Friday, June 17, 2011

State of the Practice: It's Got Me Thinking

The Communications Network has just released its most recent survey of foundation communications professionals, asking them questions about, among other things: what they do, how they spend their time, who their audiences are, what their priorities are, and what their deepest communications wishes might be.

The responses from 155 of these folks include some good news, some bad news, and some downright confusing news. I won't summarize the findings here, since Bruce and Michael do that well enough in the report, but I do want to comment on some specific findings that are stuck in my mental craw. I'd love to hear what's stuck in yours!

1) The majority of respondents (59%) work in organizations with a communications staff of two or less.

This is not the first time we have heard this and yet we often ignore this reality when talking about innovative communications practices, new communications technologies, and solutions to communications gaps and shortfalls in the sector. No staff of two people can adequately manage the number of information sharing opportunities and technologies that are out there without a) the resources to get outside help, b) a super clear strategy for what they will focus on and internal support for that focus, and c) sector wide technologies and services that support and facilitate information sharing capacity for the entire sector not just one organization at a time.

(The effort to keep up with "time-saving" communications platforms sometimes reminds me of when the washer and dryer were invented to "save" housewives time only for those same women to end up spending nearly as much time as they did a century ago on housework.)

2) A majority (65%) of foundation communicators said their top objective is “increasing public understanding of the issues our foundation concentrates on”.

We at IssueLab find this to be very good news. Focusing on the very issues that motivate and inform the sector's work is completely right on. Yet, what's disconcerting is that only 30% of respondents viewed "providing research to others in the field" as a priority. I know we are biased here at IssueLab but I would like to think that research is in fact one of the fundamental tools for increasing public understanding. Perhaps so few respondents prioritized research because the survey question framed research as an objective rather than a tool but the responses do make me wonder about exactly how foundation communicators do view the role of research. Is it a knowledge base they can draw from for content development and awareness building or just another grant product to be promoted?

It's true that many of us struggle with making research more relevant and meaningful but it's critical that we recognize its fundamental value. As long as foundations continue funding research -- primarily as a means to increasing the understanding of complex issues -- we should be prioritizing it as a rich source of knowledge for our communications and education efforts.

3) "Increasing public understanding" is a top communications objective and yet the "general public" is a low-priority in terms of targeted audiences.

This is good news -- if -- it means that communications professionals no longer accept "the general public" as a vague, catch-all audience category that can no more be targeted than it can be measured. But it's not such good news if we have simply replaced the "general public" with other vague catch-all audience categories such as "influencers". The majority of respondents say that their top targets are policymakers (56%), community leaders (54%) and current grantees (53%), relying on a different mix of communications tools (phone, email, websites, blogs, and social media) to reach out to these audiences. But the majority of foundation communicators (56%) also are not using any kind of audience research to develop strategy. So how we are identifying influencers and how do we know what works best in reaching them?

Communications evaluation and measurement are notoriously hard (how does one for instance measure public understanding?) but if we are going to make public understanding our top objective and we believe policymakers and community leaders are key to changing that understanding then really we need to answer 1) who are the influencers and what kind of influencers are we talking about? 2) which communications tools seem best suited to reaching those influencers?, and 3) did we change their understanding? My guess is that most communications professionals have hunches about each of these questions. I am a strong believer in hunches but so that we don't slip right back into the "general public" trap it might be good to articulate some of these hunches and back them up with audience research and evaluation.

4) Almost three-quarters (74%) of respondents say they go through a process that produces a written communications plan. But only about a third (36%) say that their communications plan really guides their daily work.

I will keep my comments on this one short because it is really fodder for a much larger conversation. But in a nutshell I don't find this to be bad news. Why? Because the study goes on to report two related findings: organizations that do plan differ from those that don't in that they are 1) more likely to recognize failure, and 2) more likely to have other organizational departments engaged in communications efforts. These two things alone make planning worth it, whether we consult those plans on a daily basis or not.

Ok, so there are actually more than just four things that got stuck in my mental craw - which is in its own sense a measure of a report's success. But since we are all so short on actual time to read, (some might say poverty-stricken in this "attention economy" :), I will leave you with just one more finding that both delighted and intrigued me. It made me think of every blog post, discussion board message, and piece of strategic advice I have read over the last ten years encouraging nonprofits to behave more like businesses.

"There is another finding that seems to demand more research: Those with written communications plans most frequently said that before joining the foundation they had previously worked in a nonprofit organization, whereas those without written communications plans most frequently said they had worked in a for-profit company."

Thanks to Communications Network for cultivating discussion and debate on all these topics.


  1. Thanks Gabi for giving the report such a thorough examination. You did exactly what we hoped would happen: People would take a look at the findings, ask questions, and then hopefully get a conversation going.

    The findings, of course, are interesting. But what do they mean to people who practice communications in foundations? What additional questions do they raise? What opportunities to do things differently do they suggest? And what, even like you ask, requires additional study?

    We started the ball rolling. You picked it up and kicked it further down the road.

    Who's next?

  2. All of us with small/non-existent staffs are in search of those time-saving mechanisms that don't work til we work 'em. But then they do. So we have to. But when do we sleep?

  3. This report tells it all, thanks for the informations and insights...


What Do You Think?