One of the most important — yet overlooked and underestimated — actions foundations can take to ensure the success of their grantmaking initiatives is to develop and implement a comprehensive communications plan. I’ve been helping foundations design and develop grantmaking programs for close to 15 years; based on that experience, I have found that when foundations fail to make communications a priority at the beginning, they are less likely to obtain the results they seek. Here’s why.
A few years ago, I organized a series of site visits for a foundation client to learn how other funders in other cities design similar initiatives. Some of the best advice we received was that communications begins the moment you begin discussing your new initiative, so be sure to start planning a communications strategy immediately.
Unfortunately, my client didn’t follow that advice — for reasons that are easy to understand. We’ve all been there. It is the beginning of your grantmaking program and you’re in the middle of planning and launching, which feels like you’re building a plane and flying it at the same time. There is a lot of pressure to get grants out the door, even though you know more research and development are needed. You’re scrambling to assess needs, identify partners, get all the funding in place, and collect data. This means communications planning feels like a luxury — or at least something you can put off until the elusive “Phase 2.”
Believe me, I get it. But I also guarantee you that if you don’t prioritize communications planning now — and I do mean right now — you’re going to pay the price a year, or five or ten years, from now when your grantees and partners aren’t coordinated and are unable to stay on the same page, and stakeholders and other funders are confused by what you’re trying to do. The unfortunate result of that will be that your partners and stakeholders will quickly start losing confidence and your initiative will lose traction.
The good news is there are three simple things you can do right now — whether you’re at the beginning of your initiative or you’re already midway through and now recognize that you haven’t been effectively implementing a communications plan:
1. Make communications a priority right now. This really is as important as developing a strategy, writing your request for proposal, identifying potential grantees, and finding an evaluator. It needs to be on your list of must-haves and not on the “we’ll get to it later” list. Even if your initiative is underway, it’s not too late to begin prioritizing this. Don’t know where to start? Keep reading.
2. Identify and leverage your existing communications assets. Look at the existing marketing and communications staff within your foundation as well as those associated with your existing partners and your potential grantees. What are they already doing and how can they be further engaged in this project right away? Down the road, you might want to retain a communications consultant, but right now you need smart communications professionals who can sit around the table to help you identify your communications needs, your key audiences, and your messages, and help you to begin developing a plan. Chances are, these people are already close at hand.
3. Reach for the low-hanging-fruit in communication needs and opportunities. I’ll bet there are five or ten things you can do right now, even as you are developing a communications plan, that could quickly alleviate some of your communications needs. These could be relatively simple endeavors like developing fact sheets, a standard PowerPoint deck, talking points, or a newsletter. Or they could be a bit more time intensive, such as conducting a series of individual meetings with key stakeholders to update them on progress.
I guarantee that by beginning to prioritize communications now — regardless of where you are in your initiative — you will reap benefits and avoid troubles in the future. The three easy communication tactics we discussed — making communications a priority, identifying and leveraging your communications assets, and reaching for low-hanging-fruit in communications opportunities — make up a terrific launching point. Implementing those tips now, in conjunction with beginning to develop a more comprehensive communications plan, will set you well on your way to ensuring the success of your grantmaking program.
© 2014 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution. Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is president of Putnam Consulting Group, Inc., a national
philanthropy consulting firm. She is also the author of the Philanthropy411blog. She can be reached at 800-598-2102800-598-2102 or email@example.com. Her website is http:// putnam-consulting.com.
No one likes to feel left out or overlooked, and when key stakeholders feel that way, the results can be painful and long lasting. I recently conducted a focus group of community leaders who expressed serious concerns about the lack of communication within a significant countywide initiative. One woman went so far as to say that being involved in the project felt like being a kid whose parents were getting divorced, but the parents weren’t talking openly about what was going on, leaving the kid feeling stressed out. That is how bad the lack of communications on this project was.
When I asked the group what could be done to fix this, another participant said something I’ll never forget: “Communications need to be top-down, bottom-up, inside out, and all around.” I think that sums up the components of an effective communications plan.
The next time you launch a new grantmaking program or initiative for any issue — early childhood development, education, economic development, anything — think through these four aspects of your communication needs so that none of your key stakeholders feel overlooked.
Make sure there are strategies in place for those who are managing, governing, and funding the initiative to communicate regularly with all the organizations, grantees, and partners that are doing the work. There are likely a lot of moving parts, and priorities may need to shift based on things that are well beyond the control of the initiative, such as changes in the economy or in government. It’s important for you to be as transparent as possible and to ensure that your partners can count on you for regular updates.
Similarly, you want to make sure that there are regular opportunities for everyone involved in the initiative — grantees, evaluators, vendors, and other stakeholders — to regularly communicate with people who are managing the initiative. This method can be anything that works for you: monthly meetings, quarterly check-ins, regular conference calls, or whatever allows people to feel comfortable and have a regular opportunity to bring up issues or concerns as they emerge, rather than a month or a year later when it’s too late.
By this I mean that everyone involved in your program needs to be regularly communicating and coordinating with each other. If you’re trying to create change within a community, or influence the system, it likely means that the people and organizations need to do things differently. They might need to coordinate their work better or make joint decisions, so you need to put systems in place to allow for the communication and coordination to happen.
The final way to think about your communications needs is to think about what’s all around you — in other words, external communications. Think of it this way: If you could draw a circle that encompassed you and your grantees and partners, then look outside that circle and think about who is not involved but should be, who needs to know about what you’re doing, who else you should be influencing, and who might be trying to work against you but you need to engage. Once you’ve identified those groups, then think about what each group needs to know and how you might best communicate that.
Resolving your communications challenges is one critical component of positioning your foundation for success. When it comes to communications, there is no silver-bullet solution. Instead, leveraging all of these dimensions — top-down, bottom-up, inside out, and all around — is the key to eradicating your communications challenges and successfully engaging all of your stakeholders.
© 2014 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution. Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is president of Putnam Consulting Group, Inc., a national philanthropy consulting firm. She is also the author of the Philanthropy411blog. She can be reached at 800-598-2102800-598-2102 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is http:// putnam-consulting.com.
You have a new initiative, and you want to gain support from stakeholders far and wide. Sending a press release, writing a blog, posting to your online social networks, and placing an article in a newsletter might get you started. But to be successful, you need a strategy to ensure that your messages are clear and used consistently to engage your stakeholders, provide strong results, and sustain your effort past the first few months. A solid communications plan will make your strategies and messages clear to everyone on your team, from internal staff to external partners, to keep everyone on track and communicating in sync. The following will help you to create and implement a communications plan that reaps real rewards.
First Things First: Understanding the Difference Between Internal and External Planning
When you begin thinking about your communications planning, first you need to clarify in your mind your internal communications versus your external communications. These are two equally important facets to your planning process.
An internal communications plan is for those who have been involved in planning your initiative. This includes staff and board members who have been conceptualizing and developing the effort, planning team members, advisory council members, community members who have participated in planning meetings, and other involved stakeholders. Internal communications strategies for those most closely involved in current planning efforts keep the planning team members apprised of what everyone is doing and will differ from strategies to connect with broader stakeholders.
These broader stakeholders are part of your external communications plan, a plan created for those who do not yet know about your efforts, such as policy makers, the media, and community members. These might include the people who will benefit from your initiative, businesses, schools, policy makers, other funders who have not yet committed funds, community providers who have not yet been involved, and so on. It also includes those who might be opposed to your efforts.
Putting the Pieces Together: Creating a Communications Plan
A strategic communications plan should include the following:
- Measurable goals and strategies – Include clear and measurable goals and strategies, and make these as specific as possible. Avoid generic goals such as “Raise awareness.” Rather, include a specific goal such as “See a 35 percent increase in the number of community members who call their local policy maker in support of Initiative A, compared to the number who called in support of Initiative A two years prior.” In addition, ensure that your goals are realistic and can be accomplished with the human and financial resources available.
- Target audiences – Determine who most needs to hear the messages you are communicating. Consider the following:
- Are messages for those within your organization (internal—staff, board members) or outside (external—community members, policy makers)? Then determine who the audience members are within each category (internal and external). Keep in mind that “the general public” is not a specific audience.
- Determine what your key messages are, and ask yourself what you want your audience to do as a result of hearing your message. Do you want your audience to have a better understanding of a topic? Vote in a certain way? Donate funds? Volunteer? Call a policy maker and ask for support on an issue? The actions you desire will help focus your messages.
- Be as specific as possible about what you want to accomplish with each audience. Your communication will differ with a state policy maker depending on whether you are trying to create a policy change or get a line item in the state budget. Creating policy change may require more testimonials from stakeholders; a line item may require showing a financial return on investment and long-term savings.
- Consider outlining your audiences in two groups: those who support your effort and those who are against it. It will be important to include messages that continue to build support from those who already are on your side, messages that inoculate your audiences from being swayed to shift support, and messages that help audience members who are against your effort now to understand how their support will in fact help them.
- Delineate the different audience sectors (public, private, nonprofit, etc.) as well as the different levels (e.g., local, regional, state). Acknowledge early on in message development that a private business owner may have a different reason to support your effort (e.g., increased revenue) than a nonprofit member (e.g., building local community). Local and state supporters also have different reasons for supporting an effort (a great place to raise a family versus a profitable state in which to conduct your business).
- Consider how you will use the media, since they are both an audience and a vehicle for your message. Be clear on the role of each specific type of media (for example, radio versus newspapers). In addition, recognize the audience for each media and how they may differ. For example, the audience you reach with an online social media campaign may respond to different aspects of your message than those who read it in the newspaper on Sunday morning.
- A “message frame” – Your communications plan should describe how the message should be framed. That is, clearly define how your initiative will fit into your audience’s perception of a situation (“Initiative A will help improve local education and give local residents better economic opportunities”). Acknowledge, also, your audience’s current situation (“Currently our schools are not good, and they are damaging our community”). By acknowledging the current frame, you can use your messages to shift perceptions in the direction you would like.
- Key messages and persuasive strategies – While you may have a single overarching message, different audiences will require you to express that message differently. Data and logical arguments may sway one group, while images and emotional testimonies will move another. Your message to a parent group regarding local education may focus on stories of a few individual student successes, while your message to policy makers regarding the same effort may focus on the financial rewards a better education system will bring to the entire community.
- Opportunities and barriers for reaching key audiences – Your communications plan should identify different strategies and opportunities for reaching key audiences. Perhaps one of your biggest obstacles is a lack of communications funding. Getting PR in the local paper may prove to be a challenge. Is there an upcoming town hall meeting in your community, and can you get a representative on the panel to discuss local education? This might be a great opportunity to share your message with policy makers, community members, and the media in one shot.
- Communications activities – For each goal and strategy, you will need to identify specific activities or tactics. Each activity/tactic should have a clear timeline, communications vehicles, dedicated staff, and a budget. For example, if you create a social media campaign that encourages people to e-mail their policy makers, you will want to include the specific social media you will use (e.g., Facebook), who will post the messages (the policy director), when the messages will go out (every Tuesday in November at 10 a.m.), and the cost (staff time).
- Communications vehicles – Within each goal, strategy, and tactic there will be different communications vehicles that carry your message to your audience. This includes face-to-face meetings, telephone calls, e-newsletters, blogs, grassroots mobilization, policy reports, op-eds, social media outlets, community meetings, etc. Make sure that you include the specific vehicle or vehicles appropriate for each, understanding that some messages will most certainly use more than one vehicle.
- Implementation plan – Your implementation plan shows specifically how your communications plan will be implemented. It details the timelines and deadlines for the activities, the person(s) responsible for each activity, and so on. It will serve as a checklist and accountability plan for your organization as the full communications plan is implemented.
- Low-hanging fruit – Your initiative will have immediate communications needs. Identify “low-hanging fruit” that can be developed to circulate your messages now. Some of these include:
- Fact sheets to highlight important details of your initiative
- A PowerPoint deck that conveys key messages of initiative
- Talking points to ensure clear and consistent messaging
- E-mail updates to key stakeholders to keep them abreast of efforts
- Individual meetings with uninformed stakeholders
- Ambassadors who can be champions of your initiative
- Monitoring and evaluation – You will want to track and measure success (and struggles), so make each communication goal and strategy measurable. You can measure and evaluate a goal such as “See a 25 percent increase in number of students who successfully graduate high school in School District X, compared to the percentage who graduated five years ago.” It is difficult to monitor or evaluate “Improve education.” Be prepared to make changes in how you are communicating your messages if you are not getting the results you would like.
- Timing considerations – A realistic time frame for a strategic communications plan is three years. However, the communications plan should include immediate-, short-, and long-term goals. What do you want to see happen within the first couple of weeks and months (immediate)? You may start an online community or create an e-mail newsletter. In the short term (three months through two years), you may start seeing more media coverage. Your long-term goals (three years) may be to see statewide support from policy makers. At year three, recreate your communications plan and continue to move ahead.
- Crisis communications – The communications plan should include how to manage and communicate about any crises that arise. If your goals include strong funding support and the nation finds itself in a financial crisis, how does that change your messages? What if tragedy strikes one of your biggest advocates? What if the behavior of someone on your board or staff is publicly called into question? These are not issues we like to think about, which is why they fall into the category of “crises.” Your best communications plans take emergencies into consideration before they happen.
- Staffing – Initial discussions should look at who needs to be involved in creating the communications plan. Executive directors and communications staff, of course, are on the list. You may also choose to hire a communications consultant. If so, make sure the person or firm has experience conducting strategic communications planning, preferably with complex, community-based initiatives. That person/firm can manage the implementation but may not be able to fill all your specific needs. If so, he or she should be able to help identify appropriate partners for media relations, advertising, etc.
- Budget – A detailed budget is a crucial part of any communications plan. It is vital for guiding choices about where to focus limited resources. Like anything, communications can get very expensive, and the plan needs to match the resources available. Remember to budget obvious expenses such as material design, copywriting, website updates, etc., but also remember to budget staff time and other expenses such as travel costs, food and beverages for meetings, etc. Often some of the biggest expenses are found in “surprises.”
A good communications plan will distinguish your from others competing for the same limited resources and the same valuable stakeholder time. You will be developing a road map for immediate success and long-term change. Take a few minutes today to think about who you would engage in communications planning for something you are working on now or something you know you will be working on in the next few months. Then set up an initial meeting to start the conversation about these core components of your communications plan.
© 2014 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution. Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is president of Putnam Consulting Group, Inc., a national
philanthropy consulting firm. She is also the author of the Philanthropy411 blog. She can be reached at 800-598-2102800-598-2102 or email@example.com. Her website is https://putnam-consulting.com.
Most foundations understand the value of reporting on initiatives or projects after the fact. It’s a useful way to document impact and share lessons learned. But even greater value can come when you sharing the lessons you’re learning in real time, as they happen, throughout the life of an initiative. Sharing lessons learning helps your organization capture valuable moments and information that might get lost down the road. It also helps others better understand your work and feel comfortable joining you. It keeps board members and key stakeholders connected to your work. It can help inform the efforts of other foundations. And of course, when you are forthright and honest about what you’re learning in real time, your foundation becomes far more transparent and trusted as a community partner.
How do you collect and share lessons learning? Here are eight things to try:
- Case studies. Many people think of case studies as very business-oriented documents that dissect how a problem was defined, addressed and solved, and the lessons acquired — all after the fact. But case studies are also great ways to tell your story in real time and describe the problems and lessons as they arise. Currently we’re working on work-in-progress case studies that take a look at Blue Shield of California Foundation’s approach to supporting innovation among grantees, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s foray into intentionally incorporating race, equity and inclusion into its Civic Sites, and what community change is beginning to look like after the first two years of The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust’s 10-year Healthy Places NC initiative. These case studies aren’t formal or academic, but are meant to truly capture the stories of these foundations’ efforts and what grantees are feeling and saying in the early stages. They are fabulous tools for keeping board members, staff, partners and peers engaged and on board with these long-term efforts.
- Blog series. For ongoing efforts, few things keep pace as easily and regularly as a blog series. Short posts by those who are overseeing and imbedded in the effort help share a range of perspectives about what’s going on and what’s being learned. To help prevent weekly (or monthly) writer’s block, develop a series of prompts: one thing I learned this week; one thing I overheard in a meeting that got me thinking; a recent unexpected hurdle or setback; something about the project that made you smile; a mini-highlight about a person in the community whose life has been affected by your work.
- Podcasts don’t take much time to create but they are a fun and effective way to share the stories of what you’re learning in real time. They have the added bonus of being accessible to listeners when printed or online content may not be, such as during commuting time. Podcasts can feature your own staff perspectives and commentary (less costly and time consuming), or, if you can gather audio interviews from grantees or “end-users” of your work in the field, you can edit bits and pieces of your conversations together to tell the story, ala NPR (more costly and time consuming, but bigger impact).
- E-newsletters. I recommend committing to regular e-newsletters rather than a “send as we need to” strategy. For one thing, the regular schedule will keep you looking at the work you’re doing with an eye for stories to share. For another, it will keep readers continually in touch and informed. If your foundation already has an e-newsletter that goes to your target audience(s), you don’t need to reinvent the wheel with your own — just ask for space to share information about your work in each edition.
- Conferences and philanthropic gatherings at the local, state, regional and national level are always looking for good session topics to share. The fact that yours is a work in process makes for livelier discussion.
- Social media. What better way to share your lessons in real time than to set up a special Twitter handle and Facebook page for your initiative? This makes it easy for anyone connected with or interested in your work to participate in the ongoing conversation and sharing.
- Create a story bank. Even if you’re not ready to tell the world about your work, you can capture moments of learning and key lessons by recording the stories of those participating as the work moves forward. That way, when you are ready to share, you’ll have authentic voices and not just memories to rely on. As an added bonus, your story bank will provide content fodder for all of the above!
- Letters from program officers. This approach can be a great way to share lessons learning with other staff Ask program officers to write letters to their colleagues once a month or so to share what they’re doing and learning as their work progresses. The more personal nature of letters can make for more interesting reading and better retention among peers.
Depending on the nature of your work and your community, there may be other techniques you can employ to share lessons learning. Start by asking yourself, “What have we learned so far? Who needs to know about it? How can we reach them?” Then, start sharing!