Private Foundation Public Relations

BusinessWeek has an article out about the importance of public relations as a tool for private foundations:

In the veiled world of private philanthropy, the practice of public relations is eschewed by many foundation leaders. Some believe that proactive media outreach is tantamount to inviting the Internal Revenue Service in for an audit, while others feel that publicity in some way diminishes the altruistic nature of giving. Yet over the last few years, a shift has begun to take place and foundations are seeing how external communications can complement and even strengthen their giving.

PR can be an invaluable tool for foundations of all sizes. It shines the spotlight on grantee successes; inspires action among constituencies; creates an environment for collaboration among multiple stakeholders; advances key issues; and perhaps most importantly, it highlights the foundation’s role as a good community citizen that is leading by example.

The article mentions the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative, which was behind the Demonstrating Impact session that generated so much interest at the Council on Foundations conference.

Tactical Philanthropy reader Bruce Trachtenberg left a comment on the BusinessWeek website arguing that foundations have a long history of external communications, but they need to change the focus of their message:

I don’t think there has been any lack of willingness among foundations to have active, sometimes aggressive communication programs… Instead, I think what the PAI report and other research has shown is that foundation communication activities have overemphasized money and process, and not enough effort has been spent talking about outcomes, or even before that, what our grantmaking is meant to achieve.

Bruce’s Op-Ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy last summer had a similar thrust.

We call this time in history “The Information Age”. Philanthropy as an industry has not embraced “information technology”, but we are seeing some early ventures in this area like NetSquared and Packard’s Nitrogen project. I can sense the interest is rising. A lot of the foundation employees who read this blog work in the communications department. They understand information and they understand the power of information tools to enhance the impact of philanthropy.

The Council on Foundations is going to replicate the Morphing Media session from their annual conference at their Community Foundation conference this fall. They’ve invited me to be one of the speakers. Personally, I think that understanding how humans process information and how to tell your story in a way that sticks is the big competitive advantage right now. Think about the story that Apple tells, or Starbucks or Nike. I think that philanthropy as a whole, and foundations in particular, need to begin to tell the public a story. A story that excites and inspires, that invites the listener into an exhilarating world where our most honorable actions are celebrated and where we have the ability to co-create the world we want (hat tip to Peter Karoff).

I’m not a communications expert. If you want to read someone who really understands how to tell stories that change the world, check out Seth Godin’s blog. It’s on my daily read.


  1. Lisa Kays says:

    Sean, I agree completely (being one of the foundation-ites in communications, of course :D), that PR and communications for foundations–and nonprofits in general–is key.

    And I think it will play an ever increasingly more important role as the nonprofit sector explodes, and it becomes harder and harder to determine what really are the best strategies for change and where the impact is. It’s a completely legitimate, important aspect of public awareness and for inspiring action, in my book.

    The only question that I think will become ever more important is that of equity–and how funding will largely determine the ability of foundations and certain strategies to promote themselves–which is very different from establishing those which are actually the most effective. (Going to be fun to watch too how the blogosphere–a pretty much “free” forum for publicity and idea sharing–will play into this.)

    Anyway, an example of this that comes to mind is the ABC strategy for AIDS prevention in Africa–whatever one thinks about it, one can see it as an example where perhaps the PR got ahead of the impact/effectiveness and not all avenues for the best change (especially when viewed through a gender lens) were explored.

    But I digress. In any case, thanks for raising this–I do think it’s going to be an ever more increasingly important point as the social change sector advances onward.


  2. Lisa, this might sound optimistic, but I think that while PR can dress up a poorly performing program, it is not a sustainable solution. Instead, I think the real winners will be the highly effective entities who are good at telling the authentic story about what they are actually doing.

    The barriers to broadcasting your point of view are so low (via blogs and such) that any nonprofit or philanthropic entity that is successful at promoting a poorly performing program via PR will quickly be exposed by people in the know who are aware that the story isn’t authentic.

    That’s why I think “story telling” is key. Two people can tell a story with the same key facts, but the good story teller will keep you in rapt attention and you’ll remember and act on what they’ve told you. But even great story tellers can’t turn a poor set of facts into a great story without lying. And lying gets found our fast in a world of blogs and other cheap, instant broadcast communication.

  3. Lisa Kays says:


    As a huge fan of the democratizing potential of the blogosphere, I couldn’t agree more, and hadn’t thought of this in this way before you raised it.

    Exactly what you stated is a piece of its most inherent value, I think, in that it won’t necessarily be the glossiest brochure that will “win” anymore, but the true story that’s able to stand up to the open, diverse, and inclusive discussion and critisism that this forum offers (and allows).

    I remain optimistic right with you…that PR and communications will remain a key aspect of raising awareness and inspiring action, while the ever democratizing manner of how we communicate demands, as you say, greater story telling (which I think is a natural offset of the truth, mixed with a twinge of talent) and the most compelling work.

    Which is, after all, what should be heard most above the fray in any case–we hope.

    It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out, and if what we now come to think of as PR and communications–in the glossy sense of marketing–will really become about story telling and the basics of the work. I do hope so, but wonder still how the economics of it all will play into this.

    And, I guess, what I’m getting at, is what medium will continue to hold the greatest legitimacy–at what point blogs and the Web will trump the more expensive, printed marketing campaigns/materials out there.

    Perhaps they already have in certain markets.

    Which then breaks the economics of it down into branding and marketing–and the question being whether good story-telling and “the truth” will always prevail even over the most expensive, most elaborately created of marketing campaigns or brand IDs in the nonprofit sector, when that hasn’t necessarily played out in the corporate world.

    You’re right though–I do think we have more reason now to be optimistic than ever before.


  4. Here’s the thing. If you have a massive marketing budget, you can simply buy mind share. But no nonprofits have that and foundations that do don’t seem interested in just buying the public’s mind share. In a market where limited resources are available to communicate with the public, telling authentic stories is not just cost effective, it is probably the only way to connect.

    Here’s a question: Who in this field is currently telling a good story? Kiva jumps to mind. I’ve done only minor homework, but I have a sense, from the story I tell myself about them, that people who use Kiva are the kind of people I’d want to be like. I’ve read plenty of criticisms of microfinance and the logical part of my brain tells me that Kiva may or may not be the most effective use of my philanthropic dollars. But the story they tell is so authentic (meaning that they deeply believe in what they are doing) that I want to buy what they’re selling.

  5. Lisa Kays says:

    Good point…love Kiva. 😀

    I guess the one thing I worry about though are the huge campaigns–Red, One, etc. that I wonder if they can’t undermine and detract from effectiveness through shear powerhouse mass marketing measures from smaller efforts that may be just as, or more, effective at addressing that issue. As those increase, and the high profile of celeb “expertise” over causes and drawing charitable dollars, I guess that’s my concern in terms of playtime and “mindshare.”

    I do think with individual nonprofits–and the less funded causes–the primary concern then can become the economics of time–just who has the staff time/energy/resources to devote to really telling the story, and whether that comes into play.

    Just some of the things I wonder about in terms of communications and how the changing landscape of media is impacting nonprofits, giving and foundations.

    And have now perhaps strayed way, way too far away from the original topic, but enjoyed the discussion nonetheless…definitely got me thinking.