Funders tie communications to policy work

PJ staff report

Foundations increasingly believe communications should play a key role in boosting their policy work but they face big challenges in developing and carrying out effective communications strategies, a new research paper says.

“Communications, far from being an afterthought or occasional add-on, is at the very center of successful policy engagement,” says the paper by the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California. “The days when foundations ‘spoke only through their grantees,'” it says, “are over.”

The study, which looks at the experience of senior communications officers at 18 of the biggest foundations in the U.S., says communications strategy in support of policy engagement has become “a highly senior function,” with many of the top jobs filled by people recruited either from corporation communications or policy advocacy settings.

Despite the seniority of the jobs, however, “the visible backing of the CEO in support of communications is perceived as prerequisite for achieving both program participation and results,” the paper says.

And while the size of foundations’ communications staff is small, it says, consultants, partners and grantees supplement foundations’ policy work.

Still, getting the “right structural model for integrating communications, program and policy is a continuing challenge, as is building the right team,” the paper says.

The center says the paper, How Foundations Use Communications to Advance Their Public Policy Work, is the first to look at how foundations that want to engage in public policy are using communications.

It says foundations use 10 distinct strategies to boost their policy engagement, including five within their grantmaking and five beyond their grants programs.

Within grantmaking, it says, foundations build communications support into grant budgets for larger programs; give grants or contracts specifically for communications; provide expert consulting support to grantees; offer communications capacity-building to grantees; and train program officers on communications so they can work better with their grantees.

Beyond grants programs, the paper says, foundations reach out directly to the media; co-brand and promote research studies and other products; speak out directly; server as conveners; and consciously build brands to help support policy goals.

“For many years, the assumed role of foundations has been to work and speak only or primarily through their grantees,” the paper says. “But patters are changing.”

While many foundations believe social media will “dramatically change the way they do their work over the next server years,” it says, roughly half say they are still experimenting with social media, and less than a third are “serious sponsors” of social media strategies.

The paper says measuring the results of communications is “extremely difficult,” with most foundations saying the “significant assessment is whether the program that includes communications is meeting its goals and objectives.”

Authors of the paper include James Ferris, director of the Center; Marcia Sharp of Millennium Communications Group; and Hilary Harmssen of Axio Policy Research and Consulting.

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