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This Week in PubHub: Foundation Communications

December 02, 2010

(Kyoko Uchida manages PubHub, the Foundation Center's online catalog of foundation-sponsored publications. In her last post, she discussed four reports that address the role of philanthropy in capacity building.)

As part of our year-end series on foundation practices, this week in PubHub we're featuring reports that look at how foundations communicate with grantseekers and grantees.

In the depths of an economic crisis, communications may seem like a secondary concern for most foundations. Yet the findings of the Center for Effective Philanthropy's brief A Time of Need: Nonprofits Report Poor Communication and Little Help From Foundations During the Economic Downturn highlight just how important effective communications can be to funders looking to address more immediate needs. Indeed, according to a CEP survey of more than six thousand foundation grantees, funders did not communicate their response to the economic downturn clearly, if at all, and provided nonprofits with little useful assistance. What's more, the less clearly a funder communicated, the more likely their grantees were to say the funder had been unhelpful during the crisis. Foundations can better assist grantees in weathering the next downturn, the authors argue, by clearly communicating their own response to the situation, helping grantees weigh their options, and doing more to understand their grantees' strategies and objectives.

So, what does the literature say about best practices in foundation communications with respect to current and potential grantees? Not much, apparently. Improving Communication Between Foundation Staff and Grantees, a California HealthCare Foundation-commissioned report from Putnam Community Investment Consulting, found that there were few research-based guidelines or recommendations for communicating effectively with grantees. Based on an analysis of CHCF's 2009 Grantee Perception Report, research on communications practices among program staff at CHCF and other foundations, and the common elements of highly rated grant guidelines as identified by CEP, the report argues that the way for funders to achieve consistent, clear, responsive communications is to regularly discuss communications challenges, best practices, and feedback; incorporate grantee communications and grantseeker survey results into staff performance assessments; and ensure that program staff have adequate time and resources to focus on communications. The report also provides a "Grantee Communications Checklist" designed to help program officers discuss important topics and establish clear expectations with current and potential grantees.

CEP's Working With Grantees: The Keys to Success and Five Program Officers Who Exemplify Them examines the predictors of high grantee ratings based on its "relationships measure." Elements of the latter include a thorough understanding of a nonprofit's goals and strategies, a selection process that does not pressure nonprofits to modify their priorities, staff expertise, and more than occasional foundation-initiated contact. The report also showcases high-performing program officers' approaches to good foundation-grantee relationships and suggests that such relationships often result in greater impact and effectiveness.

While good communications with grantees is essential to an initiative's or project's success, communicating effectively to a broader audience through the media is important to strengthening the sector as a whole. Moving Beyond the Money: News Coverage That Conveys a Broader Vision of Foundations, a case study from the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative, explores how the Ford Foundation countered the media tendency to focus on dollar amounts by highlighting the strategy behind a housing crisis grant. In the study, the authors highlight how the foundation's willingness to frame the grant for the media in a broader context, help staff communicate key messages succinctly, and provide access to potential interviewees underscored the innovative, risk-taking nature of the initiative.

What are your thoughts about current foundation communications practices? Which foundations, in your view, are communicating effectively with their grantees and/or other stakeholders? And how has that translated into greater impact? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

And don't forget to visit PubHub, where you can browse hundreds of publications on a range of philanthropy-related topics.

-- Kyoko Uchida

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