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Jane Wales

Jane Wales

Posted: January 27, 2010 08:28 PM

Enlisting Trustees as Communicators: A New Model for Foundation Communications?

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Might trustees be the solution to the woeful lack of knowledge civically engaged Americans have about foundations?

That's the hypothesis of an experiment underway from the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative. PAI is the foundation-funded organization that has reported in study after study that very few engaged Americans, those who represent the 12 percent of the adult population active in their communities as civic or business leaders, could cite even one example of a foundation benefiting its community or addressing community concerns. As I noted in a post about PAI's latest survey, it is the culture of private foundations to shun the spotlight and direct attention to the issues they advance or the grantees they support. This notion is seconded in another recent survey, this one from the Council of Michigan Foundations. According to this survey, foundation trustees tend to focus on their role as investing, growing and distributing foundation resources, not in communicating with other non-foundation leaders.

But what if that changed? Building on its survey, the Council teamed up with PAI to launch a pilot project with 14 members through which they have offered "message training" to trustees, focused on the value of foundations, well beyond their grant-making role. The goal is to encourage trustees to engage peers in their personal and professional networks -- in essence, enlisting trustees as strategic foundation communicators. In a Jan. 20 post for the Communications Network blog, the Council's Rebecca Noricks offered details about this Philanthropy 3-D-Michigan (3D) pilot, noting that its goal is to develop a new communications model for the field. It has the potential to radically change traditional foundation communications and the heavy reliance on press releases about grants, she said, as well as to boost understanding about the work of foundations. The organization is currently testing and evaluating the pilot, with plans to release a report this spring on its progress and adapt it for use among grantmaking affinity groups in Indiana and Wisconsin.

Early comments from participants suggest the pilot is on to something. Noricks quotes Joseph M. Stewart, chair of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, saying that trustees should be "educating others to the important role that foundations play in society today and letting other leaders from other sectors know we want to work with them. Together we can make a difference. Better communication methods and techniques is one way that can be achieved."

Given the renewed interest in collaboration across sectors, Stewart makes an important point. Leaders throughout society need to know that foundations are transparent, open and willing partners. Foundation trustees are often employed by or have close ties with for-profit or nonprofit organizations. There could be substantial, long-term payoffs if trustees were to directly talk to others in their networks about foundation missions, programs and successes. Foundation leaders worry that the story of philanthropy is not well told. Awareness of PAI's project may spur some to discuss the idea with their trustees now.