Is this true? And if so, what would change those attitudes and beliefs? (A.K.A., The “Our Colleagues Just Don’t Get Communications” Theory)

What We Learned, and How We’re Going to Share

We describe our methodology on the Communication Matters website, but in the simplest of terms, we tried to talk to as many people as possible who work in or with foundations and nonprofit organizations. Because of the Network’s built-in audiences, many of our respondents were, predictably, professionals with communications in their title and/or job description. Knowing that would skew the conversation, we also worked hard to get the viewpoints from other staff, too: CEOs, executive directors, trustees, and leaders working in finance, evaluation, and program. All told, we talked to nearly 500 folks, from all types of organizations and a cross section of job functions.

We asked all of these people, through a variety of modalities (an advisory group, two online focus groups, and an online survey) how they all feel about communications within their organization and across the field of social change. We did not make our questions particularly scientific—mostly, we just tried to get at how people thought about communications at their organizations, and how much they and others cared about different aspects of that work.

Through these various research methods we gathered a broad base of knowledge. The data collected helps illuminate shifting opinions about a few important themes:

  • The purpose and goals of communication in advancing social change
  • What it means to do communications “strategically,” and what that looks like in practice across various organizations
  • What is involved when organizations work at “integrating” communication and program functions in a substantive way
  • Common barriers and concerns shared about communications across all types of organizations
  • Who is seen as responsible for communications leadership and implementation
  • And what barriers most often stand in the way of communicating effectively

Given that we spent nearly a year wrapping our heads around all of these big ideas we now think it is time to share what learned from our conversations. There was such a large volume and variety of comments and responses gathered that we’ve decided to sort the information into what is, in essence, a working model for effective communication. The model is what sits at the heart of the Communication Matters website.

The model is made up of for primary pillars: brand, culture, strategy and action. And each of those four pillars contains a set of “attributes” that were forged out of the ideas, challenges, successes and hopes of those with whom we spoke.

When viewed as a whole our model helps define how foundations and nonprofits should think about communications as a strategic method for achieving social change. It articulates why foundations and nonprofits should care about communicating more effectively, vis-à-vis their organizational missions. And it encapsulates what everyone told us are the hallmarks of effective communications. We hope you will spend some time with our model. Kick the tires, and look under the hood. Think about these attributes with respect to your own work, and see if they do or don’t apply. The model is intentionally simple in design, deliberately so. And that simplicity provides a significant opportunity for all of us to learn from and, hopefully, build on it.

Ultimately, we know that a model only proves its value through the experience of those who take the time to walk through it and actually apply it to their work. And that this is not necessarily a case of, “If you build it, they will come.” We are thinking about multiple ways to bring the model to you, so we can road-test it together.

But before you plunge deeply into the model itself, we wanted to share a few thoughts on how this project is helping the Network think about the role of communications in advancing important social causes. And, we also want to share how this could change our thinking about ways the Network might help people at foundations and nonprofit organizations do their work.

Why This Matters for The Network

The biggest thing we think we learned from Communication Matters is that we still need to learn much more about the challenges facing foundations and nonprofits when it comes to investing in communications.

In part, we know we have to learn more because we found that at least one of our initial hypotheses was misguided – the one about our colleagues not “getting” communications. That attitude did not show up in our project at all. In overwhelming numbers, and with great clarity, our leadership, program, evaluation, and finance colleagues all told us that they understood perfectly well how important effective communications are to their organization’s mission and impact.

In all fairness to long-suffering communications professionals, however, this finding may be the equivalent to a lost key under a street lamp. You know, the street lamp only illuminates a certain area, and everything else beyond the area remains dark. By the same token, this project, because of its chief sponsors and champions and participants, might have only illuminated the folks at foundations and nonprofits who are already true believers in communicating for impact.

But even if that’s true (and it could be), the sheer number of people who participated in the project’s focus groups and survey suggests that we have more than a few true believers are out there. We can say unambiguously that there are hundreds of people working at foundations and nonprofits who really, really get why effective communications makes a difference to the work they do.

And, if we want more people at more foundations and nonprofits to believe this, case studies and evidence of impact may not be enough when it comes to increasing these numbers. Don’t misunderstand this point: we at the Communication Network still think it’s important to have those case studies and evidence, because generating them and sharing them serves all sorts of important functions, like helping good ideas spread and helping organizations and people learn from other each other, rather than re-invent the wheel. But we’re fairly certain that case studies and evidence of impact from good communications at foundations and nonprofits are not enough to break down all of the barriers to doing more of it.

So here’s the summary statement of what we learned and where we stand with the Communication Matters project:

The Communication Matters project, over the course of almost a year, looked at the attitudes and beliefs and practices of people who work at foundations and nonprofit organizations with respect to communications. Based on this query and the opinions it revealed, the Network developed a model detailing how we communicate, why we communicate, and the proposed attributes that define effective communications. Further, we found that the main problem underlying the lack of effective communications at so many organizations is not about “getting” the importance of communications. The main problem lies in “doing” more effective communications.

Which leads us to our final question: if there are so many people working at foundations and nonprofits who believe in the importance of effective communications, why do we still see so many cases where it’s not happening? This is what we think we need to learn more.

Moving Forward

The first phase of Communication Matters—the one we are wrapping up now—was intended to be a survey of attitudes and beliefs of people working at foundations and nonprofits with respect to communications. The Network’s Board also intended for there to be a second phase, which had to do with gathering examples and evidence of effective communications, based on the shared definitions and attributes of effectiveness that emerged from this phrase.

So we now face a critical question: Knowing what we know now, does the second phase make sense?

The honest truth is that we can’t answer this question yet. With our new Executive Director, the Network is fully back in the swing of figuring out how we can best serve our members and thought partners, and look to the future in terms of expanding our capabilities. Continuing projects like Communication Matters might be one of our core competencies, as long as we hear back that these efforts help organizations and people do their work better.

But the first phase really made us realize how much more we need to understand about the barriers that organizations and people face when they want to do more on communications and can’t, or won’t. And, we think that these barriers likely exist at different levels, such as:

  • Sector-wide barriers: Most organizations in the private sector have to communicate in order to survive. They have products to sell, shareholders to please, brand images to maintain. Foundations and nonprofits don’t have the same incentives (or profit motives) to communicate effectively; and ironically, while nonprofits DO need effective communications to maintain and increase funding streams, many of them are dependent for their funding on foundations that don’t model or support effective communications
  • Organizational barriers: We have often heard stories about the foundations and nonprofits where everyone really gets and supports communications, at all levels, internally and externally. These places are often spoken of as having a culture that values communications, openness, and transparency. But as we detail in our model, organizational cultures often aren’t like that, for any number of reasons: history, Board and senior leadership priorities, competition for scarce resources, etc. We’ve all known any number of organizations (especially family foundations) where the clear preference is for anonymity; we’ve also known organizations which are constantly putting out fires, like leadership transitions and keeping multiple donors happy and economic downturns, where communicating effectively really isn’t a priority, relative to other things.
  • Individual barriers: Many people come into foundation and nonprofit communications jobs from other fields that sound somewhat related to strategic communications, like journalism, or public relations. Those people need help in learning their organizations so they can figure out where to set priorities for effective communications. And for individuals who have been working in foundations and nonprofits for many years, so much has changed with respect to the world going digital, it’s a constant struggle to keep up. A few decades ago, a press release, an annual report, and perhaps a few reports or brochures represented the mainstay tools of a communicator working at a nonprofit. Nowadays, the media landscape has completely changed, and we have a bewildering array of channels and mediums through which to convey our messages and tell our stories.

In thinking about all of these possible challenges that face our sectors, organizations, and people we work in and with, we should no longer wonder why more people aren’t doing effective communications. In fact, the Communication Matters project gives us something to celebrate: that despite these challenges, so many people actually do get why effectively communicating is so important.

Finally, the Communications Network needs to understand where we, as an organization of many members working in the philanthropy and nonprofit fields, can be the most effective at addressing these challenges.

We’ve already played a big role in the lives of so many individuals working in philanthropy. We’ve heard numerous stories and testimonials from the Network’s members over the years about how the Network gave people a place to connect, find peers and mentors, and exchange ideas. Should we continue to play that role for foundations and nonprofits? And if so, is there anything the Network can do to address the challenges at the organizational and sector levels?

These are the questions we’ll be tackling based on what we learned from this project. We’re thrilled that so many people do understand why communication does, indeed, matter. But it’s not enough to know that people believe. For the Network, our definition of success—and we suspect this will be true for you, too—will be about doing, not just believing.