Telling the Story of Philanthropy

(This is a guest post from Sandra Bass, Program officer at the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Sandra Bass

Ask the average person what a philanthropist does and they may very well look at you askance before leaning in to whisper a rather sordid tale….when you gently say “no…that’s a philanderer….I’m taking about philanthropy”…that’s usually the point where you get the blank stare or the hunched shoulders. Hard to believe that in this day and age, even among the learned, there are few people who truly understand what philanthropy is and does. The Philanthropic Awareness Initiative is an effort to change all that.

PAI’s research on awareness of philanthropy among “influentials” (defined as policy makers, business, and non-profit leaders) found that only 11% could name a foundation, however about 50% had a vague notion that we did something good. Armed with this woeful data, quite a luminary panel gathered at 5pm today to talk about what we could do to change that. Much of the conversation focused on how to interact effectively with policy makers on issues of importance to your organization rather than the broader issue of educating influentials and the public about the value of philanthropy. Kevin Klose of NPR was one of the few whose comments brushed up against this issue when he mentioned that their audience research indicated that listeners were just as interested in who sponsored programs as the programs themselves. In other words, NPR audiences cared about who supported what….so at least this crowd knows a little about what we do.

Although real tips for how to raise awareness of philanthropy were pretty thin, here are two
1) Getting over our reluctance to speak about our work. There are tasteful ways to publicly acknowledge the good works of your foundation without overshadowing your grantees
2) Tell your stories. Even though many of us strive to influence the lives of thousands if not millions, telling the story of one child, or family, or community will do more to reach the hearts and minds of your audience then a slew of statistics.


  1. I’m not sure I understand the comment “getting over reluctance to speak about our work” Unless the presenters meant something else, from what I’ve seen there’s no lack of telling about foundation work in many, many forms. (And if you want examples of the different ways foundations are doing that go to

    In fact, I see far more of this activity today than I ever have in the 16+ years I’ve been involved in foundation communications.

    I do take the point, too, that we need to tell stories that resonate.

    Maybe the real message is to learn how to connect with audiences so that we say sticks.

    Toward that end, the Communications Network (thanks to the support from the Packard Foundation) is developing a “toolkit” to help foundation communicators assess their work. The more we know about what works (and what doesn’t) the better we’ll get at effectively communicating — and being heard.

  2. young staffer says:

    I very much disagree that we need to tell nice, emotional stories about how we help people and how philanthropy is a force for good. The most common reaction I get when I tell someone I work at chartiable or philanthropic foundation is not “What do you do?” but “Oh, that’s nice.”

    It is nice, but (as Sean posted earlier today) I think the implicit connotation in “nice” or “good” is that giving away money is easy work. Now, it’s not terribly hard work as work goes, but my colleagues in philanthropy do work hard at their jobs.

    Similarly, among those who know a little more about philanthropy, people describe foundations as organizations that make people who want to do good things jump through a lot of needless hoops to get money. That’s not entirely false, we sometimes have too many hoops, but again, it makes it seem like we are trying to be gatekeepers rather than fair judges or strategists.

    What people don’t understand, what’s missing in both those views of philanthropy is any conception of the intellectual rigor and reflectiveness that good foundations bring to their work. Philanthropy is about tough decisions. That to me is where foundations really fail: we don’t communicate about the sticky issues we grapple with and how/why we make decisions. We can be compelling partners to government officials and to the public by being thought partners, by saying, “We’re trying to deal these big problems, too, and here’s how we’re going about it and here’s what we’re learning along the way.”

    Foundations are black boxes not because of what they fund and its ultimate impact, but because we are terrible at explaining how we do it and why you might want or need a professional, knowledgeable staff to do it.

  3. I want to echo some of the comments of young staffer, particularly about the need to make people aware that the work of philanthropy is more than just giving away money. Two years ago, I, along with Grant Oliphant, now president of the Pittsburgh Foundation, wrote an oped on a related topic for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. A portion is excerpted here:

    “Part of the reason that the news media, or the public for that matter, aren’t paying deep enough attention to what foundations are trying to do with their money could be because people who work for philanthropic entities typically refer to themselves as grant makers and say their primary work is grant making. When they do that — for shorthand or out of habit — they, too, are contributing to the perception that there’s little more to their stories than that they give away money.

    The missions of foundations all involve bettering people’s lives. They focus on a wide array of concerns, such as eradicating and controlling disease, dealing with both the causes and effects of poverty, increasing access to high-quality education, and much more. But more important, the grant choices they make and the money they invest are intended to achieve specific and, where and when possible, measurable results.

    When reporters cover the business world, they produce articles when new products or strategies are announced, when money is made or lost, and when companies grow or fail. And in between the coverage of those developments, enormous attention is paid to the types of businesses they are, what underlies the decisions companies make, and what they could do to become more successful.

    That same approach should guide philanthropy coverage. Reporters should be encouraged to provide in-depth and analytic coverage about the underlying problems in society that foundations are trying to solve, the likely results of their investments, and follow-up coverage about what did or didn’t happen.

    In that same vein, routine progress reports about what’s being done, and what’s being achieved — even learned — over the course of the project, instead of waiting until it’s over, would keep the news media (and the public, too) focused on the work.”


    Young staffer is right on re: disagreement on highlighting stories. Thats one of the major internal flaws of foundations –the fact that their boards let them get away with using stories as a substitute for doing anything important. For those who have ever been on the classic board of directors tour of grantees, you know how this works.

    As to recognizing the intellectual rigor of foundation work, though, come on. You are talking about the 10%- what about the 90% that recruit mediocre talent; are content with just making some grants; and generally miss every opportunity to do important work?

  5. Sandra Bass says:

    Thanks for the comments! While I agree with all of them, I do think we’re falling in to a false dichotomy here. We as a field should be doing all of the things mentioned in these posts: Humanizing our work by telling compelling and illustrative stories, “educating” for lack of a better word, about the issue areas we work in, and communicating the thoughtful and rigorous processes we engage in when deciding a course of action.

    The trick it seems to me is choosing when, how, and to whom to communicate these various messages based on what you’re trying to acheive.

  6. I agree with all of the above and so agree with Sandra that there is a false dichotomy here. I see foundations talking more and more. What I don’t see them doing is standing up and say, “we are damn good grantmakers and we can demonstrate it”. I’d love to see a foundation website with a link to “Why we think we’re the best”.

    Look at this page from the Tipping Point Community: “The Tipping Point Community concept is simple – we fight poverty in the Bay Area. But we do it better than anyone else and here’s how”

    That’s a kind of communication that foundations do not engage in, but that I think would finally start to generate the positive media interest that is needed.

  7. Perhaps Sean, foundations don’t say, ‘they are the best’ because they are simply smarter than that. I mean, it’s not like they are in a competitive marketplace like for-profits that do have to convey why they are the best at whatever they sell or serve. Unless, foundations are competing for public dollars.

    Now the Tipping Point Community is a nonprofit so they do compete for the same donor dollars in their community – in this sense, sure they should be conveying they are better than the next nonprofit and you the donor should give to us because…. that’s different than a foundation position.

    I just think that if a foundation touts they are the best, kuddos to them. They can award themselves a plaque. However, if they are the best at grantmaking and can demonstrate why, then the platform for thier message could be to share how they got to be the best so that learned practices are shared with other foundations for the improved performance.

  8. young staffer says:

    First off, I agree with Sandra’s comment that all of this depends on your audience and your goal. A host of different messages about philanthropy have their time and place. So, in that sense, it is a false dichotomy because communications are never going to be one message. And I don’t think we should banish the positive, human stories from foundation communications, especially for some audiences.

    But I want to echo Maggie’s comments a bit as way of pushing back on the idea that it is an entirely false dichotomy. I think underlying my key point is the notion that foundations should think carefully about what can and should distinguish their communications from the fundraising materials of their grantees.

    Because private foundations don’t have to raise funds, their communications should be about pushing on some of the complexities and stickiness of their issues. Too many foundation annual reports are laundry lists of their grants with a few nice stories (and, of course, no acknowledgement of failure or struggles or even surprises). Frankly, if I want nice stories, I’d rather hear them from the organizations and people doing the work on ground – ie: I’m going to go look up the grantees’ website or annual report. If a foundation’s communications are going to add value, they need to be focused on the areas where foundations add value. To generalize, that’s in how the foundation has puzzled through the strengths and weaknesses in choosing grantees, and perhaps in how it has made connections among them or worked with public officials, etc.