Tactical Philanthropy Podcast: Jeff Martin Interview

My guest today is Jeff Martin. Jeff is Director of Media Relations for
the Council on Foundations. Jeff discusses the events that led up to
bloggers being invited to attend the recent conference, plans to
provide streaming video of conference sessions next year and the need
for transparency to be embraced by foundations.

Expand this post using the link below to read the transcript.

Sean Stannard-Stockton: Hello and welcome to the Tactical Philanthropy podcast. I’m Sean Stannard-Stockton, author of the Tactical Philanthropy blog, and Principal and Director of Tactical Philanthropy at Ensemble Capital. My guest today is Jeff Martin. Jeff is Director of Media Relations for the Council on Foundations. Good morning, Jeff. Thanks so much for joining us.

Jeff Martin: Good morning, Sean. Thanks.

Sean: Why don’t you begin by introducing yourself and explaining to the listeners what the Council on Foundations is and what you do for the Council.

Jeff: Sure. I am, as you mentioned, I’m the director of media relations here at the Council on Foundations. The council is an association based in Washington, DC, of about 2,000 foundation members and corporate giving programs.

Sean: OK. For this year’s Council on Foundations’ conference, you decided for the first time to invite a number of philanthropy bloggers, myself included, and you issued them press credentials. How did this decision come to pass? Do you think the Council’s going to continue this practice?

Jeff: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think it was actually long overdue, Sean. We wanted to bring in the bloggers because there’s no escape from it. They are a part of the media. It’s 2007 – I wish we’d did this three, four years ago – gotten them on board. There was some concern in the field of how this would be received, and also what exactly the bloggers would be doing. I think there was some confusion or misperceptions of even what the bloggers would be doing. My response was that how would you handle it if the New York Times were there or any of the major newspapers or any of the major media? It’s the same medium. I just think that we need to get into the 21st century.

Sean: Do you think that council members – the large foundations in particular – were they happy with how things played out, or did they have some concerns?

Jeff: They were pleased. I think they were very pleased. It’s funny because this goes with anything in life. They were afraid of what they didn’t know, and once they saw the bloggers, and what you were posting, and the responses, and the genuine conversation that you helped promote, they were overall very pleased, very pleased.

Also, what was interesting was, of course, the real-time. They’re used to reading – we had great articles in the Seattle Times, but that was the next day. So it was interesting to see things done in real-time.

Sean: So, it’s my understanding that the council is currently making an effort to make sure that the public at large is aware of the work that foundations engage in, and that your CEO, Steve Gunderson, is kind of particularly adamant about this communicating the role of foundations. Why is this such as important issue? What misperceptions do you think you’re trying to rectify?

Jeff: I’ll tell you what. The misperceptions that we’re trying to rectify is – well, first of all it’s interesting because I don’t even know if it’s a misperception. There isn’t even a perception. We ran a survey. This was several years ago, about four or five years ago. We asked the person on the street if they could name one foundation, and only 11 percent could name a foundation. Eighty-nine percent couldn’t even name one foundation — Ford, Rockefeller, Gates, anybody.

So there isn’t even a perception. They just kind of have this shrug of the shoulders and when they hear philanthropy, they don’t know what it means. If they do know foundations, they think, “Well, you guys write checks and you help people.” A shrug of the shoulders.

Interesting point of that is when asked if they knew of a foundation, a higher percentage actually named a charity. Like, “Can you name a foundation?” “Sure. Red Cross. Catholic Relief. Salvation Army.” So there’s no distinction between. It’s all just charity to them. So that was an interesting point in that there isn’t a perception.

When we did talk to influentials and people that did know the foundations, some of the negatives that came out were that they thought foundations were arrogant, paternalistic, and overly-academic. The positives were that they have the resources, and they’re able to take the risk, and they can do what government and industry can’t do.

In government, if you take risks, you could be out of office. If you take risks in the corporate world, the bottom line is you lose money. It’s not good. Foundations can take that risk, and that’s what they like. So you see the positive and the negative. Arrogance as opposed to risk-taking and researching and getting out there. That was one of the things we found out.

What we want to do now is, we need to take it to the next level, and I think we are, in getting the public to know exactly who we are, what we do, and now, most importantly is how we do it – transparency and accountability.

Sean: What are some of the steps you’re taking to get that out there? Obviously, you kind of opening the conference to bloggers was one piece of that, but what are some of the programs you’re putting in place right now?

Jeff: Well, some of the programs we’re putting in place is we conducted the research a couple of years ago to get this ball rolling. The research on the foundations, and what we meant to society, and what we mean to the communities, and trying to get a communications campaign together to push that out to, as I say, the influentials, policy-makers, and the public. The main thing is it boils down to storytelling. We need to tell our stories.

Every time you have a foundation trying to communicate, what it was in the past was it was numbers, it was data, it was research. There was, “Here’s our assets, and here’s how much money we give out.” They need to drill down and get down to exactly what it means in a story, telling a story.

What happened then is a number of foundations have stepped up to the plate. The first one that comes to mind is Packard, with their Philanthropic Awareness Initiative. What they were doing was drilling down into the types of stories that get coverage. What’s interesting is they found that only one percent of the stories in the paper would be listed as positive, and the foundation world nods and says, “See, I told you.”

But what’s interesting was another one percent were negative. A full almost 98 percent of the stories were transactional. They’re just transactional; in other words, the Jeff Martin Foundation gave away $50,000. It didn’t really drill down into the storytelling. So that’s one of the things we are promoting. Packard is promoting it. The Knight Foundation I know has a lot going with this. Kellogg. There are just a number of foundations that are now getting it and pushing the storytelling component.

Sean: The Philanthropic Awareness Initiative is certainly very interesting. Mark Sedway was the moderator at one of the sessions at the conference called Demonstrating Impact. The session was really about how do we demonstrate to the world at large the impact that foundations have.

The post that I wrote on my blog about that session was by far my most widely read post. What I was looking at was that one way to demonstrate impact is simply to be transparent. So rather than having to go out and tell your story, simply letting people see the story.

A lot of times transparency is viewed as a kind of a public accountability issue, that foundations should be transparent, but I really see it as more of a mark of a foundation that’s really trying to do good. By sharing information, they’re assisting other grant-makers to make the best possible decisions. Does the council believe that foundations should be more transparent than they currently are?

Jeff: They do. They do need to be transparent. And, again, I think a number of people are moving in that direction. There’s a lot of 990s on the cover of their web page; you’ll see diversity policies, front-and-center. I could [inaudible] that whole point.

One thing I do want to go back, which is interesting, is that you mentioned having people come to the site and do that. It’s a push-pull thing in the marketing world, and while we are pulling people toward our websites and learning more about… Again, if you were to go down to the man on the street, or even some of our policy-makers, it’s not going, they’re not pulling.

So one of the things we’re trying to get is the push factor. We still have a long way to go in pushing people to know about us so they will come to our website and get out there. We had a little bit. I started seven years ago when there were only a handful of people in this field.

And they now have estimates of more than 170 reporters in philanthropy as a specific beat: From Sally Beatty at the Wall Street Journal, to Stephanie Strom at the New York Times, Charles Storch at the Chicago Tribune — just a number of them who have this as a specific beat.

And it’s interesting because the editors… for the longest time, reporters had this wonderful relationship, and that was–until about 10-15 years ago–reporters rarely asked questions into the foundation world, and foundations were pretty much happy to keep to themselves and not talk to reporters. At some point, editors got it where it was a “follow the money” scenario.

So the reporters have it, and they’ve stepped up to the plate, as you can see; and it’s one of these stories. Foundations were a little bit slower to come along, but I would say in the past 4-5 years, they’re starting to get that. And they’re starting to tell their story more.

Sean: What do you think their attitude–the members’ attitude–is as it relates to transparency? You have them really going out of their way to embrace transparency, and I look at most foundation websites, their communications, and there hasn’t been a huge change since, say, five years ago. So is this member-driven, or is this more council-driven?

Jeff: That’s a chicken-or-the-egg question. It’s interesting. It’s a little of both; and that’s not just a political answer. We, as the Council, we have been pushing for this. We actually developed, about four years ago, stewardship and standards principles for each of our divisions: That’s Community Foundations, Corporate Grantmaking, Family Foundations, and International Foundations.

So we have a set of standards, and in every one of Steve Gunderson’s speeches, he is always promoting the accountability and transparency issue. It was one of the main topics out of every one of our conferences. We always have sessions on it. Our legal team travels the country and promotes it. So we’ve been beating the drumbeat.

At the same time, our members, I think, have gotten it, and as you’ve said, some of the leaders in transparency–Hewlett comes to mind–they’ve been pushing it. They’ve been pushing it both locally and on a national level. Foundations–if I can go back for a second–foundations really only learned how to talk 10 years ago, 15 years ago. They just learned to talk. “Hey, we’ve got to get our message out there.”

So it takes time. It’s been kind of incremental. And that’s why you’re still not seeing the transparency issues. They’re certainly not hiding; I think a lot of them just don’t realize it’s in their best interests to be front-and-center. But that’s coming along.

Sean: Jeff, you took a big step–and a big risk, I think–when you decided to invite bloggers to conference. And on your website now, you have video of the plenary sessions, which is a great step. What do you think next year of actually recording, in audio or video, the actual conference sessions, and releasing them? So you don’t just have people like myself telling people what happened, but you actually…

Jeff: Yeah. Well actually, I wanted to go back… when you said, “taking a risk” it’s funny because you and I know, and I think a lot of your readers know as well, that it wasn’t much of a risk at all. The people who are familiar with blogs, and especially your blog and Lucy Bernholz’s and some of the leading philanthropic blogs, know that it wasn’t much of a risk at all. But to the ones who didn’t know, yeah, it probably was some kind of a risk.

But having said that, next year we do have to take it up a notch or two, and what we will be working on with our web team is probably some live streaming video, to make it as live or as close to live as possible, so that people can be a part of it who can’t be physically there.

The next thing I’d like to bring up, which is interesting going to the next step, is recently I’ve had conversations with a number of people who are jumping into the New Media and philanthropy. And the first one to come to mind is Starfish Television, the first sanctioned and dedicated television solely focused on philanthropy. And they’re just dying for content right now, but they’re going to be producing videos and documentaries on what philanthropies are doing. So there’s a TV station focused on it now.

There’s also a company called Good Works, which runs videos via the Internet. They have an Internet channel. And they’re dying for content. So again, they’re running these videos on philanthropy. There’s also FORA.TV, I love it, they call themselves a “Thinking Man’s YouTube.” You can go in and get videos on any subject: health, education, environment… But now they’ve added philanthropy as a specific topic.

You can click on “philanthropy” and you can see Melinda Gates’ speech at our conference in Seattle. You can see some of the people who are talking about philanthropy, get on and actually download it. So I’d love it, at our next conference, to have a full session on this, on dealing with the New Media and bringing the foundation world along.

Sean: That would be great. The Morphing Media session you had at the conference was really more about how media was changing and how we, as philanthropy, should react; what you’re talking about is more “How can we use these tools?” And media is no longer a one-way issue. How does philanthropy take control…?

Jeff: Oh, it’s here. The New Media is here. And the foundation world needs to figure out how to use these tools to promote themselves, to promote awareness, but also to promote the specific issues and what can be done, and hopefully build collaboration. For me, because I’m a communicator, the whole thing is about awareness.

Sean: Well Jeff, thank you so much for your time today.

Jeff: all right, Sean; thank you.

Sean: This has been the Tactical Philanthropy Podcast. For more information about the Council on Foundations, visit CoF.org. Thanks so much for listening.