Philanthropy Fashion and Spotting Trends Here to Stay

This blog was re-posted with the permission of the Communications Network.

In 2013, asymmetric hems, neon colors, and bold stripes have been all the rage in fashion shows around the world. Last year, pajama-inspired pants and wedge sneakers rocked the runway. As a resident New Yorker, I find myself surrounded by these styles and trying to occasionally participate, but by the time I purchase a long shopped-for item, it’s no longer in vogue. Fashion trends are tough to keep up with; in philanthropy, it’s not much different. But, while ownership of a leather wide-brimmed hat probably doesn’t affect your long-term outfitting strategy, being tuned in to philanthropy trends is necessary for maximizing impact. That’s especially true when it comes to the role of communicators. Whether we’re at the designer’s table weaving a new perspective into the fabric of our organization or sitting in the front row while our colleagues innovate in other departments, trends represent both a learning opportunity and a powerful asset for telling our stories. The liberation of data for increased transparency, knowledge sharing, and collaboration is an example of a philanthropy sector trend that’s here to stay. From the Foundation Center’s Reporting Commitment that shares open, timely, commonly-coded grants to the Urban Institute’s PerformWell platform that shares nonprofits’ metrics used to improve performance, there is clear commitment to sharing data in useable formats. To participate by contributing data to platforms like these is quite fashionable. Just as wearing animal prints is not right for everyone (and certainly not for me!), not every industry trend fits every organization. Big Data is certainly out there, but foundations would be prudent to think about how to “make it their own” before jumping on the bandwagon. I would argue, however, that going a little outside of your comfort zone, be it with a loud print or a deep dive into an opportunity data set, is good. Data sets like these offer a way to assess and contextualize your current funding priorities, and can even provide a new angle through which you can share your grantees’ impact in local communities. In a time when data and communications are simply inseparable, the potential for surprising and positive results is huge. And, just think of what you’ll learn along the way. By experimenting a little with new trends, you learn from the very process of adapting, create iterative change internally in your organization and externally with your grantees, and seek out additional growth opportunities. Even if you ultimately decide that a trend isn’t right for you, that process of self-reflection and strategic decision-making helps you to clarify your organization’s focus and role in the philanthropic community – benefits that any brand-conscious communicator would be grateful to have. Furthermore, being transparent about that process in your communications – e.g., via social media, blogging, or sharing insights on your website – fosters a culture of learning and raises your profile in the field. In this sense, you’re building your organization’s reputation not simply as a thought leader, but as a thoughtful leader. When we talk about trends, I think of images and ideas that are popular now but will soon phase out of style. It takes a keen eye and a continued presence in sector conversation to know if a trend will be a distant memory next season or become a lasting industry game-changer. Does that mean that you shouldn’t integrate the potentially fleeting, acid wash jeans of today into your workspace? No. In fact, you might become a trendsetter that changes the thinking in funder communities. Take, for example, Lucy Bernholz’s prediction that mobile payments will become a burgeoning platform for charitable giving. Will your nonprofit be the one to transform this trend into the next industry mainstay? And what about infographics? Will they replace PDFs once and for all, or will they soon get buried in our communications “toolboxes” in the back of the closet? Only time will tell, and we can only tell if we give it a try.  Even if you’re not that runway model, you’ve helped your organization to evolve and grow, which is always a good thing. Although “trying on” new trends is often an exercise in collaboration across an organization, communicators have a unique opportunity (dare I say responsibility?) to frame these efforts in a way that enables others to recognize their value, growth, and lasting impact. When I joined the Foundation Center’s team earlier this year, my colleagues in the Marketing & Communications department had just launched the Annual Report. And while I had always been vaguely aware of the Center’s innovative data partnerships and sector-savvy resources, it took this year’s online interactive format for me to really appreciate and understand how deep trends like data-driven decision making and transparency reach into the organization’s work, vision, and values. Embracing a trendy communications vehicle helped unveil an institutional identity.

A final note: At the upcoming Fall Communications Network conference, I’ll be on the panel, Trendsetter, Go-Getter: Staying Ahead of the Curve, with Edith Asibey, principal, Asibey Consulting; and Lucy Bernholz, blogger, author and visiting scholar, Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. You can help us shape this panel by answering this question (please post your answers in the comment box):

What philanthropy trends are making your yes list, and which should be booted off the runway?

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