A Better Starting Point for Foundation Communications

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Better Starting Point for Foundation Communications

By Amy Sutnick Plotch

In September, I helped facilitate a session a Philanthropy New York organized by Exponent Philanthropy’s Local Engagement Group that focused on Communications Strategies for Small-Staffed Foundations. Since PNY staff received good feedback from attendees about the session, they asked me to pull out a few key ideas for grantmakers who couldn’t attend that day.

Sometimes the very first question a foundation or nonprofit asks me is, “Can you get me into the New York Times?” Or “I want to break 1,000 followers on Twitter. What should I do?” These tactical questions are the last ones to consider not the first.

If your foundation is starting or revamping your communications program, you need to follow a simple but strategic process to develop a realistic plan.

Define your communications goals.

Start by thinking about why you want to invest in communications. Do you want to publicly support your grantees? Do you want to share your successes with peers? Do you want to tell your foundation’s story in order to share the lessons you have learned? Do you want to strengthen your foundation’s reputation? Do you want to raise money?

You will design a communications plan specifically to achieve these goals. Focused goals will lead to a focused plan that makes best use of your time and budget.

Understand your audience.

With whom do you need to connect in order to reach your goal? You may want to reach a targeted audience, such as foundations that fund similar issues in your community. Or you may target a wider audience, such as all potential donors concerned about climate change.  To channel your communication dollars most effectively you need to understand your audience. Consider these factors when you think about your audience:

  • Demographics—location, age, gender, income.
  • Values and motivation—why would they care about your foundation.
  • Their trusted sources of information and opinion –for example, do they get information from the New York Times, their Facebook friends, or their church newsletters?

Ask yourself how your audience currently perceives your organization or issue. Then consider how you want them to perceive it. Your communication plan will be designed to change people’s perceptions in order to achieve your communications goals.

Share your vision.

Ask yourself how the world would be better if your organization is successful beyond your wildest dreams. Answering this question is the first step to creating a clear and compelling vision that you can share with your audiences. Don’t be afraid to use language that conveys passion and emotion. As a foundation executive, you are probably an analytical thinker, accustomed to using data to support your decisions and metrics to measure impact. But as a communicator, you need to forge an emotional connection with your audience, not just a logical one. You can use metrics to bolster your case, but you need to lead with powerful messages that reach people’s hearts before their heads. Use your vision of a better world to grab people’s attention and make them care, then add a fact or figure to support your message.

Your vision should focus on outcomes not on the steps you take to get there. Often people start by describing their methods for getting the work done. By the time they get to the results, they have lost the audience’s attention. Focus on your impact not your process.

Tell your story

Our brains are wired to absorb and remember stories. In fact, people remember stories 22 times more than they remember statistics. Think about your favorite childhood fairytales. Their plots make people care about what happens next and remember the outcomes.

All great stories share several characteristics that make them memorable.

  • Characters overcome obstacles to achieve their goals.
  • Characters take an action that is life changing in some way.
  • People care about the characters and root for them to succeed.
  • The story has a plot, which includes a beginning, middle and end.

Tell your story in simple, concrete language.  Avoid all jargon.  Jargon creates an emotional distance between you and your audience, even if your audience is familiar with it.  Bring your story to life by including colorful details and specific images that people can picture in their minds. To keep you language jargon-free, imagine yourself talking to somebody outside of your field. It could be your neighbor, your mail carrier, your aunt, or anyone who doesn’t use the language of your profession.

Once you have completed these four steps, you have laid the foundation for a strong communications plan and you are ready to think about more detailed questions, like whether to tell your story in 140 characters on Twitter or in a 750-word op-ed.  Or whether a video or infographic makes more sense. Once you have a strategy in place, the choices will become obvious, and your efforts will lead to greater impact.

Communications goals, audience, vision and story come first.  Setting your foundation’s sights on specific media should be a secondary concern.


Amy Sutnick Plotch is the president of Amy Sutnick Plotch Communications.




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