May 18

What grade do foundations get for communications?

Victoria Baxter

For insightful research and suggestions on improving the philanthropy sector’s communications and outreach to decision makers, check out the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative website. (See the full list of PAI funders and partners here.) 

Why do foundations need to improve communications?  According to the PAI site:

"When low awareness of foundations meets increasing legislative, regulatory and news media scrutiny, it can create a perfect political storm for the field. Scrutiny is a fact of life, sure to grow as philanthropy grows. The challenge is to make sure it’s informed scrutiny."

Several of their studies show that people don’t get what foundations do and how foundation investments can help society and spur innovative solutions to problems.

And, it’s not just the “general public” that has this confusion.  I found this astonishing: in a study of “engaged Americans,” the 12% of U.S. adults who are leaders in community organizations, advocates for social issues or church leaders and business proprietors volunteering for community groups, only 38% of them can name a foundation on the first try.  And fewer than two in 10 can name an example of a foundation’s impact on their community or on an issue they care about.

As these things go, the answer is both simple and complicated – start communicating about your impact. Change the dominant frame that foundations are “cash machines” to one that captures the power and influence foundation can have. Speak up about your activities and impact, but also your mistakes and lessons learned.

Beyond assuming that people know what you know, we also have to be careful about the words we use.  Are we engaging in “resource mobilization” or are we doing advocacy and fundraising?  Are we going to “disseminate best practices” or are we going to talk about what worked and what didn’t?

This report is a must read for foundation leaders.  It’s a sobering wake up call about the need to communicate more effectively.  Did anyone else have the same reaction?



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