The New Communications Imperative

by Andrew Sherry
Knight 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.


For most of the 20th century, the go-to tools of communications were landline telephones and the US Postal Service. Most foundations preferred to stay humbly behind the curtain, letting their grantees’ good works speak for themselves, while nonprofits ventured out only for fundraising appeals.

Many of today’s foundation leaders spent their early careers in this setting, when communications was viewed as an appendage to the real work. After all, when an op-ed in one newspaper could reach everyone who needed influencing, and at least one of the city fathers was on your board, how much external communications muscle did you really need?

The Internet clearly changed all that. It atomized the information ecosystem, and shook up business, politics, and culture. A few trusted news outlets gave way to thousands, of indeterminate credibility, as well as new ways to communicate, influence, and fundraise via platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn,, and Kickstarter.

Chaos presented opportunities for organizations and individuals who were ready to use communications in an entrepreneurial way. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for example, quickly realized the potential of the web to educate policymakers and deliver health information directly to the public. The Open Society Foundations assigned professional photographers to file to its Instagram account, giving followers a look into the issues it cares about.

Today, communications is not just an opportunity for nonprofits; it’s a necessity. Whether we’re fundraising or trying to influence policy, how we reach the right person with the right message has changed profoundly. Now it can take far more to figure out who the right people are, what channels to reach or influence them through, and how to hear them. It’s one thing to land a grant to open a new art space; it’s another to convince city hall that the community wants it, and still another to build a community to support it.

At its most powerful, communications means creating narratives that help the media and the public make sense of the disparate pieces of information flying at them from multiple sources. One narrative that emerged: Building the future of news and information is cool. Knight worked to convince coder and maker types that assisting traditional media organizations, which had been slow to embrace a digital future, was worth their time. Grantees such as the Mozilla Foundation and ProPublica became our partners. With Mozilla, Knight established a fellowship program that embeds those technologists, people often working on cutting-edge ideas, in newsrooms to help build the future of news one line of code at a time. ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization that develops investigative projects, helped show traditional media that data-driven applications could add depth to storytelling—and win major journalism prizes while doing it. Knight also became a regular attendee at SXSW Interactive, meeting the coders and makers at ground zero for innovative ideas. Finally, a video involving a Chihuahua showed that group that Knight itself was willing to depart from traditional means of communications in experimental ways.

Knight also led an effort to help community foundations embrace the digital present through online giving days, though it represented a departure from their core business model of working with wealthy individuals. We created an interactive Giving Day Playbook that, combined with outreach, has helped the foundations generate millions for community nonprofits while making them relevant for a new generation in their communities.

A current challenge we have is to convey the message that attracting talent, expanding opportunity, and spurring engagement are the best levers to make cities successful. Developing the Knight Cities Challenge was a big step: an open call for ideas to make cities better, supported by press outreach; posts on our own blog; videos; podcasts; social media; Facebook, Pandora, and community newspaper advertising; and a mention in our sponsorship tagline that accompanies NPR programming.

Our communications builds on the two pillars of outreach and content, and our work promoting grantees is emblematic of this. We help them pitch funding announcements to the press (a traditional method) and encourage them to write blog posts, which we then share through social media. For the many startups among our grantees, the post, the social media lift, and their grant page secure an instant, solid online presence.

For most foundations and nonprofits, communications is no longer an appendage to the work, but an integral part. In the information age, it’s a big part of how social change happens. The Center for American Progress, for example, changed the debate over withdrawal from Iraq by disseminating a moderate, progressive plan in 2005.

One of our grantees, CitizenshipWorks, is redesigning its mobile app, which aims to simplify the naturalization process for permanent legal residents. The new version won’t require a lawyer’s handholding, but it will require that we execute multi-level communications to reach the broad audience for whom the app is intended. Just as foundations are increasingly integrating metrics into the front end of grants, they should integrate communications so that the substance and message are one and the same. It’s a powerful recipe for social change.