Funders & Grantees: Owning the Message & Maximizing Impact

This is a guest post by Rich Polt, the founder of Communicate Good.

By Rich Polt

Rich PoltThe best communications campaigns are grounded with a single, clear idea. For truly iconic campaigns, the line between idea and slogan is blurred, such that all you need to hear is the message itself and you immediately know who it’s from: “Yes we can,” “Just do it,” “The other white meat.”

Achieving this kind of communications nirvana is not easy. It’s challenging for even the most focused, experienced and disciplined nonprofit (and for-profits for that matter) to develop a simple message and to deliver it to audiences in a compelling manner, again and again and again.

Unfortunately, by the very nature of the grantor-grantee relationship, clear messaging in this sector often falls prey to the compromises and hoop-jumping that is required to secure funding. The net result is not just weaker messaging and marketing campaigns, but ultimately diminished philanthropic and societal impact.

I recently saw this unintended and unfortunate dynamic with a nonprofit that had secured a sizable grant from a funder. While both funder and grantee undertook the collaboration because of clear mission synergies, the reality was that the funder brought tremendous leverage and its own marketing agenda to the mix. Despite both parties feeling that they were entering the relationship with eyes wide open, the nonprofit ultimately needed to have its external message take a back seat to that of the funder for the campaign. We’re not talking about a major conflict of messaging mind you. But it was enough of a nuanced shift that the growing nonprofit was no longer able to articulate its unique value proposition.

Communications is a discipline that by its very nature is squishy, subjective, and difficult to evaluate. In the same way that the Tactical Philanthropy community perpetually seeks better mechanisms for measuring philanthropic impact, thoughtful communications professionals lose sleep over how to best measure the return on their efforts. What does it mean to create buzz or to become a thought leader? So naturally, when we look at the interplay between two arguably nebulous disciplines – communications and philanthropic impact – it is difficult to quantify the problem.

This tension in funder-grantee communications mirrors the already documented tensions between funders and their grantees in other areas: program efficacy, mission drift, boardroom relations, etc. In a study by The Center for Effective Philanthropy on funder-grantee relationships, a key finding (detailed on the bottom of page 10) is that the “pressure grantees feel to modify their priorities in order to receive a grant” is an important contributor to the measure of the overall relationship. We know this is a very real issue. So it stands to reason that this also impacts the realm of communications.

While I am looking at this problem from the lens of the nonprofit, it is equally possible for the reverse situation to hold true. When smaller foundations, ambitiously working to create their own brand in the market, make grants to powerhouse nonprofits, they run the risk of having their messages eclipsed by that of their steamrolling grantees.

So what should be done?

A comprehensive analysis of this issue is outside the scope of this blog post and the sheer complexities involved indicate that no one-size-fits-all solution is practical. However, I do believe there are some basic preventative measures that both funder and grantee can take as they embark on a collaborative marketing effort.

1) Have a heart to heart. Both parties should acknowledge outwardly – from the very beginning – that they each have their own marketing agendas. Share these. Discuss key messages. Are there any messages that are so fundamental to identity that they cannot be compromised? Make communications part of the larger conversation about philanthropic impact and the intended outcomes of the relationship.

2) Know who is leading the charge. At the end of the day, one person needs to be responsible for the success of this campaign. Is it someone on the funder side or the grantee side? This fact alone says a lot about where ultimate messaging power should lie.

3) Sacrifice the rigidity of your message when it makes for stronger outcomes. If a nonprofit is participating in a campaign being spearheaded by the funder, than the nonprofit should be prepared to have the funder’s messaging and marketing agenda take center stage, even if it doesn’t completely mesh with its own messaging. At the end of the day, if the campaign is a success – and strong marketing helped bolster that success – than the nonprofit will be thrilled to have been a part of it. If this doesn’t sit well with the nonprofit, than hopefully they would have recognized the issue early by following suggestion #1 above.

On a macro level, I doubt anyone can say the degree to which differing grantor-grantee messages have degraded net social benefit. But having seen marketing campaigns fall flat as a result of this dynamic, I can say with complete certainty that it’s a problem (a.k.a. an opportunity) – one that merits our collective thought and consideration.


  1. Adin Miller says:

    Congratulations Rich on all fronts.

    You rightfully point to the power relationship between grantor and grantee playing out in the communications sphere as well. I’ve run into that issue on countless occasions. But, one question came to mind as I read your post. The idea that grantor and grantee should align their messaging from the beginning of the relationship is an ideal; too often I’ve seen marketing or communication insert itself into a process well beyond the point at which the relationship has already been established.

    In essence, there are three (possibly even more) parties involved in the transaction – the program unit, the communication unit, and the grantee (which could be equally segmented by program and communication units). How do we we align the marketing message when the funder’s own internal mechanics don’t work enough to align the relationship from the earliest possible moment?


    • Rich Polt says:

      Thanks for the well-wishes Adin. You ask a good question, and again there is no catch-all answer. It speaks to the inherent messiness of organizational dynamics.

      I believe that in an effective organization the communications unit will not be operating in a silo. In other words, the messages that are going out in press releases will mirror those being espoused by program directors on the street and by the ED at conferences and cocktail parties. From this perspective, you will have internal alignment when the conversation with grantees begins.

      If such alignment does not exist, the organization in question (whether on the funder or fundee side) has a messaging challenge one order of magnitude greater than the one I’m outlining in this blog post.

      With regard to when marketing should enter the conversation: For open-ended, discretionary grants, what’s most important is mission alignment. In such cases, it’s less critical that marketing insert itself into the mix during the early stages of the courtship and relationship. However, when grants will necessarily be coupled with a marketing component, it’d be wise to get communications in the mix from the get go.

  2. Our work at The Patterson Foundation is approached from a strategic communications lens. We are developing and refining systems that allow for partner alignment from a strategic point of view. The ultimate goal of the partnership with clear roles and responsibilities should be defined at the onset of a working relationship.
    Once there is clarity around this, then general communications principles are applied – who is the target audience and how do you solicit an emotional response?

  3. J. Manone says:

    To have a social benefit, granter – grantee need to have a open communication on the message that both intend to pass on to the world. I agree with you on watching more and more marketing campaigns fail due to unclear or I should rather say improperly positioned messages. Having a clear communication on the lead marketing message and player can aid in developing a better campaign that can actually make a positive impact on the society.