What are some key tips for a foundation starting an external communications program?
* Define your goals
You should first think through why you want to start a communications program. What are your objectives?
Do you want to create greater transparency in the way your community sees you? To shine the spotlight on your grantees? Or to advocate in general for a cause?
Perhaps your foundation has a lot of moving parts, and you see communications as a useful tool for developing messaging clarity or exploring how you speak about yourself in a consistent way.
Ultimately, your motive is going to inform the type of tools you use.
As an offshoot of defining your goals, you also should consider who you are going to engage in this dialogue — the media, relevant government agencies, businesses or other stakeholders within the community.
* Be realistic
You need to be realistic. Set short-term goals that work toward a longer-term goal.
You may, for example, feel that your organization is not recognized within your community, and your primary goal is to raise awareness for the foundation, not in a self-aggrandizing way, but to show the community who you are.
In this case, you shouldn’t expect to immediately become an important community actor. This requires a lot of work over time, including clear message development, targeted outreach and relationship-building.
Of course, there are going to be short-term returns, the occasional media story, for example, but the resounding outcomes will take longer. Create a calendar of goals when beginning a communications program, breaking it up by quarter.
Spend the first quarter really doing internal work to determine the messages you use as a foundation, who you want to be and how do you speak about yourself.
Once you’re confident about this, take it external.
In addition to looking at the messaging, make sure you have internal buy-in from all stakeholders — program officers, the CEO, board members and the donor’s family, if that’s relevant.
* Choose the right partners
In terms of professional guidance, there are not a ton of experts that specialize in philanthropic public relations.
There are larger firms that have made their name in the nonprofit sector. These places are one-stop shops, doing everything from graphic design to the nitty-gritty of everyday communications.
From a cost standpoint, however, a large firm might not be a good fit due to the increased overhead associated with the wide menu of services. Many foundations prefer to work with boutique firms, where the programs are more personalized and the day-to-day interaction more personable.
Also, looks for agencies with an expertise that fits your goals, such as communicating with government agencies, handling public affairs, or leading classes for grantee development.
Ultimately, if you’re going to be working with someone, make sure you’re comfortable with them; in the end, relationships are what make for effective communications.
Rich Polt is founder and director of Louder Than Words, a Waltham, Mass.-based public relations agency that specializes in the philanthropic sector.