Greater Influence, More Impact

by Judith Rodin & Neill Coleman
Rockefeller 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.

The power of influence is extraordinary.  In 2013 the Rockefeller Foundation developed ideas on how to build a more resilient New York and New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy, and we used influence—our brand, reputation, knowledge, networks, and convening power—to leverage $5 million of our grant dollars into the smarter use of almost $2 billion in federal funds. In the process, we helped catalyze a shift in the national conversation from disaster relief and recovery to resilience planning—a shift that will save lives and taxpayer money in this era of disruption.

Deployed strategically, influence can be one of the most important tools for impact, ranked right up there with the more traditional grant-based interventions philanthropy is best known for. The two work hand-in-hand: An influence approach allows foundations to both magnify the impact of their grants and use other assets (such as the expertise of staff) to advance programmatic goals—in the case of Rockefeller, our twin goals are building greater resilience and more inclusive economies.

We’ve seen success with this influence approach across the globe. Our Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), for example, convenes practitioners and produces toolkits to support the development of comprehensive city resilience strategies in South East Asia. After demonstrating proof of concept at the city level, ACCCRN helped inform a national policy in Vietnam, and now the government is seeking advice and support from the Rockefeller Foundation to develop an urban resilience assessment tool that it can apply in more than 60 cities, with the ultimate goal of saving lives as Vietnam deals with the impacts of climate change.

How can organizations—foundations or otherwise—build their own influence strategy? We recommend five steps:

1. Build an “influence endowment,” and manage and grow it just as you would a financial endowment. Start by understanding your brand and your strengths, or “influence assets.” One of Rockefeller’s assets, for example, is our history: 102 years of philanthropy, from the field of public health to the Green Revolution. You can commission a professional brand assessment, but if you don’t have the financing for that, there are some good resources, such as the framework developed by Nathalie Laidler-Kylander and Julia Shepard Stenzel in their book The Brand IDEA. The book emerged from research funded by Rockefeller, which Laider-Kylander and Christopher Stone outline in the SSIR article, “The Role of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector.” Or you can set up your own series of conversations with peers and partners. Once you can clearly and explicitly identify your brand and strengths, promote them to build influence capital you can spend later.

2. Understand when and how to use influence as a component of your impact goal. Rockefeller, for example, has set a goal of bringing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to cities in the United States. BRT delivers the permanence, speed, and reliability of rail systems, along with the flexibility of bus systems, for a fraction of the cost of rail. We invited reporters from target US cities to go to Mexico City to see gold-standard BRT in action, then our grantee developed different influence strategies for each targeted US city. In New York, for instance, we funded a “BRT for NYC” campaign, which involves a diverse group of business organizations, rider advocates, labor unions, and social justice groups committed to addressing transportation inequality by advocating for Bus Rapid Transit. In concert, Rockefeller has used our history and reputation in New York City to inform “power players” (funding and planning decision makers), who can communicate the need for BRT to constituents and help achieve campaign goals.

3. Map your networks. Who are the influential people who can deliver your goal or connect you to the people who can? Don’t forget to include your board and staff at all levels of the organization. At Rockefeller, we create individual thought leadership plans for each senior program leader so that through activities like blogging, public speaking, and board memberships they can strategically grow and build their influence to advance their impact goals.

4. Be creative and flexible in seizing opportunities for engagement. For example, we used our centennial in 2013 to build our “influence capital” by engaging with political, business, and media leaders through a series of convenings, publications, and challenges. We also spent our “influence capital” on two major, new, high-visibility initiatives that year—Digital Jobs Africa and 100 Resilient Cities—that will require significant shifts in behavior for success.

5. Be patient and look ahead. The Sandy funding initiative we mentioned earlier was a two-year process. Immediately after the storm, Rockefeller was asked to help develop recommendations for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s commission, co-chaired by Judith, which focused on how New York State might rebuild in a more resilient way post-Sandy. Our recommendations informed both the Governor’s policy priorities and the recommendations of the federal Sandy Task Force. Out of this process came Rebuild by Design—a competition that brought together global, interdisciplinary teams of scientists, engineers, designers, and architects to work alongside affected communities and generate ideas for more resilient design.  Now, capitalizing on our expertise in resilience, the federal government is expanding this model through the National Disaster Resilience Competition, offering up $1 billion for 67 disaster-affected communities across the United States.

Influence isn’t free—it takes significant staff time and likely some strategic investments to understand your brand and grow your networks. But with these five steps you can be in a strong position to use influence to significantly magnify and multiply the impact of both your communications work, and your grantmaking or programmatic spending. Influence is a force multiplier that foundations and nonprofits can no longer afford to regard as optional.