Ready to ACT? 3 Steps to Effective Foundation Communications

3_steps_stuart_milesBy Sara J. Redington and Danielle M. Reyes (Originally posted on PhilanthroFiles blog)

An effective communications strategy can help amplify a foundation’s impact by lifting up the successes of its grantees and other partners, elevating the causes that matter most to the organization, and connecting ideas, people, and resources around a common purpose.

Every foundation, regardless of size, can reap the rewards of integrating a strategic communications approach into its mission. Three steps can help foundations ACT on an impactful communications plan:

Align Goals (to the foundation’s mission and vision)

Clarify Audiences (the foundation seeks to engage)

Target Channels (that will connect with key stakeholders)

A - Align Goals. Although it’s tempting to jump directly into the tactics of communications (e.g., a certain social media platform, op-eds in the newspaper, or a press release), setting clear goals at the outset helps to ensure that each communications effort has a purpose and furthers the foundation’s mission and vision. Whether the foundation’s goals are short-term and specific (e.g., releasing a research report this fall) or long term (e.g., influence policy makers and the media, increase interactions with community partners) there is an appropriate communications strategy that can help achieve it.  To identify the most relevant communication goals for the foundation, start by asking these questions:

  • What are the foundation’s current priorities? Are we planning to launch a new grantmaking strategy, release a research report, raise awareness of an issue, attract new grantmaking partners? How can communications complement the execution of these initiatives at each stage?
  • What is the foundation’s vision (for itself and for the community)? What will it take to achieve that vision? Do we need to grow our network, increase interaction with community partners, raise the visibility of your grantees, leverage grantmaking investments, build credibility in a certain funding area?
  • Are these goals measurable? How will we measure success at the end of the year?  In five years?  Who will we be working with in the future?  What will we be known for?

C - Clarify Audience. The second essential component of an effective communications strategy is identifying the primary audience(s) the foundation wants to reach. The more targeted a foundation can be in selecting its audiences, the more effective its communications approach.  Once a foundation identifies each of its target audience’s cares and concerns, it can then tailor its key messages to connect and engage specifically with those groups. Consider the foundation may seek to engage or influence nonprofit organizations, foundations and donors, corporations and small businesses for some purposes, and policymakers, civic, community, and religious leaders, and government officials for others. To determine an appropriate target audience, start by asking these questions:

  • Whose help do we need in order to achieve our goals?  Which people, organizations, businesses, community groups, or advocates can help further our mission and achieve our vision?
  • How will we engage with this audience?  What do we know about this person/group? What do they care about most?  What are their key concerns?  How will our message connect with those priorities?
  • How do we want this audience to respond? What action or response do we want as a result of connecting with this audience?

T - Target Channels. Now it’s time for the fun part – bringing the strategy to life! The different levers, or channels, used to communicate the foundation’s messaging should be driven by where and how target audiences get their information. Deciding where and when to share information (e.g., Facebook, blogs, community events, etc.) and how to message it (e.g., shaping the foundation’s point of view and key content) becomes much easier when we step into an audience’s shoes and ask, “How would they want to receive this information?”  The channels each foundation selects will vary based on the foundation’s unique goals, target audience(s), and resources. To start, consider these factors:

  • Which channel, or combination of channels, will best suit our goals and audience? How does our audience engage with Facebook vs. LinkedIn, a blog vs. newsletter, a press release vs. community event?  What is the best channel for engaging our audience effectively?
  • Based on your goals and audience(s), how much content do you have to communicate? Is it content we need to create, or can we source it from other experts/news sources?
  • What is the right frequency for disseminating communications via these channels? Will a C-suite executive want to read an email from our foundation every week, or would quarterly or monthly communication achieve the same objective?
  • What capacity or expertise is needed to implement this work? Who on staff will dedicate time toward this effort? What are their strengths? How can we maximize their time?

Historically, foundation communications have been perceived as tangential to a foundation’s core grantmaking function. However, as foundations increasingly move towards “beyond-the-dollar” impact, many are seeing the value of integrating communications as a central component of the foundation’s overall strategy and mission work. Furthermore, the variety of communications platforms available today make it possible for foundations of any size or capacity to develop an effective strategy.

We want to hear from you!  After reading this blog:

  • Are you ready to ACT?  What’s holding you back?  What challenges do you foresee in enacting a communications plan for your foundation?
  • What lingering questions do you have about foundation communications?
  • What tips have been helpful to your foundation in crafting an effective communications plan?
  • What do you hope to achieve through your foundation’s communication strategy?

Want to learn more about foundation communications? Join Sara and Danielle at Exponent Philanthropy’s 2016 National Conference, September 26-28 in Chicago. Their highly interactive “Communication Basics for Foundations” session will engage participants in connecting communications to their mission and vision, crafting messages that resonate with key audiences, and identifying tactics that align with their foundation’s unique mission and goals.

sara-redington2-e1470587075244Sara J. Redington is Director of Communications for The Miles Foundation. She spearheads strategic partnerships, communicates with key stakeholders, and aligns the foundation’s practices with its long-term vision for success. Sara has 12 years of strategic planning, marketing, and communications experience and founded Redington Solutions, a marketing and communications firm based in Texas.

danielle-reyes1-e1470586878147Danielle M. Reyes is the Executive Director of the Crimsonbridge Foundation.  She has spent more than 20 years in the nonprofit sector and has an extensive background in organizational development, nonprofit capacity building, and developing social media, marketing, and communications strategies.


Related resources

The Importance of Strategy in Communications, Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR)

The Communications Network

Brownbridge Strategies