COF: An Outsider’s View On Foundation Communications

From May 2 – May 7, the Tactical Philanthropy Blog Team will be covering the Council on Foundations conference from Atlanta. The individual blog team members represent a range of opinions and have been given no editorial directions. The opinions expressed in these posts do not necessarily represent the opinions of Sean Stannard-Stockton.

By Catherine England, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation

This is my first year at the Council on Foundations Conference.  I’m pretty green to the Foundation world in general.  I’ve been serving as the Communications Officer at the Packard Foundation now for just six weeks.  I spent the last ten years serving as a corporate spokesperson and Public Relations generalist at a variety of companies in Silicon Valley – mostly recently eBay and before that Netflix.  So admittedly, I probably have more to learn than anyone out there about the practice of communications in Foundations.

There seems to be a big focus on new media as a communications issue in the Foundation world and I sometimes find myself thinking, “Really? Again?  Are we really having another conversation about when to use social media tools and why?”

In my mind (and perhaps this truly is in my mind only), we are asking the wrong questions.  The focus shouldn’t be on when and why to use social media tools but rather – WHAT are we trying to communicate? And with WHOM are we trying to communicate or engage? Once we’ve got a clear message developed, the focus is on finding your audience – if your audience happens to be online – then chances are you should look for online ways to deliver your message.  If the people you are trying to reach aren’t big online users, chances are more traditional communication tools may serve your organization better.  In most cases, an organization needs of mix of traditional and new media vehicles to effectively reach their target audiences.   

As they say, fish where the fish are swimming…

Maybe I’m over simplifying matters. I’ve thought about how we practiced communications at Netflix, eBay, PayPal and Skype.  What all of these companies had in common was an almost obsessive focus on knowing their audience.  Netflix was incredibly disciplined about understanding who their customer was and what exactly it took for an individual to take action and try their service.  Early on in the business, their primary target audience was the “early adopter” – you know, that geeky guy who always has to have the latest gadget.  But constant research showed that, over time, their audience became more mainstream (think soccer moms).  As a result, they modified their messages and where they placed those messages to reach a more mainstream audience.  If Netflix had conducted research just once and left it at that, they would have wasted a lot of time talking to the wrong people in the wrong way and wouldn’t be as successful as they are today.  The same holds true at eBay, PayPal and Skype.  These companies are religious about understanding exactly who uses their services and why. It’s a culture of constant research and dialogue.

Does your organization know who it wants to engage? Is it young people who are willing to advocate around an issue to raise awareness? Or, if the audience is more general, do you understand the triggers for your audience? What moves people to take action? Is it an emotional appeal or educating them about how their action, or inaction, impacts the world around them?

I know most Foundations don’t have the resources or desire to develop an obsessive need for constant audience research.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution but I’m guessing most Foundations could be well served by a strategic communications plan that is based on some research to gain a deep understanding about WHO their audiences really are. Then,  the right mix of both traditional and new media vehicles to address HOW to engage and move their audience to action will likely become more clear.  Understanding how best to engage with the world around us to more effectively impact the big issues Foundations are focused on addressing seems worthwhile to me. But alas, I  know budgets are tight everywhere these days and making the case for communications research is usually an uphill battle – even when budgets are healthy.

Over time, I hope to figure out how some corporate best practices can be realistically applied to Foundations — though I clearly still have much to learn. I am extremely excited to be a part of the Foundation community and hope I can contribute as much as I’ve already received.  My thanks to all of the folks who are participating on panels and leading discussions at the conference!

Catherine England is the communications officer at The David and Lucile Packard Foundation.


  1. Leanne says:

    I think you’re right on the money, Catherine, and I would love to see your “outsider” perspective given the respect and attention it deserves. Often, we forget just what we look like to others, having grown so used to our own reflections.

    If foundations could see themselves as others do I bet it would be quite the surprise for just as foundations might be missing the mark in terms of their audience, I’m sure their audience is laboring under false assumptions about foundations as well.

    Wouldn’t it be great to start all over again, as if foundations were brand new and spreading their message about affecting change? Wouldn’t it be great if their audience, instead of being a bit separate from the foundations, could actually create a new message WITH them?

  2. Catherine England says:

    Couldn’t agree more Leann. Research is just one way to increase understanding of how best to effectively reach your target audience. In my opinion, the real value of most social media tools is that they enable a two-way conversation. It’s this ability to have a dialogue that is truly invaluable.

  3. Amen to that Catherine!

    A while ago I put some ideas out on my blog about free ways foundations and nonprofits can conduct audience research.…-your-audience/

    But I’m betting you have better ideas about how small to medium-sized foundations without big budgets can learn about their key audiences’ preferences, interests, needs, trusted and most used media, behavioral triggers, etc.? Any chance you can write a follow-up post somewhere on that? We could sure use your expertise and ideas! And thanks for bringing this issue to the fore.