Thursday, June 4, 2015

Private Foundations and Communications

Recently the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation completed a comprehensive assessment of our programs and operations, and one of the key findings was that we had not adequately told the story - or stories - of our good work and the work of our grantees. The need for more robust and effective communications was made more acute by the relatively recent decision to focus our grantmaking on arts and culture, and nonprofit leadership.

We began working with Launch Advertising - which had done similar work for the Denver Foundation - to assess our existing communications assets, strengths and weaknesses. This led to several months of deep work clarifying to whom we wanted to communicate with, to what end, with what messages, and how.

We have developed a new web site, a refreshed logo, and will be rolling out an e-newsletter, and more aggressive use of social media. (Interestingly, after lots of experimentation, our new logo is exactly the same as the old logo - same typeface, but with a different color palette, and dropping the wreath image.)

And with all of this deep thinking on our own communications needs, it got me exploring the very concept of why a private foundation should even be thinking about this stuff, and devoting any but minimal resources to it. Certainly this was the model of the past - a foundation often did not have a web site, even in the era when websites were common. We don't have to raise money, we don't have to "sell" anything, so why think about communication? I remember years ago when serving on a communications committee for Independent Sector it was a major topic of discussion that foundations were not communicating what they did, and that made the public - and Congress - uninformed of their work and value. At one of those meetings the Ford Foundation presented their then-new web site, and it was a transformative shift. The site was no longer about how to get a grant, or who got a grant (though that information was still there), but about the issues Ford cared about, and how programs and organizations (supported by Ford) were making a difference in communities.

A recent series of articles in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, (in partnership with the Communications Network) called "Making Ideas Move" is a tremendous resource on this topic. Yes, private foundations do not raise money, and don't need to "put butts in the seats," but we do care about issues that are core to our mission, and we can be storytellers. Embedded in our grantmaking are remarkable stories of people and organizations making a difference in the world, and we should be communicating those stories - to other funders, civic leaders, the nonprofit sector, and maybe even the general public. This can significantly amplify the power of our grantmaking. As the Communications Network puts it: "the power and potential of strategic communications to improve lives and spark change."

We are not alone in this shift in thinking. As we look at examples nationally, foundations like Irvine, Rockefeller, Knight, and Bloomberg, have web sites that go far beyond the traditional basic grantmaking information. Locally, Colorado foundations like Gill, Colorado Health, and Piton use their sites to address issues they care about, tell compelling stories of their grantees, and transparently share what they are learning. (I am excluding Community Foundations from this discussion, as they must solicit and communicate with individual patrons, and therefore their communications have always been somewhat more sophisticated.)

BSF Staff, L-R, Gary Steuer, Monique Loseke, Ann Hovland, Gina Ferrari
More attention to communication can also humanize and make more transparent the work of the foundation and improve relationships with grantees, which also improves the effectiveness of what we do. Our previous site, for example, had no bio information or images of staff.

This is clearly is a topic of growing interest as I was recently asked to facilitate a conversation on the topic among Colorado Foundation CEOs for the Colorado Association of Funders (CAF), as well as a similar conversation for the Aspen Institute's Seminar for Mid-America Foundation CEOs. As the initiator of the National Arts Marketing Project when I was CEO of the Arts & Business Council, and the creator of the communications efforts of the City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, thinking about communications clearly has become something of a pattern or thread in my work, in very different contexts. Interestingly, at the CAF conversation some funders still expressed skepticism at why they want more robust communications if it would only lead to more grant inquiries, which they could not handle with limited staff. And clearly, being a smaller foundation, we have also had to be cognizant of the need to be able to staff our communications work appropriately.

So, visit our new web site, and let us know what you think. After all, real communication is a two-way conversation! The URL is:


  1. Nice, Gary - completely agree. Case studies at Our Town are especially helpful.