Communicating For Impact: Strategies for Grantmakers

Foundation communications goes far beyond an annual report or the occasional press release about grantees. And it's no longer the exclusive domain of big foundations, communications staff, or consultants. Integrating communications is critical to advancing programmatic goals. See how grantmakers use a "communications lens" to develop strategy, evaluate impact, take advantage of new media technologies, and more.

Highlights

  • Integrating a communications lens into grantmaking strategy
  • New media and bottom-up communications
  • ​Using the foundation's voice

What's in the Guide?

  • Why Foundations Communicate: "Communications" used to be seen as synonymous with "publicity." Increasingly, however, funders are thinking of communications as a fully integrated part of grantmaking strategy. Communications can help grantees and programs connect effectively with clients, decisionmakers, donors, peers, the press, and other stakeholders. And that means greater impact.
  • Using a Communications Lens: To use a communications lens is to ask: What do we want to achieve? Who needs to be onboard if we're going to achieve it? And how best do we reach them? Those questions can help funders and grantees connect with audiences, broaden the base of participation on an issue, and link program design with outcomes.
  • Pursuing Communications Objectives: Four Case Studies: These case studies take a closer look at the grantmaking strategies behind four ambitious communications projects. Their objectives: organize immigrants to identify and address health problems, advocate for same-sex marriage rights, connect with children's theater audiences, and define an organization's basic goals and how it attracts volunteers.
  • Relationships, Roles, and Strategy: Effective communications is the sine qua non of building and sustaining relationships. When grantmakers communicate well, internally and externally, with grantees, consultants, and colleagues, they can promote more effective communications among their grantees. 
  • New Media and Bottom-up Communications: Enlist, mobilize, listen: grantmakers are learning about new media, and the activities have a decidedly participatory flavor. A new paradigm is emerging as social media and other nontraditional communications vehicles come into wider use.
  • Evaluating Communications: How can a press conference, a webinar, or an education campaign be reliably linked to changes in public behavior or policy? Despite the challenges, grantmakers say that it's important to measure the scope and quality of communications work, and how it contributes to overall program outcomes. 
  • takeaways
    Using a “Communications Lens”

    If communications is strategy, why is it so often squeezed in at the very end? A consultant who frequently advises foundations and nonprofits on communications described a typical scenario: “We’ll get a call from an organization saying, ‘We have a report with some really interesting findings on education in California, and we want to release it in three weeks. Will you help us?’

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  • takeaways
    Evaluating Communications

    Three pieces of practical advice for evaluating communications work:

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  • takeaways
    Using New Media in Communication

    However you decide to use new media tools, remember that the fundamental questions of sound communications strategy still apply: What are my objectives? Who am I trying to reach? What do I want them to do? What is the best way to reach and engage them? And finally, is social media the most effective way to do so?

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  • takeaways
    “Pre-Nups” for Funders and Filmmakers

    We asked Active Voice's Ellen Schneider for tips grantmakers ought to keep in mind as they consider funding a documentary film or other media project. Here’s her advice:

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  • takeaways
    New Media and Bottom Up Communications

    Call it participatory communications, interactive communications, or something else entirely: whatever you call it, there’s something new going on, and it’s definitely multidirectional. It’s about not just communicating to but communicating with or among. And new technologies may be driving the change.

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  • takeaways
    On Working with Other Foundation Staff

    Funders who are part of existing initiatives face related challenges. “We each have specific agendas,” said a health grantmaker who has partnered with public and private funders on a disease eradication campaign.

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  • takeaways
    On Working with Communications Staff

    One program officer put it this way: ”‘Spin’ and ‘messaging’ can sometimes make it feel like the nuance is lost. The story gets too simplified.” A common tension around communications for program officers lies in the winnowing of content that communications officers often seek in an effort to make a message simpler and more compelling; program staff may feel that complex problems can only be reduced so much.

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  • takeaways
    Relationships, Roles, and Strategy

    Wait for Buy-In. Rethinking communications can be both time-consuming and threatening to the status quo for some nonprofits,” said a communications consultant, and funders may have to “sell” the idea to grantees.

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  • takeaways
    Pulling Audiences In, Getting Research Out

    One unusual tool is Chartcart, a utility that enables users to “create a presentation using commonwealth fund charts”. As the website explains, readers can browse a large collection of charts, arranged by topic (such as “health care quality,” “equity and special populations,” “international health policy”), and select a collection that downloads pretty much instantly to the user’s computer.

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  • takeaways
    What Nonprofits Use Communications For

    When foundations support communications by nonprofits, what is it for?

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  • takeaways
    Communications Resources
    1. Smart Chart by Spitfire Strategies. Available in print or online interactive editions, the Smart ChartTM is a planning tool that helps nonprofits develop high-impact communications strategies. The tool is also useful for grantmakers to develop their own program communications, and evaluate grantees’ communications strategies.

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  • takeaways
    Introduction: Foundations and Communication

    Communications is more than just publicity: it’s all the ways a foundation advances its own programs and the work of its grantees by connecting with clients, community leaders, the press, donors, peer organizations, funders, and other constituencies. 

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  • takeaways
    How Do Web-based Tools Fit in Your Communications Strategy?

    Online media tools are changing foundation and nonprofit communications. But how widely are those tools being used, and for what? As we developed our guide Communicating for Impact: Strategies for Grantmakers, we pitched the question to subscribers. Well over 1,500 responses came in, split evenly between grantmakers and non-grantmakers (including grantees, consultants, academics, and others).

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  • takeaways
    The Voice of the Foundation

    A foundation may have good reasons to shy away from using its voice, at least some of the time: to keep the spotlight on a grantee and avoid creating distracting controversy, for example, or to honor the preference of a donor or board of directors.

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To push your thinking about communications to another level, try these activities:

  • Talk about your foundation's voice. Use our feature (on page 3 of the guide) with colleagues or your board to explore activities or traditions that are emblematic of your foundation's reputation. Name some relationships that have been forged through meetings or other activities by your foundation over the last few years. Audit in-house resources – other than grantmaking – that your foundation has used to help advance an idea or enable an action.
  • Learn what your grantees already know. Ask your grantees what they're doing to engage their audiences and promote their work. When we polled users of GrantCraft about how their grantees use new media, many grantmakers told us that they hadn't asked grantees how they're using media in their work. Grantees, however, had many insights and examples – hidden in plain sight. A simple survey about communications may open up new information and spark funding ideas.
  • Act your way into thinking about using a communications lens. Take a look at a few proposals you might fund or programs you've just begun and ask yourself and your grantees who needs to be engaged to make the work effective. Brainstorm what type of grant might match the need. Take a look at cases in this guide to see if any of their goals match yours and ask what you can learn from that.
  • Tell war stories. Bring experienced grantmakers together to talk about good grants that failed to engage or get their story across. Brainstorm what you might do if you had a chance to do it again.
  • Get educated. Fund your regional association or an affinity group to host a training session on new media and social impact. The resource list in this guide includes people and activities that might be part of the conversation.
  • Dive into the guided reading content for this guide. 

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