Creating a Communications Culture

by Jim Canales & Stefan Lanfer
Barr Foundation

This piece originally appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) as part of Making Ideas Move, a series on the power and potential of social sector communications produced by The Communications Network in partnership with SSIR.

Culture trumps strategy. We all know the adage. So when a foundation is contemplating a more-ambitious communications strategy, what can it do to build a culture that will embrace that change?

From the outside looking in, a lot has changed at the Barr Foundation over the last nine months. We are new to our respective roles as president and communications director. We just launched a new visual identity and website. We have a presence on social media. We are building a communications team. Yet from the inside looking out, the greater—and more significant—shift is that a culture of communications is taking hold. To do this, here are three guiding principles that we have followed:

1. Communications must advance mission.
The communications landscape is changing rapidly. The pressure to catch up and keep up can be strong. Yet for mission-driven organizations, the first question should never be about tools and tactics. Should we get on social media? Redo our website? Start producing videos? There is no way to answer these questions without being clear about what you are trying to achieve.

At Barr, we initiated our change process by engaging our trustees in a conversation about how communications might advance Barr’s mission. We considered examples of other foundations that had successfully integrated communications for greater impact and aspects we might emulate. This created space to explore more thoroughly where there was the greatest enthusiasm and what concerns might exist. Ultimately, it helped us build agreement on a new vision for communications. In the words of one of our trustees, “Communications is obviously an important tool in our arsenal, and to the extent it is mission-advancing, we ought to be using it.” Decisions about what tools or tactics to use, how to organize ourselves, and how to allocate resources would follow. Yet they would be anchored in (and emboldened by) this shared vision.

2. Leadership must be on board.
Without clear agreement and direction from a foundation’s leadership, communications strategy cannot reach its potential. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated a strategy or team may be. Without engagement from the top, a spirit of anxiety and timidity can rule. Not knowing how far leadership is willing to go, staff members default to playing it safe. They avoid risks. They react, protect, and play defense.
Compare this to an environment where leadership helps to shape the strategy, where communications staff know their mandate and boundaries, and where staff operates with the full confidence and engagement of leadership. When that happens, a spirit of boldness, a willingness to take risks, and a proactive, open, and creative orientation can manifest. Sure, surprises, failures, and sometimes crises will happen. But the organization can embrace these as opportunities to learn and grow together, and to realign for greater impact—rather than as causes for recrimination or retrenchment.

3. Organizations must tap outside wisdom.
While this terrain was unfamiliar to us, it was not uncharted territory. Throughout our change process, we actively sought the wisdom of others further along the path than we were. At targeted points in our process—such as when we were framing that initial conversation with our trustees—this commitment led us to engage experienced and respected consultants who had assisted other foundations to navigate similar terrain. We have also continually reached out to peers (including many through The Communications Network), whose generosity of time and counsel has never disappointed. These perspectives have broadened our understanding, brought external credibility to our strategy, and ensured that we weren’t too insular in developing our approach. We know we will continue leaning on others as we find our way, just as we look forward to more opportunities to share what we are learning.It is an exciting time for communications in philanthropy. Like those featured in this Making Ideas Move series, more and more foundations are recognizing that their reputation and voice—not just their grantmaking dollars—are critical assets that deserve thoughtful strategy and stewardship. And when that new thinking fuels a new culture—one that embraces a more central and ambitious role for communications—the potential for greater impact is substantial.