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.
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.