Communications strategy: what is it exactly in the context of a grant-making foundation? How can we use communications to achieve our goals? And, why is communication important anyway?
As the Head of Communications for Oak Foundation, I think about these questions a lot. I also know that my communications colleagues at more than 20 other foundations across Europe do as well. We have all learned over the years that communication done well brings great rewards. Simply put, when people understand each other and where the other is coming from, they do better.
As the Chair of the European Foundation Centre (EFC)’s Communications Professional in Philanthropy Network, I feel humbled by the opportunity to be part of a community of communications professionals from foundations across Europe. The current steering committee includes: the Bodossaki Foundation, ERSTE Stiftung, Nordea-fonden, Oak Foundation and the VELUX Foundations.
We share strategies, approaches and learn together. In addition, we engage with other communications leaders in European institutions, think tanks and the private sector. This past May, we also hosted a session at the European Foundation Centre’s annual meeting in Paris that focused on communications strategies to champion connections across ‘issue-area silos’.
It has been increasingly clear to me, and my colleagues through the EFC network, that our roles have evolved or need to evolve to meet the needs of our time – especially given the shrinking space for civil society and populist narratives that can seem to take centre stage. We need to be extremely good on our strategic communications strategies that apply well-researched narratives, which we can reinforce across our programming and communication platforms. We also need to focus on increasing the understanding of civil society and philanthropy with various audiences, including the media, governments and the general public.
Our communications team at Oak invests time in helping our programme staff and grantee partners have the tools and resources to use and fund communications. This is why articles, such as the one written by Neil Crowther and James Logan, on the importance of public opinion to the modern human rights movement are so important. Neil and James call funders to: ‘see narrative change as a strategic focus in its own right; recognise that effective messaging is rooted in science and research; create a culture of sharing and learning of good practice and knowledge; see this as part of a longer-term ‘culture shift’ within the movement; and think beyond siloes and create opportunities for new collaborations rooted in shared values with other movements.’
My colleagues and I couldn’t agree more in these messages. We would also add three points:
1. Communications professionals in foundations have a role to play in connecting these dots, especially when it comes to thinking beyond siloes. Are communications teams sitting at the table? We are in privileged positions to see what is happening across our foundations, and have been thinking and ‘doing’ communications for many years. Given this vantage point, we can see how and where working with unusual allies, taking risks, or sharing and learning can make a difference and impact an area of work. For example, in our session at the EFC conference, we learned that engaging unusual allies can be an effective strategy. More in Common spoke about its work with the Catholic Church to change the outreach and communications strategy on immigration and refugees in France. What could we learn from this?
2. Strategic communications (including narrative change) needs to be written into strategies within foundations; otherwise, this important component of social change risks being overlooked. Strategic communications needs to be prioritised and valued symbolically and practically. Strategic communications is as important as policy change and advocacy work, and needs to treated in the same way — i.e., it should also be funded well and staffed by professionals who have experience and expertise.
3. Foundations need to model best practices in communications and narratives. Our strategies need to be rooted in research and communicated in a way that resonates with a broad audience and elevates the voice of the people we serve in a respectful and affirmative way. This promotes understanding, builds support for a particular strategy, and encourages more informed decision-making at all levels. We need to practice what we preach.
The session that we organised at the 2019 EFC Conference focused mainly on breaking down issue-based silos – we have so much to learn from each other and to collaborate on. We concluded that, rather than looking at communications strategy, as a component of a social change initiative, we need to focus on communications as the strategy. So, the next time you start a new programme or develop a grant-making strategy, make sure you empower it with communications!
Virginia Ruan is Head of Communications at Oak Foundation