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Pressing the Point About Philanthropy

May 26, 2010

(Michael Hamill Remaley is a communications consultant and also director of Public Policy Communicators NYC. This post first appeared on the Communications Network blog and appears here with permission of the network.)

Commuication_def I just read an interesting case study about how to engender more substantial media coverage of foundation activities and it helped me think more deeply about both the challenges and potential for helping reporters see that there is a story that goes beyond "x foundation gave x dollars to do x."

The case study was written by Theodora Lurie for the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative, as part of its ongoing work with foundations and philanthropy associations to improve communications and outreach to influential Americans. In the first of what PAI calls its "Moving Beyond the Money" series, Lurie presents an example of a successful foundation effort to garner news coverage that "conveys a broader vision of how foundations make a difference -- and identif[ies] the strategies that brought such coverage about."

It is a short, engaging read that highlights the communications efforts of the Ford Foundation around the announcement of its $50 million program-related investment (PRI) in the National Community Stabilization Trust. The large low-interest loan to the trust will be used to acquire and renovate houses, which will then be sold to moderate and low-income buyers.

The large dollar amount of the Ford investment was probably enough to get the attention of many journalists. But Ford took advantage of the opportunity to use the attention-grabbing announcement -- in May 2009, when the U.S. real estate market was still spiraling downward and the problem of empty houses adding to blight in neighborhoods had many Americans worried -- to go beyond the dollars and speak more broadly about Ford’s long-term work in this program area, the potential societal impact of the investment and the nimble, experimental role foundations can play in solving complex problems.

Halfway through reading the case study it occurred to me that only two stories in outlets that have a particularly sophisticated audience (the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio) might seem like not a particularly stellar achievement if the idea is to communicate the role of foundations to a broader swath of influential Americans. But the amount of coverage (which may be more extensive than the two pieces discussed in the case study) and the composition of the two outlets’ target audience aren’t really the point of the case study. The point is about how foundations should take more responsibility for -- and can find success in -- getting more substance into media reports on philanthropy. The case study provides details on how Ford Foundation staff pursued its communications strategy for the PRI announcement and how its well-crafted messages resulted in stories that, though brief, effectively illustrated the foundation’s role as a creative, knowledgeable, and influential shaper of societal change -- not just a "grant maker."

The case study makes clear that "there are opportunities to help shape coverage if you prepare well, crystallize your key message points, and train staff who will be speaking with reporters to stay on message. It also helps to get a credible outside endorsement of the value of a grant or project."

This wise counsel reminded me of a July 2006 opinion piece by Grant Oliphant and Bruce Trachtenberg in the Chronicle of Philanthropy titled "Let's Not Focus Simply on Size of Buffett's Gift." In that piece, the authors, president of the Pittsburgh Foundation and Communications Network executive director, respectively, advised: "when foundations announce that they are supporting new efforts, their news releases should routinely be more explicit about the goals, expected achievements, what success will look like, and when they will be able to demonstrate whether that effort is working (or not). By doing that, reporters might be encouraged to focus more on the potential results of a grant, rather than the fact (or size) of the award itself to the exclusion of all else."

It also occurred to me that the starting point of the case study is that foundations need journalists to make the case for our relevance on our behalf. With all of the many new methods for connecting directly with audiences -- social media, producing our own messages and distributing them online and other venues -- is it possible we could simply bypass the traditional media that has neglected us for so long? Of course we know traditional media still has great influence. And since the PAI case study focuses on the need to reach people who don't know much about foundations and make them more aware of our work, they're a much more challenging audience to reach with direct-to-audience communications. Let’s face it, the press still matters, and the PAI case offers some good thinking on the "how to" of elusive coverage that's worth it's weight in gold.

I am quite interested to read the next in the "Moving Beyond the Money" series. This first one got me thinking about the actual process of harvesting more substantial coverage of foundation impact. Of course, for foundations to really do this, they need to seed the field with clear statements on medium- and long-term objectives of the projects they support and take some risks in saying specifically how success will be judged.

-- Michael Hamill Remaley

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