Express Yourself

by Darren Walker & Alfred Ironside
Ford Foundation

With great interest and admiration, we have read and reflected on our esteemed colleagues’ contributions to this series about the role of strategic communications in driving social change. We are delighted to participate in the conversation. While many have written insightfully about what we can do if we embrace strategic communications, we would like to talk about why these communications are so important and how we can use them to help create real, enduring change.

When the two of us took on our new roles at the Ford Foundation, the president of a major university told Darren that he appreciated the way we were raising our voice on the issue of growing inequality in America. “You’ve got an independence to speak out on issues that university presidents don’t have anymore,” this person said. “I’ve got a capital campaign to worry about and can’t afford to offend my donors.”

It rings true. As financial pressures, market-oriented thinking, and short-termism take an ever stronger hold of so many sectors in our society—including the university and arts sectors, and even the public sector—foundations are privileged to enjoy a kind of independence.

Now more than ever we have the unique opportunity to communicate uncomfortable truths to entrenched power, including our very own sector.

One of our favorite quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is written on a sticky note in Darren’s office: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

This idea informs—and indeed inspires—our work and the way we match words to it. It challenges us not to be smug in our privilege. It gives us license to ask why there is philanthropy in the first place, and to speak candidly about the national and global systems that created us—systems of which, as Henry Ford II phrased it, “we are a creature”—especially when they benefit some more than others.

We know this advice does not apply to every foundation, and not every foundation needs to speak out in the same way. But sometimes we see our peers leave unleveraged opportunities for communication on the table, and—if we are being honest—we do not always use our full set of tools to make change, ourselves.

From our perspective, there are three things every foundation can do more of, locally or globally, when it comes to strategic communications:

Steward time strategically. The Ford Foundation has a broad social justice mission and global footprint—there is no shortage of topics to which we might speak. Time is our most precious asset, and we do our best to put it to optimal use. Rather than try to speak to everything, we tie most opportunities back to the topics our leaders are passionate about and actively prioritize. By accepting more invitations than we turn away, we generate good will and more opportunities.

Be comfortable with taking risks. We deliberately have avoided leaning on talking points and traditional messaging when our leaders are out speaking. Last year, Darren helped celebrate Ballet Hispanico. In addition to sharing some more-traditional remarks about the dance company, we got creative and made a video of us doing some dancing of our own. More than anything else, the video reflected a sense of fun and authenticity that people responded to far beyond our expectations, which leads us to our final point…

Be authentic. We know from surveys like the Edelman Trust Barometer that the public, by and large, does not trust its institutions or leaders. Why? Often because the public does not believe that what institutions and leaders say is what they actually do. Their messaging often comes off as manufactured rather than meaningful, and their humanity gets lost in translation. There are so many dynamic, interesting leaders in philanthropy, but too often foundation leaders take a conservative stance, rather than speaking from candid, relatable experience. Our leaders are more effective when their communications reveal their humanity and vulnerability in the service to their missions.

Ultimately, we are ardent believers in the role and power of philanthropy to support and sustain movements for justice in our societies. As a global foundation, we can be the megaphone—the amplifier—for the voices of visionaries on the frontlines of social change.

Smart communications strategies make foundations relevant. If we are relevant, we create opportunities to influence others and build new partnerships. And by attracting new partnerships, we are more likely to contribute to pragmatic, powerful problem-solving across sectors.

As others think through their communication strategies, we encourage them to embrace the strategic use of time, risk-taking, and authenticity. Then and only then will we be able to inform and inspire, connect with people, and catalyze real change.