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