Part of my job is to routinely scan publications to keep up with the news from our sector. In the past few months there has been a good deal of coverage of stories such as the launch of the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge, the first selection round of the Social Innovation Fund and the closure of Unitus. These stories are fascinating because they show a growing interest in giving and its impact on society. The other side of this coin, however, is that all of the topics mentioned received their fair share of negative media coverage.
Considering these stories within the context of my work as an adviser, I noticed that large organizations tend to weather the storm of negative media coverage because they can tap into communications structures that can respond (satisfactorily or not) to criticism and requests for transparency quickly and using a variety of media.
This is likely not the case, however, for donors who choose to work with limited or no staff. While there is a certain ‘low profile’ nature to the philanthropy of individuals, families and smaller private foundations, locally focused or less publicly known donors may be contacted by members of the media on the occasion of a major gift, as part of a grantee success story or, less desirably, should an organization they support become embroiled in controversy.
As advisers, we know that our clients turn to us for guidance on a variety of matters related to philanthropy, and how to interact with the media should be no exception. To that end, there are some basic tips that we should all be prepared to share with our clients to help them effectively articulate their philanthropic interests and protect their reputations.
In a best-case scenario, clients may be asked to comment for a feature piece about their involvement with a non-profit group that is considered particularly vital to the community. In this situation, it is advisable to work with both the client and the organization to craft talking points that help highlight the motivations for the client’s giving, as well as ensuring that all information about the client and his/her giving is accurate and safeguards his/her privacy. Working together also allows the organization to present its purpose and objectives in a manner consistent with its own communications strategy.
Sometimes, unfortunately, a client may be contacted to comment on an organization he/she funds that finds itself dealing with a political or financial scandal. Ideally, the client will have been briefed by the organization on the situation before the media has a chance to seek comments for a story. Both the organization and the donor can then prepare thoughtful responses from their perspective, making sure that legal and financial matters are properly addressed and that the confidentiality of involved parties is respected.
The key to engaging with the media is to anticipate and be prepared to respond to a variety of questions, including some that may stray beyond the bounds of the subject at hand. Such questions include, for example, enquiries into the personal or political life of the donor that may not be relevant to the work of the organization but may be part of the general context of the work being funded. I think we would all be surprised to see what information about us is publicly available, so understanding some of the personal topics that could pique a journalist’s interest can help take the sting out of unexpected questions.
However, it’s still possible that a donor can be caught off-guard and asked to comment about a non-profit’s situation of which they have no knowledge. It’s important to understand that there is nothing wrong with a donor simply saying that they are not the best person to answer a certain question. In these cases, it’s best to either refer the question to the organization itself or offer the opportunity to conduct a formal interview at a later time. This allows for some extra time to better understand what the journalist might want and also to coordinate with advisers about the best way to respond.
What if, once the interview is over, your client realizes that they provided inaccurate information? They should contact the reporter as soon as possible and make a correction. This is perfectly acceptable and will avoid later embarrassment.
Remember that in most cases your client is being contacted because of the positive contributions they make to their community. As long as the donor stays true to their own motivations, connects the conversation to prepared talking points and does not get distracted by efforts to move the conversation into less professional territory, then the focus of the story will be where it belongs: on the impact of giving.
Hilda Vega is senior advisor at Strategic Philanthropy, Ltd. Email firstname.lastname@example.org